Working from Home – Who Benefits?
Anyone struggling to get to work on unreliable, expensive, overcrowded public transport or battling through traffic in inclement weather must wonder if working from home would be a better option. Spiralling fares and petrol costs make the thought of eliminating the daily commute even more attractive as wage freezes bite ever deeper into real earnings.
So is it worth working from home? The pattern of work that many office workers take for granted of commuting from home to office is a comparatively recent phenomenon that served the needs of industrialisation from the early nineteenth century onwards. White collar workers were also more likely to live further away from work than, for instance, mine workers in pit villages or agricultural workers in tied housing. The burgeoning transport system that developed around towns and cities developed to meet this need is, certainly in London, almost collapsing under the strain of a much bigger population than it was created to serve as well as years of under-investment.
The demand for home working heralds a return to the artisanal system whereby skilled workers ran family businesses from, often specially adapted, houses. The long, light-yielding windows in weaving towns and extra wide entries to houses in London’s Soapsud Island, Acton are a permanent reminder of the not-so-distant past when commuting was not the norm. Initially, workers even controlled the means of production, if not the markets and “Saint Monday” became an extra day off after Saturday’s revels and Sunday’s piety. It may mean working long into the night to finish work during the rest of the week but at least the choice belonged to the family.
Now, communication technology can mean that working from home is blurring the boundaries between home and office with the worker having little or no control over workloads and timing. Workers have gone from eating breakfast and lunch at their desk (and sometimes not even lunch) whilst working to almost being on call, regardless of whether the job really demands it. Far from being a skiver’s charter, working from home can benefit employers who can keep wages down when workers no longer need to pay fares and who save on overheads by hot-desking or teleconferencing.
The initial attractions of that extra hour or so in bed may, however, be offset by the lack of demarcation between work and home. The ability to be in touch 24/7 makes it much harder to switch off mentally: physically leaving work behind can aid in achieving real rest, which benefits employers as much as employees. It is much more efficient to have a healthy, happy workforce who can be counted on to want to stay with your company in the long term, especially when you have invested time and effort in training and establishing relationships.
Obviously flexibility is much easier for large companies than small businesses. It is also easier to take a career break if you have been on a comfortable wage and/or can lean on partners to help financially.
So where does the optimum lie? Is technology a curse or a blessing? Anyone who has struggled with the delays engendered by some teleconferences can attest that it cannot entirely replace the face to face meeting, with all the advantages of being able to observe body language and just get to know colleagues. e-mail can be fraught with mis-interpretation however many emoticons are appended to the text.
Perhaps, as in so many instances, the ideal lies with a balance of both and we must remember to make technology our slave and not our master.