Big brother employers hamper homeworking

May 19 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

There is a growing trend for office workers to do part of their job from home, fed by the recently-introduced right to request flexible working and tax changes in last month's budget. But employers are being slow to give up their big brother obsession with keeping staff where they can see them, says a new report from The Work Foundation.

Time to go home - Embracing the homeworking revolution shows how the home is rapidly becoming an alternative place of work for millions of UK employees, and dispels the myth that homeworking is mainly for working mothers.

Over one million employees - predominantly men in senior management positions - spend part of their working week working from home, using computers and mobile phones to stay in touch with the office.

But despite a 65 per cent increase in the numbers of homeworkers since 1996, The Work Foundation's analysis reveals that homeworking remains an underground, informal movement. Most employers take an ad hoc approach to requests from their staff, and offer it as a perk to privileged individuals. Employers also find it difficult to switch from traditional ways of evaluating their staff, often judging people on how long they spend on the job, rather than what they produce.

However the case for homeworking became easier last month. Budget changes now make it possible for employers to make a tax-free allowance to employees to cover expenses incurred by working from home. New regulations, intended to help employees balance work and home by giving parents with children under six the right to request flexible working, could also increase the demand for homeworking.

Detailed interviews with 25 organisations carried out by The Work Foundation showed that they were largely in favour of homeworking, but treated it as marginal.

Most didn't have policies, nor did they evaluate their homeworking practices. They often allowed homeworking on an informal basis. The majority believed homeworking should be voluntary. Most had employees who worked partly from home, and half said that homeworking happens ad hoc/informally in their organisation.

The Work Foundation report argues for more government and employer support for homeworking and points out a number of significant benefits. Homeworking, it argues, can help:

  • protect the environment by reducing traffic/congestion
  • boost work-life balance by enabling family-friendly working arrangements
  • boost productivity by making it possible for more people to work
  • assist regional development
  • increase the UK's reputation as a digital economy
  • benefit local economies by helping working people to stay/return to remote rural areas

Despite these benefits, employers and employees can be put off by outmoded attitudes as well as practical difficulties. In particular, homeworking challenges managers' traditional authority and skills and forces employers to benchmark the performance of homeworkers on their output and quality rather than on time spent at the office.

Furthermore, not all jobs are suitable for homeworking, and even employees who want to be homeworkers do not always take to it. Domestic commitments and unsatisfactory living conditions may also stand in the way of employees who would be willing to work at home.

Yvonne Bennion, policy specialist at The Work Foundation and co-author of the report says: "Homeworking succeeds when it is based on trust and 'give and take'. When the mix is right it benefits both employers and employees, and becomes a route to improved work/life balance, a way to recruit and retain quality staff, to reduce office overheads, and to limit the impact of stressful commuting."

Tim Dwelly, co-author of the report argues: "People who work from home are often made to feel guilty as if it were some kind of perk. Yet all the evidence points to home working being remarkably productive. Fewer days are lost to illness, commuter stress is avoided and there is less time-wasting.

"Employees working from home know that they must demonstrate work value to their employer. In contrast, office staff are frequently judged by the number of hours they spend there. In too many organisations, managers reserve the right to work from home for themselves, but remain suspicious when staff want to do it. This makes no business sense."