Science: No workplace like home: Telecommuting is saving companies millions. But how do workers deal with terminal loneliness? Danny Penman reports

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The Independent Online
Every day Annie McSween gets out of bed knowing she has to walk only a few yards to work. She lives on Lewis, in the Western Isles, and works at home on an Apple Macintosh.

The romantic notion of telecommuting - working from home with a computer, fax, modem and printer - is the ideal of millions of city dwellers. But many telecommuters suffer from frustration, loneliness and over-work. They fear neglect and the backbiting of distant colleagues and, above all, they feel they've lost their bolt-holes because their homes have turned into offices.

'Working from home is fine if you've only got a limited amount to do,' says Ms McSween, 'but when you're running a business and it begins to snowball, it takes over the whole household. It suited me fine when the children were young, but the main problem now is you're never away from it - you're always at work and you feel guilty if you're not working.'

Ray Costello, a manager at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), also misses the companionship of the office: 'I miss the noise of phones, and the lack of interaction is a problem.'

Despite the promised freedom from routine, many workers find themselves confined to working from nine to five because of their clients' working practices. Others involved in high-volume, low- margin work, such as word processing, find themselves unable to take time off for fear of losing business. Others are forced to rent offices to escape children, husbands or wives.

Companies encourage teleworking because it saves them money. According to a study carried out by Warwick University for the Economic and Social Research Council in 1991, the average saving per employee is pounds 1,500- pounds 3,000 a year. Other observers suggest it may be as much as pounds 5,000. Clearly, in companies with large numbers of office-based workers there is a strong incentive to encourage teleworking.

Workers also find teleworking appealing. Noel Hodson, a management consultant and author of Teleworking Explained, says the average worker spends 480 hours per year commuting, which is equivalent to 60 working days. Freedom from commuting is a major force behind the growth in homeworking, especially in south-east England. And with 19.8 billion gallons of exhaust fumes per day produced from commuters' cars, there are also sound environmental reasons.

Homeworkers may also save money on travel and office clothes. Mr Hodson believes the average real pay rate is more than 50 per cent greater.

DEC is tackling the problems of teleworking by devolving much of its office work to homeworkers, but encouraging them to maintain a network of office contacts. The emphasis at DEC is on flexible rather than purely homeworking.

Ian Christie, marketing manager of flexible working at DEC, says: 'We actually have very few workers who work purely from home. For example, people who design computer courses may work from home for a week and then go to the customer's office and work there for a week.'

The flexible working approach overcomes many of the problems associated with telecommuting, he says. 'If you have only teleworkers you can have problems with isolation. You can lose team cohesion. You have to recognise that and hold regular team meetings, with a three-line whip so people attend. We also encourage regular telephone conversations.'

Nearly 40 per cent of the workforce is involved in the flexible working approach and saves the company millions of pounds per year. As a result, DEC has replaced its Newmarket office with a telecentre allowing nomadic workers to drop in and work as required. It also functions as a social point for homeworkers.

Mr Christie sees teleworking expanding: 'Companies that have a lots of information infrastructure will be the first to do it. But other industries will be doing it as the communications get better and the technology gets cheaper.'

A series of hub offices or telecentres is the way forward. Better still are telecottages, small communal offices shared by freelancers and people from different companies. These offer the benefits of office life but few of the drawbacks.

Changing work practices bring problems with recruiting workers - how can you select teleworkers and trust them to perform efficiently? The answer for many companies is to place their new recruits at a hub office for a year to allow them to build a network of office contacts. They are then gradually eased into flexible working.

Flexible working in the emerging virtual corporations poses huge problems for the unions and their efforts to protect workers' rights. According to Noel Howell, spokesman for Bifu, the Banking, Insurance & Finance Union, 'Many people don't realise that they are taking on board a lot of the company's overheads.'

Bill Walsh, national secretary of the teleworking section of MSF, the manufacturing, science and finance union, says: 'We want the labour market to be more flexible, but we think there should be some safeguards. Home-based workers should always be voluntary and they should be employees, not self- employed subcontractors. Ideally, teleworkers should operate from a separate room in the home, examined by a qualified health-and- safety expert to ensure a safe working environment. And there should also be regular opportunities for colleagues and managers to meet so that teleworkers do not feel isolated and excluded.'

The traditional route of negotiating rights is not open to unions because the workers are spread so diffusely. Industrial muscle will therefore play very little part in future negotiations and management and unions will be forced to co-operate only insofar as a happy teleworker is a productive one.

(Photograph omitted)