Is telework right for you?
This is a slightly modified version of Making the Decision: is Telework right for you?, a chapter originally published in 'Home is Where the Office is: A Practical Handbook for Teleworking from Home' by Andrew Bibby (publ Hodder, 1991).
Enjoying your week-ends and holidays at home - even having the odd day working at home, perhaps to catch up with reading or to polish off a report - is one thing. Working full-time at home is a different experience. Will it work out?
It can be tempting to act on impulse, and sometimes decisions taken in this way turn out to be the right ones. But careful thought and some detailed planning in advance, weighing up the pros and cons, is likely to be better in the long run.
Business advisers recommend that anyone considering going into business draws up a formal 'business plan' before getting started. Only after you've undertaken the background market research and worked out the financial projections, they say, will you know if the business opportunity which has caught your eye is really such a good idea - and whether you are temperamentally suited to the work.
Similarly, background research and some careful costings may be appropriate for anyone contemplating a life as a teleworker, before the decision is taken. Despite the implication in the term 'telecommuting', the opportunity to save on the daily expense and effort of commuting to work is probably likely to turn out eventually to be quite a minor consideration.
This article examines one by one a number of different areas where a decision to telework from home may have implications for you. These are: - career questions - self-discipline and work motivation - space - location: where to telework - children, childcare - family relationships - financial and employment implications - longer-term implications
It may be that parts of this article seem to give a gloomy assessment of the teleworking experience. That's not my intention - although it is necessary to counter the very uncritical approach to telework which some people have encouraged. It's also better to be fully aware of any possible future snags and problems before you take the decision.
In any case, everybody's work and home situation is different. Some of these concerns will not apply to you, and you may have others to add to your own list.
Not everyone will have the luxury of being able to weigh up the pros and cons so dispassionately. For some people, changing over to teleworking may be the only practical way of avoiding giving up working for a particular employer: this could be the situation facing you, for example, if your partner or spouse is being asked to relocate or wants to move to a new job in a different part of the country.
Other people with domestic or family responsibilities may feel that home- based work is the only type of paid work that they currently are able or prepared to undertake.
For others, again, disabilities may limit their opportunity to obtain employment away from the home (though there can be dangers for able- bodied people in assuming that teleworking is automatically an appropriate work option for disabled people).
But whatever your particular circumstances, it makes sense to anticipate some of the issues which you are likely to face as a teleworker. Teleworking is not, ultimately, a technological issue but a human one.
a) Career questions
"Suicidal": that was the word used by one American woman to describe the effect that even part-time working from home would have on her career.
In orthodox career terms, it is probably a rash move to remove yourself from the office environment. You may be undertaking exactly the same work from home as you did before at your office desk, you may indeed be working more efficiently and improving your productivity, but unfortunately the maxim does seem true: if you are out of sight, you may be out of mind.
Telework is an attractive theme for conferences; it has also become by now the subject of a considerable body of writing in personnel and management journals. But the reality is that, as yet, very few companies have much practical experience of teleworking. Suggesting to your boss or personnel manager, therefore, that you are interested in working from home is still likely to be viewed as an eccentric request. It is certainly not the most obvious way for you to be marked you out as ambitious for greater responsibility and promotion.
Given that most methods of management still rely on monitoring whether an employee is physically present and working (or at least giving the impression of working) - rather than assessing job performance in terms, say, of the quality of the work produced - the home worker will obviously be disadvantaged in terms of taking on supervisory positions, unless of course they work for one of the small number of firms, like the FI Group, which are built up around a home-based workforce. Conversely, teleworkers can find that their own managers are unhappy at the idea of supervising somebody whom they are unable personally to oversee.
It is also difficult for the home-based worker to keep up to date with the day-to-day social intercourse of work life: the opportunity to get to know your work colleagues better, for example, so that you can understand their particular interests and preoccupations - and know when to make allowances for the fact that they're having a bad day. Home workers are generally excluded from work gossip and chat, and are out of touch with the latest in office politics. You won't be able to eat in the office canteen, join other staff in social activities after work, or air your concerns so easily at union meetings.
There are various practical ways using new technology that the teleworker can communicate with work colleagues, as we shall see later. But the ordinary telephone is likely to be important in this process as well. Unfortunately, as every phone user knows, a telephone conversation is a poor substitute for a face-to-face meeting. Office-based colleagues may not understand the importance to a teleworker at home which a phone conversation can represent, as a substitute for ordinary office chat. Anxieties and fears ('why was he so brusque today?...'why wasn't she available to talk to me?') can build up unnecessarily.
Even the most sophisticated (and expensive) communications technology, such as video conferencing, can't necessarily overcome these difficulties. It's hard to beat the advantages of meeting someone face-to-face.
It is clear, therefore, that you are unlikely to be bettering your chances of progressing up the normal career ladder by teleworking. But how much of a disadvantage is this for you? The question perhaps is whether success in purely orthodox career terms is what you want to achieve.
A related issue is that of work status. For many people, work provides not only an income but also a sense of purpose and self-fulfilment. The hazard of working at home is that the work you do will be taken less seriously by the outside world - and that in due course this external loss of status will challenge your sense of your own worth.
The process can be an insidious one. One home-based worker described for an American magazine what happened when she tried to book her child into a day nursery. "They asked me whether I worked, and I said yes. Then they asked where, and I said at home," she recounted. The response was upsetting: "They acted like I didn't really work," she said.
For senior executives, the opportunity to work from home can have the effect of enhancing their work status. But the situation for more junior staff, especially clerical workers, may be very different - particularly if there is a suspicion that pay levels are below those paid to office-based staff.
Home-based work is likely to be experienced differently by men and women. As the authors of 'Telework: Towards the Elusive Office' put it in a perceptive comment, "the place of work is not normally regarded as gender- neutral. According to the prevailing stereotype, going out to work is experienced as a 'masculine' activity, while staying at home is seen as 'feminine'. This gives the act of going out to work, or not going out, quite a different meaning for men than for women."
Regrettably, domestic housework, as traditionally undertaken by women, is accorded less status in our society; power, status and money is to be found instead in the external world of the workplace. Women are perhaps more likely than men, therefore, to fear that teleworking will return them to the low-status role of being 'just' a stay-at-home housewife. Men are traditionally also less responsible than women for the day-to-day functioning of a household, and may find it easier to block out extraneous domestic interruptions - the pile of dirty washing, the blocked sink or the lack of anything in the fridge or freezer for dinner.
b) Self-discipline and work motivation
You're on your own. There is nobody to make you work, no external discipline to encourage you into a work frame of mind. There are no set hours of work. As a teleworker, you are responsible for establishing your own work discipline, and for creating your own rhythms for the working day.
According to some advocates, teleworking should be a way of allowing you to overcome the unnatural divide between work life and home life, and to achieve a more 'holistic' approach to life - or as the former SDP politician Shirley Williams put it, "human beings can be made whole again, working and living in the same community". But in reality, the divide between work and leisure-time remains, even for the home-based worker; indeed in some respects it is more important for a teleworker to acknowledge this, and to set aside definite periods of time for work.
In conventional working life commuting can even be an advantage, providing a barrier between work and home and offering the opportunity to adjust mentally at the beginning and end of each working day. Teleworkers do not have this facility - though there was a tale of a male home-based teleworker who left the front door of his house every morning dressed in a work suit, walked round the side of the building and reentered the house by a side door!
This seems a little extreme. But it can be helpful to develop regular start- of-day rituals- opening the mail, reading correspondence, or backing up computer files, perhaps. This may also be the time to monitor your mailbox, if you use electronic mail.
The discipline should work the other way, too. Just because you are never physically distant from your workplace doesn't mean that you shouldn't firmly shut away thoughts of work when the day's work is finished. As one enthusiast for the teleworking idea has warned: "my wife and I are having a drink at the end of the day and the fax starts to clatter... it's just next door and I can hear it bloody clattering... I'm quite incapable of not going and lifting up the corner of the piece of paper..."
Workaholism is a hazard. It can be sensible to decide, therefore, to attempt to work to regular hours. For some people, it may be appropriate to continue to work during normal office hours, beginning the day around nine and working until around five.
Teleworkers have a responsibility to themselves to look after other aspects of their health. Establishing good work discipline means knowing when not to work. Exercise is important; for computer users, so is the practice of taking a regular 'screen break' from the monitor. And - though it may sound like a trivial remark - it is also sensible to guard against drinking too much coffee and tea, and against excessive eating. Several academic studies of teleworking have commented on the dangers of having too many snacks while at work: one writer on teleworking suggested the idea of a time controlled locking fridge door!
As with time, so with space. A separation is needed between your work and leisure life, and this is much easier to achieve if a certain part of your house is dedicated as a work-space.
Of course, this is easier to achieve if you live in a house with a suitable spare room which can be converted into a proper study or office. But at the very least, a teleworker will need a part of a room where equipment and papers can be left undisturbed. Has your existing house got enough room for you to telework from it successfully?
"Perhaps a very 'officey' office is needed to encourage the self-discipline needed when working at home," argued one study of telework. One British furniture manufacturer, at least, appears to believe this is a market worth developing: the firm recently undertook a major magazine advertising campaign promoting "the first fitted office furniture that doesn't look out of place in your home".
A properly equipped study or office can help to prevent your work from encroaching into the rest of your house, and protect expensive electronic equipment from the dangers of being regularly moved, or - if there are children in the house - from being examined by inquisitive young fingers. It can also get round the sort of domestic problem faced by one teleworking computer programmer quoted in an issue of Which? magazine: "my office is really the dining-room, and we need a couple of days' notice before having anyone to dinner!"
A separate workspace can also help to protect you from all-too-obvious domestic housework demands encroaching, so that you are shamed into vacuuming the living room carpet or tidying away the washing-up before you start the day's work. However, the use of part of your house exclusively for work raises certain tax issues, which you should take into account.
Furniture needs some thought: there are good health reasons for ensuring, if you are using a computer, that you are not working too close to the monitor, and that the keyboard is positioned correctly to avoid repetitive strain injuries. A good office chair is not a luxury, if your long-term health depends on your posture at work.
d) location: where to telework
In theory teleworkers may be able to base themselves anywhere they choose. However in practice there may be constraints - perhaps family reasons - which dictate where you are able to live. Arguably, too, it may be rash to combine a major change in your working life with all the stresses that can come from moving to a new home or a new area.
It may be necessary to remain within easy travelling distance of work colleagues or clients. Even if you're not commuting to work every day, you may still find that you need to attend meetings periodically. You may also decide that you want to keep in touch with work contacts, by visiting them regularly in person.
In other words you may be dependent for your work not only on telecommunications links but also on transport links. If you are considering moving to a new location, it is sensible to research the road and rail links carefully, and if appropriate to check whether or not an airport can be reached easily. Likely travel costs should be taken into account when working out the financial implications of a move to teleworking.
The idea of living in the countryside is a powerful one for city-dwellers, and it is not surprising that many people have associated teleworking with the chance to leave city life behind. This attitude has been encouraged by a number of organisations concerned with rural affairs.
However, while the dream of rural life can be delightful, it is as well not to confuse the image with the reality. As one officer with Highlands and Islands Enterprise put it, "You're changing not only your house but also your lifestyle... People may have to travel 120 miles to their nearest Marks and Spencers!"
Country living is not for everyone. The writer Piers Paul Read has described his own family's attempt to flee north from London to an eighteenth century farmhouse in Yorkshire. Originally, he says, it was the paradise they had expected. But gradually one or two snags emerged: "The village was certainly secluded: we had to drive ten miles to fetch the newspaper. It was silent at night, but the day was regularly disturbed by the roar of low-flying jets. In summer this was joined by the throbbing motors of the combine harvesters."
Neither was the social life what he had been used to in London: "far from writing more because of the peace and quiet I found that boredom drove me to accept time-wasting appointments to bodies such as the Literature Panel of the Arts Council that paid my fare south. Tedium instead of distraction now paralysed my mind." In due course, he and his family returned to city life.
The idea of 'living in the countryside' does no credit to the diversity of rural areas, and the enormous differences which can exist between villages, even those quite close to each other geographically. If you can, it's a good idea to get to know an area - out-of-season in the winter months as well as in summer - before you take the plunge. Remember that the lower the population density and the more remote the area, the smaller the local social and economic network will be: you are likely to have to travel further to get what you need. Facilities that town-dwellers take for granted - schools, shops, social amenities - and services which you may need to call on - doctors, car mechanics and computer repairers - will not necessarily be available on your doorstep.
There are also technical aspects to bear in mind if you are contemplating teleworking from a rural area. For example, how reliable will your telephone service be, if the telephone wires run several miles across open moorland to reach your cottage? Can you rely on a trouble-free supply of electricity to run your computer equipment? (At the very least, invest a few pounds in a 'surge plug', to iron out surges and spikes in the supply).
British Telecom's transformation from a state-run service to a commercial business has been regulated by the terms of its operational licence, overseen by the government watchdog Oftel. Among other things, this has meant that, so far, BT has been obliged to continue the policy of uniform charging, so that services to remote rural areas are normally supplied at the same tariff as applying to built-up city areas.
Any future moves towards 'deaveraging' (that is, charging different customers different prices for the same service) could penalise telephone users in less well-populated areas. In any case, rural users already face the fact that they can reach fewer other phone subscribers at local charge rates than city users. For example, London telephone users can contact more than three million other subscribers for the price of a local call; Cornish subscribers can reach around 100,000 users.
e) children, childcare
When the Geneva-based International Labour Office produced an international survey of teleworking in 1990, they chose to reflect the subject matter with a cover photograph, showing a (male) teleworker hard at work at his personal computer. Just to his side in the photograph was a baby, sitting in a high chair and cheerfully playing with a collection of toys. The baby's feeding bottle was perched close at hand, just next to the computer keyboard.
It was obviously a posed shot: but the photograph nonetheless sums up the widely held view that teleworking is particularly suitable for those with children to look after. Work and home life can be reintegrated, and the responsibilities of childcare reconciled with the needs and pleasures of work. This can mean, to use Shirley Williams' phrase once more, that "human beings can be made whole again".
Most parents who go out to work mourn the fact that they can spend so little time with their children. Most working parents also know the problems of trying to arrange childcare, and of making sure that someone is available to cope, for example, with school holidays or when their children are unwell. It is mainly women who in practice carry much of this responsibility.
Teleworking can be the answer, it's claimed. It is significant that studies have shown that a large percentage of teleworkers are women with young children. One researcher has reported that women teleworkers in his survey "were able to attain a rounded and holistic existence working and mothering as they pleased".
Combining work and childcare is a wonderfully attractive idea. But is it all too good to be true? The day-to-day routine of an American woman Sandra Larkin, as reported in a magazine article in 1987, might give pause for thought. Her work, as a paste-up editor for a Chicago publisher, was fitted in around childcare, so that during a typical day she began work at about 7.30am, working for a couple of hours until 9.30am. She then attended to her family and home responsibilities, recommencing work in the evening at about 8.30pm-9pm and working on to into the early hours, finally finishing work as late as 2am.
The author of that article, Kathleen Christensen, has also described the experience of another teleworker, who came to an arrangement to work for a set number of hours a day in an upstairs office while her child was looked after by a childminder downstairs: "Although she has the benefit of strict spatial and temporal boundaries between work and family, she is not exempt from conflict. She feels torn and guilty hearing her son cry.. Often she covers her ears or puts on ear phones so as not to jump up and rush downstairs."
This doesn't sound much like a rounded or holistic existence. The reality, surely, is that it is just not possible to assume that you can work full-time at home while caring for a young child at the same time.
But what telework can perhaps offer for those with childcare responsibilities is greater flexibility. If you are controlling your own hours of work, and if you are no longer dependent on a lengthy journey in to your workplace, it's easier to vary your work schedule and to switch back as needed into your parental role. Time can be taken off to take your child to the clinic or to a dentist's appointment, or to see them perform in the school assembly, for example. Illnesses may no longer be quite so difficult to cope with. You may be able to plan your work to fit in better with nursery or school hours.
However, for most teleworkers some form of organised childcare arrangement will be essential - and of course may well involve regular expense. Employees who are switching from working at an employer's premises to working from home may be penalised, if the employer has provided a workplace nursery: at present in the UK, income tax relief is available for workplace nurseries but not from costs involved in other childcare arrangements.
f) family relationships
What will be the effect on other members of your family, if you decide to begin working from home? How, in particular, will the relationship with your partner be affected, if you are married or living with another person?
Alvin Toffler has graphically described his vision of life in the future in the electronic cottage in his book 'The Third Wave'. But when it comes to considering what effects this could have on personal relationships, he carefully keeps his options open:
"Relocating work into the home means that many spouses who now see each other only a limited number of hours each day could be thrown together more intimately. Some, no doubt, would find this prolonged proximity hateful. Many others, however, would find their marriages saved and their relationships much enriched through shared experience."
Rank Xerox, when they initiated their teleworking experiment in the early 1980s, made it a condition that not only the prospective teleworker but also their spouse completed a short psychological test, set by a career analysis company, to assess their suitability for this way of working. The spouse had to agree to the teleworking proposal before it went ahead. (This approach could be construed depending on your point of view either as good personnel practice, showing a commendable concern for employees' future welfare, or as an unjustified intrusion into employees' private lives.)
In fact, in this as in other areas, women teleworkers are likely to experience the issues rather differently from male teleworkers. The effect which a move to teleworking has on personal relationships is also likely to depend very much on whether both partners will be at home during working hours, or whether one will continue to go out to work.
There is perhaps a danger, if one partner works from home while the other continues to work away from the house, that the teleworker will have to take on greater domestic responsibilities. It probably makes sense for the partner at home to open the door for the gas meter reader, arrange a time for the plumber to call when the drains are blocked or ring the council when the bins aren't emptied. Whether it is also fair to expect the partner working at home to take more responsibility for the shopping, cleaning or cooking is perhaps another question. A woman teleworker in particular might find it hard to resist the feeling that these are all tasks she should take on board; men, who have traditionally played less of a role in household management, might find it easier to blithely concentrate just on their 'real' work.
Other issues arise where both partners are at home. In circumstances where men and women have previously shared responsibilities in a traditional way, with the man leaving home for waged work while the woman remained to attend to housework and family, it is clear that there can be problems when this arrangement is changed for any reason. Women whose partners become unemployed or who reach retirement age have to adjust to the fact that they no longer have the house to themselves during daytime hours and that, whilst they may be busy, their partners may have excess time to kill. It can be a time of painful adjustment for both people.
If the man is returning to the house to telework, he will at least not have the problem of enforced idleness. However, his partner may feel an obligation to service her partner during the working day - by making cups of coffee and regular midday meals, for example, or perhaps answering the telephone. The previous flexibility she had in working out her day's activities may begin to disappear.
There are issues here for families to discuss, before the decision is taken to move to teleworking. It would be nice to think that, by talking things through beforehand, partners do indeed find, as Toffler suggests, that their relationships are enriched by the experience.
g) financial and employment implications
How will your personal finances be affected by a decision to stop commuting to work and start teleworking?
There are a number of obvious savings which you may be able to make, most directly in the costs of travelling to and from your workplace, and including perhaps car parking expenses; you may also be able to save much of the expense of midday meals at work and of having to buy expensive clothing, such as business suits.
Teleworking may save companies money as well. To some extent, their savings may be real economies that come simply from the change in work organisation. But it may also be that the savings are at the expense of the teleworker. A 1982 Equal Opportunities Commission survey suggested that wage levels for teleworkers can frequently be lower than for office-based staff.
It may also be that the employer is able to transfer some of its overheads to the teleworker: this could include anything from the cost of minor items like office ballpoint pens and notebooks to more substantial expenditure, such as the cost of maintaining the work premises. Who will be paying for the cost of heating, lighting and cleaning the home office? What about important issues like maintenance contracts on capital items like computers and insurance? Indeed, is the employer going to be supplying all the necessary capital equipment, including suitable office desks and chairs, or will the teleworker be using their own property?
When you are office based, the odd day worked at home to catch up on your work reading, for example, is unlikely to leave you out of pocket. But if your home becomes your full-time workplace, there are longer term financial implications. Your carpets will wear out quicker, the paintwork and wallpaper get tattier - and of course your telephone bill will increase considerably.
There will also be obvious expenses involved if you move house - if perhaps your present house is not large enough to enable you to telework from it. Even if you have already got space to convert to an office, however, there will be actual or implicit costs involved - you will be losing a room of your house which could be generating income from a lodger or from bed and breakfast visitors, or which at least could be used for other non-work activities. Will you be compensated for the fact that your business is effectively 'renting' space in your home?
The Equal Opportunities Commission report concluded with a 'code of good practice' which it suggests employers should follow when using homeworkers. It may be useful at this point to summarise the points it makes:
- Anyone working at home primarily for one employer should be given full employee status - Home-based employees should receive the same rates of pay as on-site employees, including overtime and unsocial hours payments - All expenses should be paid - Employers should try to help reduce homeworkers' social isolation - Employers should keep homeworkers informed of new developments in the organisation; homeworkers should be training opportunities - Career paths should be kept open - Homeworkers wishing to return on-site should be able to do so - Homeworkers should be informed of other vacancies in the organisation - Homeworking should be counted as continuous employment with any previous on-site work - The employer should supply all necessary equipment - Appropriate trade unions should be given the means to contact homeworkers
If you are thinking of combining teleworking with a move to self- employment, the implications - financial and otherwise - are much greater. Some companies have linked telework with an attempt to sever their legal employment responsibilities to former members of staff. This amounts in effect to a situation of voluntary redundancy, and it has major repercussions for the individual.
Self-employed people do not have many of the rights enjoyed by employees. These are likely to include, apart from a guaranteed wage packet: holiday entitlement, sick pay provision, maternity rights, protection from unfair dismissal, and perhaps participation in an occupational pension scheme. The employer also pays a considerable share of the employee's National Insurance contributions.
On the other hand, there can be benefits to self-employment, and not just the pleasure of being your own boss. The tax treatment of the self-employed is very different from the Pay As You Earn system, and in some instances is more generous. An accountant, or indeed one of the many books available on running your own business, will be able to give you more details. Self- employed individuals are responsible for paying their own National Insurance contributions (Class 2, and if profits are sufficiently high, Class 4); however the self-employed are not entitled to the full range of N.I. contribution-linked benefits, including unemployment benefit.
One implications of becoming self-employed, therefore, is that you should consider carefully what insurance you will need, including perhaps an income protection policy in the case of prolonged illness. You will also be responsible for your own pension.
If your turnover is over the VAT threshold you will be required to register for VAT. If your turnover if below this, it may still be worth seeking voluntary registration, particularly if most of your clients are themselves VAT registered, so that you will be able to reclaim VAT on your business expenses.
If you are running your own business, you also have an additional choice of opting to create your own limited company; this has the effect of separating your business finances entirely from your personal finances. As a director of the company, you would once again revert to employee status in tax terms. Professional advice is necessary if you feel that this legal structure may be appropriate in your situation.
In some circumstances, the dividing line between being self-employed and being an employee is hard to define. Even if you consider yourself self- employed, it is open to the Inland Revenue to assert that you are in reality an employee - and for them to attempt to reclaim (normally from your alleged 'employer') any Pay As You Earn contributions they claim should have been paid.
h) Longer-term implications
To conclude this chapter, it is appropriate to look briefly at some of the possible longer-term implications of deciding to telework.
A traditional office-based job is likely to have implicit within it the possibilities of change and development: the potential, perhaps, of promotion, and of taking on new responsibilities. Training in new skills - and in new technology - may also be readily available. By contrast, teleworkers may not feel that they have the same opportunities to develop; work towards new targets or challenges will have to be self-motivated.
Tom Forester teleworked as a full-time writer for seven years, and has described his experiences as following "a familiar pattern: an initial honeymoon period of two to three years, which was accompanied by feelings of elation and high productivity, was followed by a less satisfactory period which was accompanied by feelings of loneliness, isolation and a growing desire to escape the 'same four walls'." Eventually he decided to take a three-days-a-week conventional job.
As in other areas of life, the teleworker needs to guard against burnout. Loneliness and isolation can also be demoralising. The problem here is perhaps not the obvious one that nobody else is physically working in the same office as you: it is more to do with the fact that nobody else is necessarily aware of the work you are doing or is concerned with how you are getting on.
It is also possible that, by being away from the office environment, you miss out on the chance to see how your own work fits in with other people's. You might find, for example, that you spend your days editing the text of company reports without ever having the opportunity to see the finished result.
One teleworker interviewed for the Equal Opportunities Commission study reported that "when she got really desperate she coped by getting into her car and driving fourteen miles to see a colleague who was also a homeworker". Some teleworkers also find that on-line bulletin boards are an effective electronic way of keeping in touch with others.
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