Special Report on Office Automation: Home is host to new era of work: Self-discipline and control are proving to be essential attributes for the modern 'telecommuter', writes Emma Daly

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COMMUTER hell, that peculiarly British syndrome, has prompted countless office workers to fantasise about working from home; the development of computer and telecommunications technology means such fantasies can now become reality.

Estimates of 'teleworkers' - those who commute electronically rather than physically - range from around 300,000 to more than 2 million in Britain. The benefits, fans say, are many. Employers dwell on reduced office costs, while staff speak of savings in time and better quality of life.

The pioneers of teleworking appeared in the mid-19th century, journalists who followed the railroads and telegraphs across the United States, as the West was won. Reporters have also been quick to exploit the telecommunications revolution. Laptops were the norm 10 years ago; now the well-dressed foreign correspondent, carrying a portable satellite telex or satphone, can file anywhere any time.

Such sophisticated (and expensive) technology is a must in Outer Mongolia; but anyone with a telephone can work from home using standard, cheap(ish) office equipment: a PC, modem and fax. Richard Field, chief executive of the newly formed National Association of Teleworkers, identifies two camps: freelance professionals and 'telecommuters'.

Telecommuters are full-time employees from large corporations who work from home, such as the British Telecom staff who take a directory inquiry call at home. The recent rail strikes added much fuel to the teleworking fire; if companies could operate with important staff at home for one day, why not for ever?

Mr Field (who works from home in Cornwall) warns, however, that the move out of central office will only work if a corporation organises the changeover - it's no good delegating the move to a junior personnel officer. His association publishes an employers' guide to teleworking.

Choosing the right technology is important, and several companies, such as Dell Computers, specialise in equipment and services for home- workers. But equally important, the experts say, is the human factor. 'You need self-discipline, not only to fire yourself up but to fire yourself down - it's awfully easy not to stop,' says Andrew James, publisher of Home Run, a newsletter aimed at freelance professionals.

'You have to be able to cope on your own. You must want to do it for yourself and to be in control.'

Mr James emphasises the need for 'defended space', a separate room you can call your own. 'You must learn to live with dirty washing or dirty washing-up, because that must be done after hours,' he says.