Report debunks teleworking myths

Sep 07 2006 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The phenomenon of "teleworking" is unlikely ever to be practical for the majority of us and may be overshadowing other, far more effective means of improving work-life balance.

A new report by Britain's Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that many studies on teleworking artificially swell the numbers of such workers by including "white van men" – tradesmen and other self-employed people who happen to use a computer and telephone at home as at least part of their work.

The report's author, CIPD's chief economist Dr John Philpott, said: "Many people may have done the odd days work from home over the summer to help manage the childcare conundrum, but as the schools go back, the majority of the summer homeworkers are likely to trudge back into the office for the long haul to Christmas.

"While government ministers and opposition politicians increasingly join forces with work-life balance campaigners and IT businesses to extol the economic, social, and environmental benefits of teleworking it is important not to hype the potential for growth in this kind of flexible work pattern," he added.

While he acknowledged that teleworking has its merits and is likely to become more common in the future, he argued that it is not as widespread as popularly perceived and is unlikely ever to be a realistic prospect for the majority of workers.

Instead, he said, we are likely to see incremental changes in working patterns rather than a wholesale homeworking revolution.

"The likelihood is that any major breakthrough on flexible working will for most people take the form of reduced hours, flexi-time or changes in shift patterns – all good for work life balance but largely developments in fairly mundane existing approaches to managing working time rather than a step toward an entirely new world of work," he suggested.

According to official statistics from the government's Office for National Statistics four per cent of UK employees are full-time teleworkers.

Yet this percentage rises significantly if the definition is loosened to include anybody who ever uses a computer or phone at home to do some work, say in the evening or at weekends.

Casual teleworking of this kind conveyed potential disadvantages as well as advantages, said Philpott.

"Whatever the difficulties employers face in managing regular teleworkers these can be compounded if workers swap the office for home on an irregular basis.

"And casual teleworkers without a clear routine which delineates work from home life are possibly those most prone to the perils of workaholism," he warned.

The increase in teleworking since the late 1990s had been far faster for the self-employed.

The fact that this occurred during a period when growth in self-employment was slow suggested that much of the observed increase in teleworking was simply because of more self-employed people making greater use of information and communications technology, he suggested.

The preponderance of self-employed teleworkers also helped explain their other characteristics.

More than two-thirds were men, mostly in their forties and fifties, three quarters of whom were working full-time.

Almost nine out of 10 were in managerial and professional or skilled trade occupations – in other words doing the kinds of jobs often undertaken by self-employed contractors.

By contrast, few teleworkers were engaged in personal service occupations, sales and customer services and manufacturing related occupations.

"The typical full-time teleworker is far more likely to be a mature male, white van driving, self-employed jobbing plumber or bricklayer than, as commonly portrayed, a techno savvy post-modern office worker," said Philpott.

"Amongst employees the scope for expansion of teleworking is likely to be confined largely to those engaged in the kinds of managerial and professional occupations which currently have an above average incidence of teleworking," he added.