No place like home?

In
an age of work-life balance policies, setting up a desk at home can seem to be
the ideal solution.  But organisations
must provide support to staff outside the main site – not just leave them to
get on with it

For more and more British workers, the days of commuting into work appear to
be numbered. Last year, using government data, the Institute of Employment
Studies estimated that one in 17 British workers now teleworks from home, an
increase of 19 per cent on the year before. And the Confederation of British
Industry says 23 per cent of employers are introducing teleworking.

Homeworking offers the attraction of letting workers manage their time more
flexibly, while freeing up valuable office space and cutting overheads for
employers.

Yet companies need to be wary before rushing into a teleworking scheme.
There are numerous legal, health and safety and occupational health issues that
need to be addressed if a teleworking initiative is to be a success.

Research by Dr Sandi Mann, senior lecturer and occupational psychologist at
the University of Central Lancashire, has found that working from home, if
managed wrongly, can lead to employees suffering higher levels of stress and
emotional difficulties than their office-based colleagues.

In a study of 14 teleworkers in the telecoms and banking sectors, Dr Mann
found there are significant benefits to be had from homeworking. Less travel
(cited by 57 per cent), a better working environment (50 per cent) and fewer
distractions (43 per cent) all rated highly.

But the other side of the coin is that 57 per cent of those polled
complained of isolation, half said they are actually working longer hours and
28 per cent feel they lack support. Other complaints include less sick leave
(cited by 21 per cent), less career progression (14 per cent) and greater costs
(7 per cent).

Dr
Mann concedes that, while her sample was small, her findings throw up the need
for more research into the potential emotional and occupational health problems
faced by employees working from home.

"Companies need to make sure they are thinking about the psychological
effects of working from home – the isolation and frustration, particularly with
the technology. How are they going to reduce the isolating effects?" she
says.

"People feel they need to be available at their desk or phone all the
time. They tend to work much longer hours than if they were in the office. That
is not safe for their long-term health."

Businesses need to have overt occupational health policies in place from the
word go, she argues. In some cases, a change in thinking has to take place.

"At home, it is very difficult to prove that you are working, but in an
office you can be seen to be working. There has to be an explicit expression of
trust," she adds.

According to Roger Steel, a partner at law firm Eversheds, there is a raft
of legal and contractual issues which firms should make watertight before
allowing workers to head for home:

– Is a worker breaching the terms of a mortgage or lease and is he/she still
covered by housing and contents insurance?

– If regular supplies are being delivered, is there access?

– What happens if there is a burglary or the worker suddenly decides to move
house?

– Is your software agreement applicable out of the office?

– What if a partner is employed by the competition?

Remuneration – such as the loss of a company car or London weighting –
should also be considered, as well as the right to consult with trade unions,
suggests Steel. Other key issues are hours of work and, critically, the health
and safety of the working environment.

"It is pretty much beyond doubt that it is the employer’s
responsibility to go to the place of work, in other words the home, and check
that it is a safe environment. Are there, for instance, cables trailing across
the floor, can the baby stick a rattle in the socket?" he says.

"It is imperative that it is not just the HR managers who write down
what the terms and conditions are," adds Steel. "You need to consult
with the IT people, the health and safety people and the security people.
Everyone has to be involved before the contract is formulated."

Isolation allied with a poor workstation and bad ergonomics tend to be the
big three occupational health problems when it comes to working from home, says
Kit Artus, director of occupational health consultancy Cheviot Artus.

"If you are employing somebody, then the place they are working or
gainfully employed becomes the place of work. There is a duty of care in terms
of standards, the environment, the equipment and the workstation," she
says.

"The coffee machine culture is in many ways our support. If someone is
working in isolation, that does not always occur."

The person doing the occupational health risk assessment – whether they come
from HR or the occupational health department – needs to be competent.
Crucially, that person needs to be aware of the limits of their knowledge, and
realise when a health and safety or OH concern should be referred on.

"There should be a policy, and the policy can outline minimum
requirements and a minimum strategy or it can be one that goes beyond that.
There is often a culture that sees homeworking as a lower hazard, but it is
high risk," she says.

And businesses need to accommodate the fact that workers are generally
social animals who need contact with other people from time to time, argues
Professor Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology at University College,
London.

"Homeworkers have to be very self-disciplined – they have to check in.
It is very easy to go down to the fridge or do some cleaning or gardening.
People do not get enough feedback. Do they have a sense of the mother ship, or
is there a loss of a sense of identity?" he asks.

One company that has pioneered homeworking is the Co-operative Bank,
initially in its debt management division (see case study) and latterly with
its financial advisers.

Alison Booth, HR development manager at the bank, says it has 60 financial
advisers working from home and going out to meet clients, in a scheme that
started last May.

The bank conducts personality tests on staff who want to work from home, and
it will install equipment and sort out any tax and insurance issues.

Home assessments are carried out by the employees themselves, but the
company will do a follow-up if any particular issues arise.

"If you work at home alone, the isolation in itself can cause stress.
When advisers come in for their monthly meetings, if they are finding it
difficult or it is not working, then we will bring them back into the
office," says Booth.

"The best rule of thumb is that we do not treat people working from
home in a different way to how we treat those in the office," she adds.

The advisers have additional terms of employment in the contracts
classifying their home as their workplace, a mileage allowance, set hours of
work and an allowance for heating and lighting. They are also given a paper
shredder for confidential documents, a lockable filing cabinet and virus
detection technology.

At the Nationwide, Britain’s biggest building society, a formal health and
safety policy for homeworkers was put in place 18 months ago, although the
company had been operating an informal system since 1993.

"We
focused on health and safety around the workstation, setting up lighting,
having support and so on, and making sure that they were not doing themselves
injury or harm. It is about having the right training and support," says
Denise Walker, head of corporate personnel.

The protocol covers equipment – including hardware, software and IT support
– as well as assessing people’s capabilities and financial issues.

Homeworkers are issued with information about what to do if there is an
accident in the home, as well as health and safety videos.

There is no psychometric testing, but extensive discussions are held with
the employee and manager before the go-ahead is given. In addition, a support
group, called HUG, has also been set up for the 65 or so formal homeworkers.

Others find a less formal approach works for them. At management consultancy
PricewaterhouseCoopers, the emphasis is very much on the consultant outlining
how he or she wants to work, and what they need.

According to partner Kevin Delany, in the six or seven years the company has
been operating a homeworking policy, the emphasis has shifted from simply
setting people up at home to ensuring they stay involved in the life of the
business.

"People are realising that working from home is not as much fun as
everyone thought it was going to be. People want to come into the office simply
to speak to other people and get some sparks going. It is about being
inclusive," he says.

The company has about 14,000-15,000 UK staff who work from home, and while
there are guidelines and packs available, it is left very much to the
consultants to provide a specification to fit their needs.

There is a global computer system that all staff can log on to remotely, and
everyone is issued with laptops when they are recruited. However, the sense of
isolation, or simply a feeling of neglect, can still be an issue.

"It has been the biggest problem – the ability to support people who
are away from the office for any particular time," says Delany. "It
is very easy to let performance appraisals slip, but you just have to make them
happen.

"You have to keep people updated. You can go out on a 15-month project
and come back and find there are 15 new people working on your floor."

Case Study: Stuart Mills
Out of sight, out of mind

When Stuart Mills was offered the chance to work from home with an Internet
start-up, he hoped it would allow him to spend time with his young daughter and
to be more his own boss. And, as the job entailed visiting clients along the M4
corridor, he was not unduly worried that he would be stuck at home all day,
every day.

But it quickly became clear that the company, which was selling an online
recruitment package to businesses, had not thought through the issues of
working from home. "The technical set-up was outstanding," he says,
"with a top-of-the-range laptop, online access via a mobile phone,
software, printer and a car. But they did not come and assess the house at all,
and I had to go into debt to buy my own desk. I was told I could not claim it
on expenses."

Things went from bad to worse as it became apparent there were problems with
the business, too. There was no central sales or client database and,
crucially, the technology he was selling often did not work. But head office
was not prepared to listen to any concerns from its salesmen.

"It was a real morale-deadener. You’d write reports and they were never
really followed up. I began to get a bit stressed, and I was ill for a brief
while, but when I mentioned it at a review, they were not very
understanding."

To make matters worse, there was no facility to enable members of the
selling team to keep in touch. While there was a formal meeting every Monday,
"it just ended up with us sitting around having a bit of whinge", explains
Mills. "People began to resent coming in."

He continues, "Overall, I felt pretty isolated. If I spoke to anyone,
it was my colleagues – people who were in the same boat as me. I didn’t feel I
could approach the people who were bankrolling the thing."

Eventually, as the company began to run into cash problems, the sales team
was offered the choice of taking a £6,000 pay-off or signing a new contract
with worse conditions.

Mills took the first option, and has since gone on to a far preferable job. "I
am a pretty hard-working, diligent person but it was like trying to sell a
white elephant, eventually."

Case Study: Kirsty Milne
Preparation key to home success

Kirsty Milne, a debt management specialist with the Co-operative Bank in
Manchester, has been working from her home in Leek, Staffordshire, since July
1995. From the outset, the bank – one of the first UK financial institutions to
offer homeworking – has bent over backwards to make her feel no different from
any other employee, she says.

Before setting her up, the bank carried out a thorough health and safety
evaluation of her home. It was also in the habit of conducting psychometric
testing on all employees who wanted to work from home to see if they were
likely to be up to the job.

"It paid for all the equipment, made sure the installation and spacing
was correct and so on. It put in a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit,
offered a foot stool. In effect, you got everything you would get if you were
in the office," Milne says.

The homeworking project was at first run as a six-month trial, but it has
been extended to a permanent arrangement.

The debt management homeworking team works set shifts – for instance, 7.30am
to 3.30pm, 9am to 4pm, or 9.30am to 4.30pm, but everyone has their lunch at the
same time to encourage communication.

A team meeting is held at the Manchester head office every fortnight, and
staff are encouraged to communicate with their manager at other times.

"The HR department was very thorough. They made sure all the equipment
was right, all the telephone lines were in, all the bills came back to the bank
and there was provision for a tax allowance for electricity and heating,"
says Milne.

"I think you have to be an extremely outgoing person to work from home.
All the people I know who work from home are very sociable.

"If you were introverted, you could become very isolated, and if your
social life revolves around your job, it could be a problem," she adds.

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