Home is where the office should be
Bosses who don’t want staff working from home are Luddites, says Robert Matthews
It was one of those visions of Tomorrow's World that began circulating about 20 years ago: forget commuting to the office and working 9 to 5 under the beady eye of your manager. Instead, by the early 21st century, we'd all be "teleworking", using our PCs and telephones to work wherever and whenever it suited us.
For once, the wide-eyed futurists hadn't wildly overestimated the progress of technology. The emergence of the internet, wireless broadband and devices like Blackberrys has indeed made it possible to work pretty much anywhere, anytime.
Yet even now, only about one in eight of us do, and the consequences are becoming all too obvious. Road congestion has helped push the average UK commuting time up from around half an hour in 2003 to over an hour today. According to an RAC report published last month, allowing people to work from home for just one day a week would cut rush-hour traffic by up to a fifth - the equivalent of eliminating the school run.
So who's to blame for the dismal take-up of teleworking? Not the employees: surveys have repeatedly shown that most of us would like to work from home for at least part of the working week. And on the face of it, most companies claim to be keen on "flexible working".
When it comes down to it, it is middle managers who still prefer to keep their underlings under their thumb. A study by researchers at Oxford University found widespread suspicion that teleworkers spend more time watching telly than working. Yet the single most consistent finding of research is that it boosts productivity by 20 to 40 per cent.
Some managers rightly point out that their business sector has little scope for teleworking: try making trucks in your spare bedroom. But there are many more for whom that excuse simply won't wash.
Take the US telecoms giant AT&T, whose award-winning teleworking policy has just been terminated. It's hard to think of a business more suited for teleworking, and its effect on the bottom line has been impressive: in 2005 it squeezed an extra $150 million of productive work from its employees.
This hasn't impressed senior managers at SBC, which recently bought AT&T. They have now ordered all teleworking employees to get back to their offices and stay there, as part of a "reconciliation of the human resources policies" of the two companies.
The move has prompted huge resentment among its estimated 10,000 teleworkers, and suspicions that SBC's managers just don't want their staff out of sight. If so, they need to change their attitude before they end up with no employees, in or out of sight. Recruitment surveys have shown that the younger generation won't tolerate the rigid 9 to 5 regime endured by their parents, and will simply take their CVs elsewhere.
There's a rich historical irony in all this. Two hundred years ago, the technology of the Industrial Revolution led to the rise of centralised "manufactories", and bitter resentment among those forced by bosses to leave their homes to work in them. Now technology has made such centralisation redundant and it's the bosses of the 21st century manufactories who are acting like Luddites. ·
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