Homing in

The technology and communications infrastructure is now robust and fast enough - no, really - for a wide range of employees to do their job effectively without going past their front door. RHYMER RIGBY brings us up to speed.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Consultants, futurologists and those whose job it is to hard sell hard-to-sell new technologies have been banging on about a home working revolution for years, decades, maybe even half a century. And, yet ... now, in the bright silvery light of the mid-Noughties, we can confidently say that it's finally all come to pass. Millions of us do indeed work from home. That is, when we're not prancing around in silver jump suits, popping protein pills and taking holographic holidays.

OK, so most of us still eke out our days in offices of some sort or another. But for the first time, it is reasonable to say that the technological and financial barriers to some sort of mass home working have finally come down. As IT usability guru Jakob Nielsen explains: 'The equipment you need for many jobs is now really cheap and ubiquitous. From a company's point of view, the cost of having someone work partially or wholly at home is tiny compared with the cost of providing them with a desk.'

Of course, there are dozen of factors behind the final dawning of this long-awaited new day, but two key enablers have been broadband (either cable or ADSL via a phone line) and wireless networking or WiFi.

'We've been around for 15 years now,' says Keith Hawker, director of KCP, a business that sets up a lot of home offices, 'and in the last couple of years we've seen a lot more people working from home with ADSL, plus a lot of people jumping on the wireless LAN (WiFi) bandwagon - which effectively extends the office anywhere.'

Let's start with broadband: this is now available to the majority of the population and allows you to be permanently connected to the internet.

The cost starts at about £20 per month and almost any package will give you the speed of your office with no need to dial up. Plus, it runs through your normal phone line and you can make calls while connected. Super-fast premium packages are also within reach, but these are necessary only if you regularly receive vast files or download illegal movies while playing video games online with 12-year-olds in Korea.

No less revolutionary in its own, rather more subtle, way is wireless.

These kits - usually modems/transmitters all in one - mean that home workers can place a computer with WiFi capability anywhere in the house without running unsightly cables all over those priceless French antiques or having to drill through walls. Set-up is easy and with a suitable laptop (and it's a low-rent laptop that isn't, these days), your office is anywhere you want - even the garden in summer. Quite how important divorcing oneself from the phone socket has been in pushing the acceptability of home working is often overlooked.

Finally, as Nielsen points out, computers are easy to use these days - almost everything connects through a USB port - and cheap, assuming they're ordinary PCs rather than designer Macs or ultra-slim laptops. A perfectly functional home set-up can be had for about £600 (PC with monitor and printer, WiFi modem) and rather less for businesses that buy in bulk. All this will add up to a bit more if you buy a laptop - which is very much the way forward if these employees are going to work from home only sometimes. A scheme that can help employees obtain home PCs at bargain prices (up to 40% less than retail) is the Home Computing Initiative, whereby companies loan equipment to staff as a tax-free benefit.

In terms of extras, there's software, which again varies with the job.

Most businesses will want a VPN (virtual private network) package. A sort of encrypted tunnel through the internet from the computer to the company's servers, this is a security must. There are also set-up costs, unless you trust your employees to do this themselves. But, even so, all in, you have to try pretty hard to spend more than £1,000. Of course, if your home worker is a designer who wants the latest iCandy and platinum Adobe software, then it's blank-cheque time.

One company that lets a substantial number of its employees work from home some of the time is Toshiba Information Systems: of a UK workforce of 398, about a third have the facility to work from home. Head of information systems Sandra Smith says it's a win-win situation. It means that when parts of the website go live (almost always on a Sunday night), staff can work remotely, and people with family commitments can easily work around these times.

The firm can cast its recruitment net wider than it might have done, she adds. 'I'm working with two contractors in the Midlands who work exclusively from home.' Again, she sees this as a double positive. The company doesn't have to pay for the contractors to come down to its Surrey base, and they don't have to travel.

An interesting innovation adopted by Toshiba is that it uses private ADSL, which is rather cheaper than its normal public equivalent. The more usual way is for people to use ADSL bought from a provider such as BT.

But, says Smith, what many don't understand is that the fee is split: partly for the broadband line and partly for BT to act as your ISP (gateway to the internet). Toshiba acts as its own ISP, using its servers and saving money. Like other companies, it takes advantage of internet telephony between home workers and the office (making 'free' calls via the net), a further saving.

So, is there a downside? Naturally. For starters, home working flexibility blurs the boundaries between home and office. And with the attendant slew of personal portable gadgets (do you really need broadband on a plane?), there is the worry that people will have no downtime. KCP's Hawker says whenever he sees people tapping away on their Blackberrys or wireless PDAs on holiday or during weekends, he fears that we are seeing the dawn of a kind of 'virtual presenteeism'.

The other big quibbles are less socially altruistic and involve both measurement (that nagging managerial fear that home workers don't actually work) and the question of who this technology is appropriate for. The two issues are connected and, interestingly, the answers are slightly counter-intuitive.

Not all home workers are created equally. If we take the lowest echelon, the people who perform white-collar battery work - such as call centre operatives - then it's easy. 'For very routine workers, it's all data, it's all just pre-installed software; it's all done over the net,' says Nielsen. 'You're just creating a virtual cube farm.' Wherever they are, Slough, Aberdeen or even Hyderabad, these people do easily managed stuff. The technology to quantify what they do is straightforward.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have highly motivated knowledge workers, the kind of people who love the new economy and who deliver results rather than work that can be monitored on a daily basis. For them, measuring daily performance is clearly moot; when was the last time you looked over the shoulder of a talented copywriter or web designer?

It is the meat in this demographic burger that technology isn't up to measuring. 'For the middle group, it is more difficult,' says Nielsen.

'Paradoxically, they need more supervision.' Their work is neither completely routine nor project-based, and their problems are likely to be more complex to manage. 'At the moment,' he continues, 'another real problem with this group is that everyone is their own virtual systems administrator. They have to save work, back up files and deal with their own security.

'But the technology will get better. You'll have truly effective virtual system administrators and you'll start to see much better software for collaborative projects, allowing multiple people to work effectively on the same thing. One of the biggest benefits will be for small companies. They'll be able to find and employ talented people wherever they are.'

HOME ALONE, STIR CRAZY

Unless managed well, the dream of working from home can turn into a nightmare, says former full-time home worker Rosemary Eatherden

It's one o'clock, I've been at my laptop for five hours and I'm ready for a break. I need conversation. Across the office, I catch the eye of my only colleague. I walk over, fondly press his hand - well, paw actually - and he delivers my favourite conversational opener: "Got any jelly babies?"

Even if you don't have a life-size talking Basil Brush to keep you company, if you work from home you'll know where I'm coming from. There are times for home workers when the exam-like intensity of your day leaves you desperate for human contact. Fox contact, even.

But surely home working is every weary commuter's dream? Well, no. Regular week-long home working can easily become a nightmare. I'm glad to have left it behind. On paper, I was the perfect home worker: disciplined, self-motivated and conscientious. But you also need to be happy working in isolation, able to survive without a daily fix of office chat.

I thought that was me. After three years' working at home, I knew it was not. It wasn't so much the gossip I missed; it was the interacting.

I found I'd lost the knack. When you spend 10 hours a day bonding with a laptop in a room on your own, you don't have a rich fund of stories with which to entertain your friends.

But why should all that matter to your employers? You're probably 25% more productive, they're saving several grand a year on your desk space, and few of us are ever too sick to crawl across the hall to get to work.

I've heard the CIO of a big blue-chip company describe his utopia: a world where we can get information any time, any place, and where the office is redundant. We've pretty near got the technology cracked. So that leaves us with the hard bit: searching for a way to survive and thrive with almost zero social interaction. Because if employers want creative, problem-solving team players, maybe solitary confinement, although it might boost the balance sheet, isn't the best answer.

You can have creative thoughts and solve problems on your own, but batting ideas around with colleagues in the same room is often so much better.

Pressures that drag you down when you're on your own lighten or disappear when you laugh about them with others. Feeling part of a team helps get you through the day.

Occasional forays into the office don't give you the fix you need. You either hog the floor, delirious at the chance to speak, or wonder what everyone is talking about because you were sitting at home when the topic under discussion last had an airing.

And many organisations find they have managers who are ill-equipped to cope with home workers. Trust is the hurdle, not technology. Yet trust is not the biggest challenge firms face. If home working is to be a success, they need to be smarter at understanding the long-term effects on people's health and well-being.

Working on your own, all day, every day, will wear down even the most resilient and spirited individual. Many full-time home workers say they feel forgotten and undervalued as a result of their isolation. Or could that be paranoia? That's another home-working hazard.

Rosemary Eatherden is a communications consultant.

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