CBI welcomes sharp rise in firms offering home working

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The Independent Online

A large increase in the number of British employers offering their staff the opportunity to "telework" has been reported by the CBI in its latest Employment Trends survey.

Some 46 per cent of employers say they offer this type of flexible working, three times higher than last year, when it was 14 per cent.

This rapid and seemingly spontaneous rise has been welcomed by the CBI as helping to balance the demands of work and home, reduce congestion on public transport and roads, and benefit the environment, as fewer journeys mean lower CO2 emissions.

The CBI said that new mobile communications technologies have played a major part in this trend, but so has "an inadequate transport system and the desire by companies to avoid non-productive travel time".

John Cridland, deputy director general, said: "This is good news for all of us, but the Government should not see teleworking as an alternative to putting real investment into improving our creaking transport infrastructure. People are still travelling further to work than they did 10 years ago."

The CBI also praised the Government's decision to limit the right to request flexible working more generally to Britain's two million carers, leaving the rest of the workforce to deal with employers on a voluntary basis.

A slightly different spin is put on the phenomenon by the Telework Association. Shirley Borrett, director of development for the association, told The Independent (from her teleworking mobile home on the banks of a lake in northern Germany): "It's not just about employees' rights – teleworking can increase productivity, contribute to retaining skilled staff and can reduce companies' real-estate costs by allowing them to have smaller office buildings.

"And it's not just amatter of mobile phones and laptops. It's about aculture change. Why do we have so many face-to-face meetings?

"As for the questions of trust between staff and employers, how do you know your staff are working even if they are in your office?"

Figures for the number of teleworkers were first collected officially in 1997. They show that 921,000 (4 per cent) of the UK workforce teleworked then, that is spent at least one day in the review period working at home using information technology to keep in touch with the workplace. This has increased by more than 150 per cent since then, to 2.4 million (8 per cent) in spring 2005.

Teleworkers also make up an increasingly large proportion of all those working from home – 77 per cent of all home-workers are now teleworkers, compared with only 40 per cent in 1995.

The main occupations for teleworkers were managers and senior officials (23 per cent of teleworkers), associate professional and technical (also 23 per cent), and professional (18 per cent). Almost one in five of skilled tradespeople telework.

The Government's recent Work-life Balance Employee Survey showed 44 per cent of those who had the option of working from home regularly took up the option.

'Staff will repay the faith youput in them'

Brian Walshe works for BT in Management Development, and believes that moving to teleworking is equivalent to a pay rise of £8,000 or £9,000 a year. He works one or two days a week from home, with the rest split between office and business travel.

"Before I joined BT, I actually used to commute for about four or five hours a day, from my home in Hertfordshire to Wimbledon, south London. At the weekends I was good for nothing. That's changed. I've got those hours back, and I have much more time to spend with my wife and two children."

There's a community benefit as well. Newly invigorated, Brian can devote even more energy to the junior football team he helps to run and his work for the local church.

But what about the trust issue? "Just because you're in an office in Canary Wharf doesn't mean you're working ... you could be having two hour lunches ... and just because you're present – that doesn't make you productive."

However Brian acknowledges that in his role in training BT's management, he does sometimes need to have human contact. "If I'm going through some feedback with someone for the first time, it helps to meet them and to build a rapport. As long as I deliver on my objectives and timescales everyone is happy."

BT says that its 13,700 home workers are on average 20 per cent more productive, and their increased productivity adds another £6m-£7m of value to BT's bottom line.

"Scepticism about flexibility often comes down to old-fashioned ideas of not trusting employees and 'face time' in the office.

"In our experience, employees will repay the faith you place in them to do a good job."