Home truths

It is hard to separate the phrase “working from home” from
images of sleeping late, slobbing around in your pyjamas, and
watching daytime television. Office-bound colleagues make snide
comments about your “day off” and complain bitterly about
officially sanctioned absenteeism.

Yet there are advantages in home working and its broader
incarnation “flexible working”. These include improvements in
productivity, recruitment and retention, and a reduction in office
costs and environmental damage because of fewer commuters.

Flexible work policies can also help parents or those with caring
responsibilities fit their work in with their home life. A survey
last year found that 77 per cent of parents with children under six
said flexible hours were a decisive factor in their job
selection.1 They may also encourage some staff to return
to work after a career break. If just 10 per cent of non-working
mothers returned to work after maternity leave, employers in the UK
would save nearly £40m in recruitment costs alone.2

Flexible working ranges from hotdesking – where staff don’t have
their own desk but sit at whichever workstation is free – to
something as straightforward as not having to come into the office
before your first appointment of the day.

Informally, flexible working has been part of working life,
particularly for more senior staff, for some time. In April 2001,
2.2 million people were working from home with a phone and computer
at least one day at week. But three-quarters of homeworkers are in
the private sector; the public sector has been slower on the
uptake, although some notable experiments are under way (see

One of the driving factors behind the growth in flexible working is
new technology. High-speed internet connections such as broadband
can give remote access to central IT systems, mobile phones mean
people are permanently contactable, and home computers can fax,
scan and print as well as use e-mail and the internet. A new
generation of handheld, palmtop computers is also allowing people
to access e-mail and databases wherever they are.

It’s not all plain sailing, though.Working from home raises issues
about who pays for work essentials. Computers, consumables such as
printer cartridges, and phone calls cost money, as do lighting,
heating and the space itself. For some, home working reduces travel
costs and enhances quality of life, and so they are happy to pay
for incidentals, but employers with proactive home and work
policies are increasingly contributing to home working

Flexible working also changes the way people are managed. If a
manager can’t see a member of staff at their desk, the focus shifts
to the outputs and outcomes they generate. Tim Dwelly and Yvonne
Bennion in Time to go Home, say: “Home working is about
the work produced, not ‘what they are up to’. If they go shopping
or take a nap, this should not matter if the work is
good.”3 This change of focus demands trust, and is
likely to prove challenging for managers and colleagues who like to
be seen putting in long hours at their desk but who may not be
particularly productive.

No matter how widespread flexible working becomes, it is unlikely
to render the office redundant. Many people don’t wish to work from
home, others have jobs that are site-specific, and even those who
do work flexibly need to meet colleagues now and then. As home
working expert Ursula Huws puts it: “There’s no electronic
substitute for the occasional exchange of pheromones.”

1 Department of Trade and
Industry and Reedonline survey from

www.reed.co.uk, January

2 Department of Transport and Industry, Work and
Parents, Competitiveness and Choice green paper
, 2000

3 T Dwelly, Y Bennion, Time to Go Home, The
Work Foundation, 2003


One radical approach to flexible working has been taken by
Nottinghamshire Council. When it needed to accommodate more social
work and occupational therapy staff, it decided to invest in new IT
and office equipment rather than expand its traditional office

Meadow House’s new annexe accommodates 144 employees where a
traditional office would house only 88. The council has done this
by introducing hotdesking, where staff can work from home or out in
the field or in the office. When they do need to come into the
office, they collect their personal storage unit and roll it over
to a free workstation where they log on using a desktop PC or their
own laptop.  

There are break-out spaces, quiet areas for concentrated work,
and various meeting rooms. Everyone, including managers, is part of
the open plan regime, although static staff such as administrators
do get their own workspace. 

The set up costs have been considerable. John Shilton, resources
programme manager for the council, says the new arrangements cost
about £300,000 more than a traditional office. Particularly
expensive were the flat screens (needed to keep desks uncluttered)
and the laptops. But it is a relatively small chunk of the budget
of £1.8m and has brought savings.  

The new arrangement has won a cautious stamp of approval from
staff. Shilton believes approval ratings will rise as the changes
bed in. But he stresses the importance of doing it properly from
the beginning. “We did a lot of initial research and have
approached the whole thing holistically. You can’t cherry-pick the
bits you like. Do it properly or it will fail.”


In response to growing recruitment and retention problems in
Dundee, director of social work Alan Baird opted to pilot a
flexible work scheme. Nine volunteer teams were given freedom over
how to introduce flexible working. The only proviso was that the
service to clients had to be at least as good as before. 

Independent evaluation at the end of 2003 (when the pilots were
six months old) found that the pilot teams had improved in a number
of ways compared with previous performance. 

  • Reports were completed on time, with fewer errors, to a higher
    standard and more cases were closed. For example, in one criminal
    justice team late delivery of social inquiry reports to the courts
    went down from 32 per cent in 2002 to 6 per cent during the pilot
  • Staff reported lower stress levels and said they were getting
    more and better work done. Absences fell and minor staffing crises
    were easier to manage. For example, staff could work from home to
    cope with emergency child care demands. 
  • Staff had choice and control, and reported not feeling guilty
    about not being in the office on time. There was increased
    ownership and self-management in teams.   However, the pilot study
  • Difficulties in remote access to data and poor IT
  • More planning in infrastructure and support systems was needed
    to avoid relying on goodwill and patience of staff. 
  • Difficulties for managers in assessing performance –
    particularly the change from measuring input to measuring outputs
    and outcomes

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