How it feels to telework from home
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Observer, 7 April 1996
Alan Denbigh's daily journey to work is all of about thirty yards, from the back door of his house near Stroud across to the wooden cabin in the garden where he has his office.
As Executive Director of TCA, the 2200-strong Telework, Telecottage and Telecentre Association, Alan Denbigh clearly has a particular reason to demonstrate the advantages of working from home. But he also acknowledges candidly that there can be pitfalls awaiting those who rush to take their work back to the home.
Alan says that, in his case, working from home gives him welcome flexibility to juggle childcare and family arrangements. His wife Felicity Goodall, a freelance radio producer, currently commutes to Bristol, leaving Alan to get his two sons aged 4 and 1 to and from the school and the childminder. "I don't see how we could arrange things in a different way without it being much more stressful," he says.
Alan is one of the growing number of people who are taking advantage of information and computing technology to telework from home. He says that, without the distractions of office life, he can be more focused and productive and he also says that home-based working brings welcome savings in travel costs and the expenses of buying work clothes.
But there is clearly a downside to missing the bustle of office life. "Yes, you could get up and go to bed without seeing anyone else," says Alan Denbigh. Home-based workers need to develop strategies to deal with the risks of isolation and loneliness, he says. "You could perhaps identify other people in the area who also work from home, and get together with them. The TCA itself has a number of local groups in some parts of the country." Another possibility is to leave the home behind, and instead work from an office in a neighbourhood telecentre or small business centre.
Some telework studies have suggested that men and women are likely to experience home-based work differently, with women more inclined to feel that they are in danger of being stuck back alone with the housework. Clearly, home-working has implications for all the family. "When one member of a family begins teleworking, you do need to sit down and talk things through, to discuss what's expected of them when they're at home," Alan Denbigh points out. It's useful, also, to explain to friends and neighbours that social visits they make may not be quite so welcome during working hours.
Anyone considering working from home needs to take a longer-term view as well. There is a danger that, without the career advancement and training opportunities in a conventional workplace, a home teleworker can find themselves after a few years increasingly deskilled and unable to move on to other jobs. Trade unions such as the white-collar MSF stress that companies instituting home telework programmes must continue to maintain the employment status and rights of the staff affected, and must offer them the opportunity if they wish to return back to the office workplace.
There are also practical matters to take into account. Household insurance cover may not protect equipment used for work purposes (a number of insurance companies now have special home-office policies). Whilst planning permission is unlikely to be an issue, a room or rooms used solely for business purposes could potentially attract a uniform business rate liability.
Traditional home-working has a bad reputation for poor employment rights and extremely low rates of pay. Alan Denbigh says that there is no reason why new forms of home-based work should necessarily follow this pattern. "I think that it is up to all of us who advocate this way of working to ensure that it doesn't become exploitative," he says.
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