How to beat the rail strike

Every time BR goes on the blink, teleworking is hailed as the solution. But this time, say Paul Vallely and Christian Wolmar, it could really happen
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The Independent Online
Never again, they say. Each time there is a rail strike, thousands of commuters look to the new world of teleworking, setting up at home with all the technological paraphernalia of modern office life - the computer, modem and fax - and kissing goodbye to the fellow passengers on the 7.48 forever.

But come the return to work of the railway workers, the commuters return, too, to their old ways, forgetting that there might be an alternative to going into the office every day. The old habit of what the French call so evocatively Metro, Boulot, Dodo (Tube, Work, Sleep) is hard to break and they resign themselves to another year of depressing, grimy rides on British Rail.

This time, it may be different. Teleworking is overdue for the type of breakthrough that has already seen technology revolutionise our working lives over the past two decades without affecting the basic work pattern of spending nine to five, and often much longer, in the office.

Already one in 10 British firms employ staff who work from their homes, half of whom take advantage of modern information technology to be linked up to the office, according to a survey published in the Government's Employment Gazette last year. British Telecom reckons that one in five of the working population now spend at least part of the week working at home. It estimates that by next year 2.25 million people will be working from home for at least three days a week. The figure will reach 5 million by the end of the century, according to the Oxford business forecasters SW2000.

The current series of rail strikes will nudge that figure a little nearer. Yesterday Steven Norris, the Minister for Transport, was encouraging employers to allow staff to work at home while BT was proclaiming that people who work from home are up to 20 per cent more productive than those in the office and issued "Ten Top Tips" on how to homework efficiently.

The phenomenon is being driven by a powerful interaction of rapidly advancing technology, entrepreneurial enthusiasm, shifting industrial patterns and a number of significant social trends ranging from a continuing awareness of green issues to a desire by many people to reclaim their private and personal lives by spending less time at work.

Undoubtedly it is technology that lies at the heart of the change. The PC in the spare-bedroom has opened up the possibility of telecommuting to a wide number of self-employed workers in sales and marketing, business consultancy, financial services and accountancy, writing and journalism, design and architecture and data entry. But increasingly sophisticated remote network links are now enabling those on the staff of a wide range of businesses to do the same, reducing overheads in the process. A study carried out by Warwick University for the Economic and Social Research Council suggests the average saving per employee is pounds 1,500-pounds 3,000 a year. The technology needed for efficient teleworking has improved dramatically in recent years with the arrival of inexpensive high-speed modems and easy access to e-mail networks and Internet gateways such as CompuServe and Delphi.

Trends within British industry are also encouraging the process. The replacement of manufacturing with screen-based service industries, the growth of field sales and the shift towards self-employment, part-time and temporary work and the contracting-out of projects all serve to foster the growth of teleworking. Even environmental awareness has had a role. In the United States AT&T, the telecommunications giant, first looked at teleworking only after being forced to do so by the US Clean Air Act, which required major employers to reduce the number of business journeys staff made to the office. The notion has permeated even into the most corporately conservative bastions of US industry: the computer flagship IBM allows teleworking on an informal basis with about 2,000 of its 10,500 staff working from terminals at home and encouraged to come in to the office only twice a week.

Now the trend is taking root in Britain. Stephen Jupp became a telecommuter almost by mistake - two years ago, Digital, a large computer firm, closed down the London office where he worked. Digital is probably the company that has done the most in encouraging flexible working patterns in the whole of Britain, with around 1,000 of its 4,000 staff no longer working in a conventional office-based way. Mr Jupp now works mostly from home in Welwyn spending perhaps one day a month in the London office and one day every three months in Basingstoke where his secretary is based.

The advantages to the tele-commuter are legion. Having greater control over their working environment means that teleworkers are generally less stressed. (A Department of Employment report last year found that teleworkers were deemed to be more productive, reliable and loyal than on-site staff). They save money on office clothes and on travelling costs - the average office-based worker spends 480 hours per year commuting, which is equivalent to 60 working days. And with 19.8 billion gallons of exhaust fumes per day produced from commuters' cars, there are also gains for society in general.

Stephen Jupp sees other advantages for local communities: "I do photocopying in the local grocery and buy stamps at the Post Office, using Digital's money to help local businesses survive." There is also a clear financial benefit for firms. The pounds 3,500 cost of setting up the office, with a desk and computer equipment, was exactly paid off by the savings for Digital in the first year. Mr Jupp says that if only one quarter of employees in the top 100 companies went on to flexible working arrangements, they would save pounds 4bn per year.

Constantly improving technology will only make this easier. Microsoft is about to launch a new computer operating system, Windows 95. Using it, the average PC will be able to automate phone dialling and act as an intelligent information centre for voice messages, electronic mail and faxes. From a single box, the small business will have facilities such as voice mail, faxback and incoming call line identification systems that were once available only on the most sophisticated corporate exchanges.

There are, of course, disadvantages. Many telecommuters suffer from frustration, loneliness and overwork. "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," said one.

But Stephen Jupp reckons that working at home has made him see work in a different way: "If I'm at home, and my wife is desperate for me to stop working, then she can just come to my room and we will discuss it. It's much easier for us to communicate each other's needs than if I were at the office trying to make these arrangements on the phone. Sometimes she will come into the office, tap me on the shoulder and say: 'You've done enough today.' And she will be right."

One answer to the isolation problem is telecottages - small communal offices shared by freelancers and people from different companies. These aim to offer the benefits of office life without the drawbacks. One pilot project has been established near Crickhowell, in the shadow of the Black Mountains. There a village of 34 cottages and flats has been set up on a fibre optic ring main into which residents will be able to plug their computers. The development has the support of Powys County Council, which views teleworking as a way of regenerating declining rural communities.

It has all come a long way since the days when a bright young woman announced she was leaving to have a baby. "Oh, no," they said, "stay and work from home. We'll provide all the equipment." And so she did, until the managing director rang up and heard the baby squawking in the background and promptly sacked her for being "unprofessional".

Even so today's virgin tele-workers might be well advised to adopt a couple of BT's tips. First, ring the office after lunch and at the end of the day to remind the boss you are at work. And when you do get back to the office, make sure colleagues and bosses see the fruits of your work at home so they appreciate how much you've done. And one other thing: don't let them know that you wasted the first part of the morning reading right to the end of long articles in the newspaper. Good luck.