Now back to reality.
The likelihood is that for many, this scenario is probably too good to be true, although it can be difficult to understand why.
In this era of information and communication technology, there appears to be little reason for people to be in the office five days a week. A workstation with computer and telephone connection would enable many to carry out work tasks without even taking their slippers off.
And of course, the benefits to business can also be considerable. A reduced number of workstations mean reduced office space, reduced overheads and an increase in the bottom line. And with a more satisfied workforce, employers can expect to retain staff, save on costly recruitment and training expenses, and see an increase in productivity.
When looking at how many employers and employees are taking advantage of these benefits, figures collected in 2001 by the Office for National Statistics suggest 7.4% of the UK workforce (2.2 million) works from home one or two days per week. This is an increase of around 70% over the past five years.
BT spearheads the boom
BT is one of the companies spearheading this boom. It obviously has much to gain itself from organisations supporting the trend, but it is putting policy into practice. The telecommunications company has 5,000 workers contracted to work from home and a further 63,000 with the ability to do so by remote access. It even has a website, www.workingfromhome.co.uk, dedicated to the cause.
Although you would expect a telecoms company to be a leader in policy formation for teleworking, some larger accountancy firms are keen to show they are not too far behind either. And with good reason.
Flexible Futures, an ICAEW-sponsored survey of 670 chartered accountants in business and practice, carried out between March 2000 and March 2002, by the UMIST School of Management at Manchester University found a staggering 99% work more than their contracted hours. And 57% said they invariably worked in the evenings.
Long hours of work have been linked to stress-related illnesses, poor quality of life and reduced performance. And one way of compensating for long hours is reducing commuting time. When asked which policies not offered would be most valuable to those with young children, 46% said they would like a home office.
It’s not only parents who demand a better work/life balance. An emphatic 81% of the 24-29 year-old age group backed flexible working; only 35% of those aged 50-59 did.
PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG both figure prominently in the employers for work-life balance alliance. And in 2001, Ernst & Young came joint second in the Graduates Guide to the Best Work-Life Balance Employers in Britain. The Big Four firm claims its flexible working policy was designed to facilitate a healthy balance among work and personal needs.
Debbie Sthamer an executive in corporate restructuring, is a glowing testament to this policy. She joined E&Y in 1984 as a full-time member of staff and it was only after the birth of her second child in 2001 that she decided to opt for a four-day week, equally split between working from home and in the office.
Although her workplace varies, her working hours remain the same. ‘Even when at home, I work 9-5.30, with an hour for lunch,’ she explains. ‘I have my own laptop and work in my study, set up by my husband.’
The advantages for Sthamer are many. As an employee of E&Y’s Bristol office who lives in Weston-Super-mare, she saves two hours a day in travel.
‘That is invaluable when you have two young children,’ she says. ‘And when I finish work I am at home to prepare meals.’
Another argument often put forward for teleworking is that there are fewer distractions at home. No steady stream of colleagues coming over to chat and no nuisance phone calls from PR firms.
However, some argue against this theory. Young children at home can be as big a distraction as any. ‘If you have proper planning, you should not be affected,’ counters Sthamer. My study is separate from the house so it is physically remote. That helps concentration. And my children are looked after by an au pair. Still, it gives me peace of mind to know I am on hand if they need me.’
But what of the social side of work? Does Sthamer not feel alienated from office life? ‘It is very important to keep in touch with the office and with colleagues,’ she says. ‘I can access emails and voicemail sent to the office by remote access.
‘There is a lot to be said for the social side of “going to work”. I look forward to my office days.’
Despite the obvious joys of homeworking, for many people finding the self-discipline is a stumbling block. The temptation to stay in bed to nurse that hangover or rush outside to sunbathe in the garden on a hot, sunny day would prove too great for some.
‘It is reasonably easy for me, but would not suit everyone,’ Sthamer admits. ‘The key is planning. When I am in the office, I need to be focused and make sure I am prepared for my days at home. I am more efficient.’
In fact, so organised is Sthamer now that she has been working on an inhouse project to manage colleagues’ time more effectively. ‘I started to rationalise the way we worked, thought about how we could better the system. I then presented my findings to colleagues.”
As she says, it is a two-way thing. E&Y has been ‘marvellously supportive’ of her needs and she ensures she is available for them.
But as the only person to have this arrangement among her immediate colleagues, surely she must have to suffer some resentment for her well-balanced lifestyle?
‘Not at all,’ she says convincingly. ‘In the long-term, we are all heading down this road.
‘There are so many empty desks in offices … it is a waste of office space.
I don’t need a workstation anymore. I can put my laptop down at any empty desk.’
Instant tax refund
Besides all of these many benefits, employees working from home may also be eligible for an instant tax refund under the government’s work/life balance initiative (see box). And if fewer people had to travel, it would reduce the amount of traffic on the roads and therefore help tackle pollution.
Congestion charging in big cities like London, effective from February 2003, may further boost teleworking, especially if the scheme spreads to other cities.
With the advantages heavily outweighing the disadvantages, it appears the biggest hurdle facing teleworkers today is a lack of formal policy and employer attitude.
As the Flexible Futures survey found, only 25% believe their organisation respects their desires for acceptable work/life integration. And 90% of HR respondents agreed that resistance was one of the key barriers to implementing flexible working policies.
One 34-year-old partner of a small accountancy firm agrees. ‘Things won’t change unless partners change. We can talk about the way we want to work, but unless partners change, it won’t happen,’ he said.
But with more and more younger workers demanding a flexible approach to work, it is just a matter of time before companies are forced to sit up and take note.
Just how far the gap between policy and practice is broken down remains to be seen.
TAX CLAIMS FOR HOMEWORKERS
As part of the government’s attempt to encourage employees to improve their work/life balance by reducing commuting time, and spending more time at home with their families, through practices like teleworking, in March 2000 the ‘Work-Life Balance’ Campaign was launched.
And in some cases, employees can reclaim tax from the Inland Revenue for the additional costs of heating, lighting, and other expenditure while they are working at home on their employer’s behalf.
Although Inland Revenue rules are focused on the necessity to work from home, rather than choosing to, if you fulfil the following criteria, homeworking could prove to be even more valuable than you thought.
If you …
- work from home one or more days per week;
- use your car for employer’s business
- use your computer, furniture etc. for employer’s business;
- use your tools for employer’s business;
- incur travel or accommodation expenses on employer’s business;
- incur other costs (insurance, stationery, books, telephone, professional subscriptions).
you can claim tax relief, which could be backdated for up to five years.
The ‘Instant Tax Refund’ software package has been developed to assist employees in making a claim for ‘use of home office’. The software produces a claim to reimburse teleworkers.
For more information on working from home, go to www.wfh.co.uk For career advice and jobs, go to www.accountancyage.com/Careers. ?:
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