IT is transforming the world of work

News Analysis: BT's plan to have a tenth of its 100,000 staff working from home demonstrates that teleworking is becoming big business

TO MANY, teleworking conjures up images of women clerical staff using telephones and computers to carry out administrative tasks in their back bedrooms in between caring for their children.

This is still true to some extent, but it is no longer the whole picture. Teleworking has gone mainstream to such an extent that there is little doubt that it, and other forms of flexible working, are creating a revolution in the workplace.

The announcement that British Telecom aims to have a tenth of its 100,000 employees working from home is just the latest development in a chain of events that has seen workers in organisations as varied as local authorities and IBM spending increasing amounts of time working away from their offices. BT itself says that about 3,000 to 4,000 of its employees regularly work from home already.

Teleworking means so many things to so many people that it is almost impossible to quantify exactly how many people are affected by it. Estimates produced at European Teleworking Week late last year suggested there were as many as 4 million teleworkers in the UK alone, with 10 million in Europe.

However, Ursula Huws, an associate fellow with the Institute for Employment Studies, who is widely credited with coining the term "teleworking", reckons the UK figure is more like 1.25 million, or about 5 per cent of the workforce.

What is beyond doubt is that this and other forms of flexible working are on the increase, in response to growing demands from customers for businesses to operate all hours. Changing demographic patterns are, in many industries, enabling some workers to insist on being allowed to work how they want.

Even with such demands, it would have been impossible for organisations to abandon the traditional office without the advent of affordable and powerful information technology equipment - computers and fax machines combined with sophisticated telephones.

Angela Edwards, an adviser with the Institute of Personnel and Development, says such developments mean it no longer matters whether many workers are at their workplace or not. "With phones and e-mails and the rest, all sorts of things are possible," she says.

Not surprisingly, telecommunications and IT companies such as BT, IBM and Digital have been in the forefront of the drive to change working practices. Cynics point to how many of them actually have a vested interest in encouraging others to follow suit, as they either provide the equipment that makes such moves possible or - as in the case of BT - gain revenues from employees having to communicate between remote locations.

But other factors are also forcing the pace. Businesses are realising that they have a lot of resources tied up in properties that are often underutilised. BT, for instance, expects to save at least pounds 134m a year in the cost of running buildings by moving many of its people out.

In addition, companies are seeing productivity gains where employees are given greater flexibility over how they work. For example, when the Co-operative Bank gave employees in its bad debt collection operation the chance to work from home, productivity went up by 40 per cent. Those involved point to the absence of distractions and noise as important factors in improving efficiency.

Finally, it is increasingly being realised that more flexible methods of working could have an impact on pollution and congestion on the roads and public transport systems in London and other big cities. It is at least partly for this reason that the Government, which last year published a guide to teleworking, is throwing its weight beyond such initiatives. As one commentator said, it can no longer be necessary for large numbers of people to descend upon London's main railway stations at 9am each day.

But, inevitable as the growth of teleworking is likely to be, it is increasingly acknowledged that it is not suitable for everybody. BT accepts that there are some jobs in its organisation for which teleworking is not suitable. And obviously, in some industries such as retailing, there will be significant numbers of people who cannot work from home.

But even among those whose jobs may make them candidates for teleworking, there will be some who are psychologically ill-equipped to work this way.

Ms Edwards doubts whether companies should see teleworking as a means of cutting down on office space. She points to research from Glasgow University that suggested that people working in virtual teams were more productive if they met face to face some times. "We are sociable beings," she says.

Liz Bargh, the former director of Opportunity 2000, the campaign to promote women in the workforce, and now associate director of Ceridian Performance Partners, a consultancy specialising in helping companies achieve a better "work/life balance", agrees. "A lot of us are going to be doing it one or two days a week," she says. "I think that's the way forward."

Another development being predicted by Regus, the leading provider of managed offices, is the development of satellite offices in suburbs. Such buildings - which may or may not be devoted to one company - would enable employees to gain from the presence of fellow workers and enable them to cut commuting time. They might spend part of the week there and go to the main office for meetings or to clients or customers the rest of the time, says Peter Jenkins, Regus's finance director.

Whatever arrangements are made, it is clear the greatest challenge is to managers, who must become used to managing people they rarely see.

Even if they trust people to work away from the office and measure them by what they produce, there are other issues to be dealt with.

Chief among these, according to Ms Huws, is sustaining the corporate culture when the workforce is scattered rather than concentrated in one or two places.

Key facts

Estimates of the number of teleworkers in Britain vary from about 1.5 million to 4 million.

Historically, teleworking and other forms of flexible working have been seen as a benefit to working mothers. But increasingly organisations of all types are recognising a business case.

83 per cent of captains of industry surveyed by MORI on behalf of BT Cellnet believe flexible working is relevant to their organisation.

32 per cent say flexible working is a current business issue, and 24 per cent discuss it at board level.

27 per cent say that, although flexible working is not currently an issue, they expect it to be in the future.

65 per cent believe it makes their business more productive; 61 per cent feel it enables them to offer better customer service; and 53 per cent say it makes their employees more accessible.

Only 10 per cent of business chiefs express concern that allowing greater flexibility will lead to a loss of control - despite many employees seeing lack of trust as a barrier to remote working.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution