Future Strategy 2006 – The benefits of homeworking

Barbara Oaff considers the utopian dream of homeworking, with more flexibility and less pollution

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It was 25 years ago that author Alvin Toffler pioneered the term ‘The Information Age’. This, he argued, would become the ‘Third Wave’ in human history. It would be as important as the moves from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society to an industrial society. What has happened then to this great, promised revolution? And what are its prospects as we move into the 21st century?

Andrew Bibby, author of Telework: thirteen journeys to the future of work, says: "In the late 1980s there was a huge amount of hype surrounding new technologies and what they could do. It was all going to be different. We’d all be working from home, free from the shackles of the office, the commute, the 9-5 grind."

The anticipated results were almost utopian. "We’d have more time, and greater control and flexibility over that time. Businesses would save money – it’s far cheaper to have someone in a home office than an all-together more expensive central office. And the planet would benefit from lowered transport pollution. Of course it hasn’t happened like that," adds Bibby.

Indeed not. According to the latest Labour Market Trend, just 12% of the workforce now work from home. That’s 3.1 million people.

The figure is up on 2.3 million 10 years ago, but although it’s rising, it’s not doing so at anything like the rate predicted. The Teleworkers Association claims to know why. Alan Denbigh, executive director, says: "Managers are still concerned about losing control. They maintain the view that if you can’t see your people working you can’t really be sure they actually are working. Workers, meanwhile, persist in worrying that if they are not seen, they are not heard, and crucially, they are not promoted." In addition to these separate fears and prejudices, both parties have a shared concern. "Almost all human beings are social animals. Most of us feel that we would, after a while, miss the interaction from working with others in a shared space," adds Denbigh.

What does all this mean for home-working? The Future Work Forum – a think-tank established 13 years ago and run by the Henley Management College – is optimistic. Its director, Peter Thomson, believes changes are gradually filtering through. "Clearly some managers and workers are already doing things differently, and they and their organisations are reaping the rewards of that, whether in reduced overheads and higher profitability or more flexible hours and a better work-life balance. I don’t think we will see that trend grow so much that there will be lots of people working full time from home, because most of us do have a need to be social. But I do think we will see more organisations, managers and workers embracing the opportunity to spend at least part of the working week outside a conventional office."

This gradual shift should continue, for a mixture of technological, commercial, managerial, personal and governmental reasons. Technology, says Thomson, will improve further. Computers will be faster, smaller, and more multifunctional, and video conferencing will be so well evolved that it will enable face-to-face working remotely. Companies will increasingly realise the usefulness of these developments and the savings that they can bring. Individuals, meanwhile, will increasingly want to seize upon them as a way of better juggling private and professional commitments. Managers will, either by desire or dicta, adapt to managing by outputs rather than inputs. The Government is also expected to exert its own pressure, by setting targets for reduced commuting as a way of lowering transport pollution levels.

This view of the future is supported by research conducted across UK universities for a project called The Future of Work, which is an initiative of the Economic and Social Research Council. It is the largest study of its kind undertaken in this country.

One of its researchers, Debbie Smeaton, a fellow at the Policy Studies Institute, has concluded that not only will working from home expand, but the types of people engaged in it will develop too. The typical home worker won’t just include working mothers, but fathers and those with caring responsibilities for ill or elderly relatives too. In fact, anyone who is looking for a different sort of work-life balance will be more likely to consider remote working a serious possibility.

The types of jobs they will be doing will be more varied as well. Anyone who currently sits at a desk and uses a computer may well be doing that, for part of the time at least, from home.

Challenges remain of course – not least the practical issue that not everyone’s living environment is suitable to double up as a working environment. But current thinking certainly suggests that while ‘The Information Age’ may sound vaguely nostalgic, we may yet see it realised.