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
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The Independent Online
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.