Telework: are journalists heading for Honeysuckle Cottage?
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Journalist magazine, Sept/Oct 1993
Which fantasy works best for you? Are you excited by the idea of a pleasant Sussex cottage, complete with honeysuckle round the door and distant sea-views? Or something a bit rougher: a remote hill-top farm perched on a Pennine outcrop, perhaps? Or are your tastes more exotic: the Parisian apartment, maybe, or the Tuscan farmhouse or the Caribbean hide-away?
These are the workplaces of the future, at least if you believe the rhetoric about teleworking. Teleworkers, let me remind you, are the happy folk who have been liberated from the need to commute physically each day in to their offices. Instead they simply hook up their home computer to the telephone line and telecommute electronically to distant colleagues, shuffling information to and from computer databases around the world. Forget Balham - try life in Barra or Barbados instead.
Since journalism has always been an industry which has tolerated unorthodox ways of working and has relied on a large band of home-based freelances, it is not surprising that teleworking has caught our imagination. A cuttings trawl through the national media which I undertook recently as background research for a book on the subject revealed just how many thousands of words of copy the teleworking idea has provided us (and now here are 800 more).
The coalescence of computer and telecommunication technology has certainly made teleworking feasible for workers whose jobs primarily involve using or processing information: the data needed is likely to be retrievable from a computer database rather than the filing cabinet in the next-door office. Where in the world the computer may happen to be located is increasingly irrelevant.
However, whether teleworking is really about to change the face of work (and whether we should welcome the prospect) is another question. Freelances working at home are already aware of the advantages and disadvantages of this way of working. There are the pleasures and satisfactions of operating independently of an employer, the flexibility of being able to set your own working hours (combining work perhaps with home commitments), and the greater scope offered in choosing where to live. But there are also the potential problems: the financial uncertainty, the isolation and loneliness, the loss of a traditional career path and the need to be strongly self-motivated in order to get the work done.
Early writers on teleworking assumed that future teleworkers would be salaried employees who just happened to work away from the employer's office. Evidence to date suggests that most people who are currently teleworking are self-employed. In some cases, the link has been clear: in one celebrated example, a Californian insurance company who offered many of its staff (mainly women) the chance to work from home also insisted they become independent contractors (when the implications of the change sank in, eight women successfully sued the company for lost employment rights).
More generally, the move towards home-based or remote teleworking can be seen as part of the shake-up of traditional work patterns, including the loss of 'job for life' expectations, union derecognition, the move to personal contracts and the increasing casualisation of work. None of this sounds very welcome, at least from a union point of view. Indeed, trade unions who have investigated teleworking have not been too positive: "A homeworking employee can be placed in an invidious position without any collective support or representational help," said one report from the banking union BIFU, for example.
It's clear that a lot depends on the sort of work you're doing and where you are in the pecking order. The teleworking experience is likely to be rewarding for the senior executive, who probably already has the large house with the pleasant views, and for whom the opportunity to work from home is another status symbol. For low-paid keyboard-bashers working in cramped accommodation, sitting all day in a non-ergonomically designed kitchen chair at a wonky table, the experience is rather different.
It also matters whether you're male or female, given the prevailing stereotype of the man going out to work whilst the woman stays at home. Men may enjoy the novelty of working from home; women may fear that teleworking is just another way of keeping them away from the real world of work. (Men, too, may find it easier not to notice the dirty washing-up or the piles of laundry..)
It's already clear that many of the 1980s predictions about a teleworking revolution were over-stated. However, it's also clear that changes in work organisation, including an increase in self-employment and the use of home- based workers, are happening. It seems likely that we'll see the number of freelances in journalism increasing, so it's as well to try to ensure that we maximise the benefits and try to reduce the disadvantages. The NUJ is already unusual among British unions in the number of self-employed people it has recruited, and most members understand the basic point that staff and freelance journalists share common interests - we all need to ensure that decent employment conditions and pay rates are maintained. Even Honeysuckle Cottage isn't so wonderful if you're off work with RSI or working all hours to get enough to live.