Ever since computers became part of the furniture in British homes, people have prophesied a revolution in employment. Soon, they said, people would be able to stop commuting and work flexible hours in the comfort of their homes, far from horrible offices and polluted cities.
With the affordable computer, fax and modem, the hi-tech dream became a reality. Now, of the 3.1 million self-employed people in the UK (compared with 2.6 million 10 years ago), an estimated two million are 'teleworkers' - reliant on computers and modems to work from home. The Henley Centre for Forecasting predicts that by 2000 nearly one-third of full-time employees may work occasionally from home.
But instead of the healthy option it was expected to be, the shift from the office may have the opposite effect, according to a year-long study of 23 teleworking households in the South-east. Two Sussex University academics, Professor Roger Silverstone and Dr Leslie Haddon, found that homeworkers worked obsessively long hours and often felt unable to take time off or proper holidays.
Their report, Teleworking in the 1990s: A View from the Home, says that one difficulty is that family and friends fail to recognise working from home as a 'proper' job. They ring for a gossip and refuse to be put off, or burst in with questions. 'I'm continually interrupted with 'Where's this, Anita?' or 'So and so's on the phone' or just 'Oh, by the way . . .' and I think, leave me alone]' said one interviewee of her husband.
Not going into an office means loss of self-esteem as well as of social contact, secretarial support and sick and holiday pay. 'When people asked what I did I would say I worked from home. They thought it was posh way of saying you stayed at home to look after the children,' said Kate Black, a 46- year-old writer.
Working at home brings other irritations. The television and stereo became battlegrounds, the report found. Some workers use the answerphone as a barrier or even play tapes of office noise to mask background voices.
Most homeworkers said they found it hard to stop working, often because of fear of turning down work. They also became unable to draw the line between work and leisure. Consultant John Rice told researchers: 'I usually do a 12- to 14- hour day and I don't find home a place to relax any more.'
Tom Robbens, 38, a self- employed book distributor, said: 'You can never get away from the business. The fax or phone suddenly go and they won't take no for an answer.'
Many interviewees did not have space for a separate 'office' at home. One man worked in his sons' bedroom and had to move his papers when they went to bed. Another worked in the marital bedroom; one night his wife had to stay up until 5am although she was working the next day. Some had given up space as children got older and needed their own room.
Many women start working at home to fit in with bringing up children. But this was sometimes unsuccessful, the study showed. Anne Green, 46, was forced into rented offices when her teenage children began coming home from school at lunchtime and during breaks. 'I would shut the door and say: 'Look, I'm working'. And you'd get knocks on the door. You'd get thumping, you'd get shouting, and then you'd have them coming round and knocking on the window saying: 'Mum, can I have an ice-cream?' They just would never understand or accept that perhaps they should leave me alone.'
Even when mothers hired help, problems continued. Jenny Berrie, 35, said: 'The children played the au pairs up quite a lot because they knew that mummy was in the house. They wanted to be with me rather than the girl, and they used to be quite naughty to try and get in.'
Amanda Clark, 33, a caterer from Blair Drummond, a village near Stirling in Scotland, tries to have her two young boys playing outside or at nurseries. But it isn't always possible: 'When I'm doing something delicate, like brandy-snap baskets, I always end up burning one lot if the kids are about.'
The Haddon-Silverstone report contradicts the common belief that one of the greatest problems faced by homeworkers is isolation. Their sample had good social networks but felt unable to see friends because they had to be available for the telephone, or work when children were asleep.
Tony Pitkairn, of the business consultancy Organisation and Technical Research, said: 'I don't believe teleworking will be used as widely as it should be because people who go to work benefit from the social interaction. If they are working from home and not getting out it is not a healthy state of affairs.
However, others disagree. Anne Fothergill, who is completing her PhD at Westminster University on teleworking in families and has interviewed 200 people for her research, said: 'I got the impression they were all quite happy.'
But Dr Haddon remains ambivalent: 'Greater attention must be given to advising people on potential pitfalls and offering support in the early stages. Unless this is done, a lot of people could become disillusioned.'
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