Have you done your homework?

With the speed and efficiency of online communications putting the UK's faltering transport system to shame, working from home is...

With the speed and efficiency of online communications putting the UK's faltering transport system to shame, working from home is becoming increasingly appealing. Jane Dudman reports

Fuel protests, a crisis on the rail network and the worst flooding for years across the UK: if last autumn's unpleasantness didn't persuade people of the virtues of working from home, then what will?

The answer could lie with a much more complex set of social and technical circumstances. Over the past few years, the number of people working at home has risen, aided by developments in technology, particularly e-mail and mobile phones.

Between 1997 and 1999, 300,000 more people worked from home in the UK. By the end of last year, it was estimated there were 1.5 million teleworkers. At that rate of growth, 10% of the workforce could be working from home by 2004. Analysts at the Henley Centre for Forecasting are even bolder, predicting that by 2006 30% of the UK workforce will work from home.

But IT managers looking forward to sending staff home and managing them from their back bedrooms can think again. Even with the most modern technical aids to homeworking, there are sharp delineations between those likely to be working at home and those for whom the daily travel nightmare is likely to continue. Not surprisingly, those best placed to cut down on their time in the office are in professional occupations - often self-employed - providing support services, or those in relatively high-level managerial positions.

Claire Eaglestone is typical of the former group. One of the first women to become an accredited adviser under the Department of Trade & Industry-supported Technology Means Business scheme, Eaglestone works from home providing IT training for business start-ups. She says the Internet has played a major part in establishing the credibility of professionals, like herself, by providing a face to the world in which small companies and self-employed professionals can advertise their services.

"Five years ago, I would have to have an office, simply for credibility, but on the Internet, a small company's Web site can be as good as ICL's," Eaglestone comments. "People are taken at face value for the products and services they provide, not judged by whether or not they have a gleaming office."

One of the biggest problems for managers and employees, when contemplating homeworking, is how to monitor the amount of work done by staff. Nick Parr, strategic sales consultant for CMG's mobile commerce division, says it is easier to monitor the level of work being done by employees when they are in the office and managers often worry that their staff will not work as hard from home. The opposite is often the case, he says, with more flexible working arrangements improving the quality and amount of work done.

Parr says homeworking should be judged on an individual basis for each member of staff and role. "If targets are met, does it matter where the work is completed?" he asks. "But if a role requires personal interaction with clients, is it wise to encourage homeworking?"

Ironically, sales, rather than technical, staff can be most at risk from feeling out of touch with the central organisation, because they need up-to-date access to information about customer interactions. Technical staff can be provided with discrete chunks of work. They need good communications with co-workers, but are not so dependent on access to the core business databases as sales staff.

"Managing a remote workforce raises a new set of challenges, involving replacing traditional forms of communication with a more rigorous, technology-driven communications infrastructure," says Alistair Bremner, UK managing director of customer relationship management (CRM) systems supplier Saratoga Systems.

"Companies are failing to support the remote worker, both with internal communications and the critical exchange of information on customer relationships," he says.

Jane Oddy, senior vice-president of CRM software and consultancy supplier Intrinsic, almost all of whose employees are homeworkers, agrees, "Technical teams working from home rely heavily on the services provided by the company. If there is a problem, such as being unable to get onto the server or access certain programs, it could mean the employee at the end of the line simply can't get any work done.

"That puts pressure on the internal support team and can be very frustrating for the remote worker, who is totally reliant on technical issues such as connectivity and bandwidth," says Oddy.

Team spirit

Successful homeworking is not just a question of increasing network capacity, although broadband networking technology will help. There is also the question of how to measure the work levels of staff based at home and how to provide support when individuals encounter problems.

"There has to be some means of checking what is going on because people can find things difficult and that can be hard to admit," says Oddy.

Developing a team spirit is vital, she believes. "You have to develop a good team, just like in an office, but more so. There is a need to re-emphasise the company and team goals and what each individual is achieving and this will be different for each team."

Managing a team all of whose members work at home calls for a high level of managerial skills, particularly inter-personal skills. This is an aspect of homeworking which has not yet received the attention it deserves, in part because people who work at home are often mature, experienced staff. Intrinsic continuously monitors the problems and pitfalls of its homeworking scheme and has run into some practical problems.

"We hit a blip a year ago," says Oddy, "when a lot of people needed to work together on a regular basis. They were meeting in hotel rooms and it was proving very expensive. We got round that by buying another office. You have to learn to adapt as the business grows."

Technology-based businesses have an advantage, since much of the time homeworkers can be supplied from anywhere. The rise of the Internet has led to a growth in home-based services, from Web design to software development.

Patrick Morrow set up his Web consultancy, Armidia.com, in the middle of last year, working from his home in the Welsh village of Llanfairfechan.

"We do complete Web sites, from registering the domain to design, implementation and hosting," he says.

Morrow runs the business by contracting out work to freelance designers and specialists using the eLance.com network and says his background is in management, rather than Net skills.

"The benefits of working this way are that you can dictate the pace at which work develops, there is no travel time and no real overheads," Morrow says.

One drawback is that Armidia is doing a lot of US-based work and Morrow often has to deal with US freelancers logging in as the working day in the UKfinishes. "There have been a lot of late nights," he admits. "Most of the time e-mail is fine, but sometimes there are details to check or it's a rush job."

Morrow does not find it isolating working from home, another drawback of homeworking. He is doing an increasing number of jobs for small businesses near where he lives and finds he is paying more visits to local customers and prospects.

He also points out that some IT work is easier than others to carry out by an individual. "I can do coding and design by myself but on bigger projects, such as database projects, I need help and it is also nice to share ideas," Morrow says.

His biggest problem is lack of speed, something he doesn't think will change soon, despite the introduction of broadband to nearby Llandudno, because Llanfairfechan is too far from the exchange.

"I'm still coping with a 56Kbyte modem, but it's not desperate," he says. "I log on when it's quiet."

Flexibility is the point of homeworking. "Having 24-hour accessibility to the network makes homeworking better," says Eaglestone. "It means I manage my time better. But the issues are the same. I worked from home before there was e-mail and it is just the same. You need a cut-off point and need to know when to stop. People expect you to be at the end of the line all the time. E-mail makes it easier to manage."

Making homeworking work

Jane Oddy, senior vice-president of human research at software company Intrinsic, has compiled some basic rules for when homeworking will and will not work:

  • It must be a business decision. Homeworking is not a panacea for employee relation issues. The factors leading to an organisation's staff working from home should be based on business requirements

  • Not all work can be done from home

  • Different teams will face specific functional issues relating to homeworking. Technology can help sort out some of these, such as providing fast access to information. All teams need support from a formal and informal human network

  • The organisation must allow time to communicate strategy goals and focus on specific business issues in the forthcoming period

  • Homeworkers need good managers. Success depends on regular two-way feedback. Managers running homeworking teams need to be flexible, but must have strong leadership qualities, highly developed interpersonal skills, knowledge of process development and the ability to motivate teams and individuals.

    Homework aids

    Online meetings are one way to combat the problems of collaborative working by home-based staff. Recent developments include Web-based interactive broadcasting and conferencing facilities from companies such as MSHOW.com; and videoconferencing aimed specifically at homeworkers, from Cabletime and Reading-based company Ridgeway. Ridgeway's system provides live two-way video for homeworkers and shared on-screen information over the Web, so that homeworkers and office-based colleagues can co-edit documents.

    Cheaper, faster online communications are another major key to the success of homeworking. Unmetered Internet access is still not widely available in the UK. More promising, when it arrives, will be widespread broadband access, boosting today's top modem speeds of 56kilobits per second to more than 2megabits per second, via cable modems and ADSL. The latter is already being rolled out, slowly, across the UK, but will not be widely available until the middle of this year at the earliest. It will enable the implementation of virtual private networks that give homeworkers access to their organisation's systems which is just as fast as that of their office-based colleagues.

    Wireless computing is making big strides, making it easier for remote workers to access corporate networks wherever they are. Companies such as Psion, with its Netbook range, and Ericsson, with its work on the Bluetooth wireless standard, report increasing demand for products that can ensure employees stay in touch with corporate information.

    Online services are another key to helping small, home-based businesses work efficiently. With the growth in homeworking, providers such as elancentric.com and eLance.com have sprung up to provide online access for Internet-based businesses to services, freelance resources and work opportunities in areas such as software development, translation and Web design.

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