Home alone

There are many benefits to be gained to setting up a desk at home for both
the employer and employee.  But companies
need to prepare carefully before rushing into teleworking.  Staff must be given support, not just left
to get on with it.  By Nic Paton

For more and more British workers their daily slog into work may soon be at
an end. Last year, using Government data, the Institute of Employment Studies
estimated that one in 17 British workers was now teleworking from home – an
increase of 19 per cent on the year before. And the Confederation of British
Industry has said 23 per cent of employers have been introducing teleworking.

Home working 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

Research results

Research by Dr Sandi Mann, senior lecturer and occupational psychologist at
the University of Central Lancashire, has found that if managed poorly, working
from home 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 telecommunications and banking sectors,
Dr Mann found there were some significant benefits to be had from home working.
Less travel (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 was that 57 per cent of those polled
complained of isolation, half said they were actually working longer hours and
28 per cent felt they lacked support. Other complaints included less sick leave
(21 per cent), less career progression (14 per cent) and greater costs (7 per

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. They need to consider the isolation and
frustration, particularly with technology. How are they going to reduce those
isolating effects?" she asks.

"People feel they need to be available at their desk or their 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 and, in some cases, a change in thinking has to take place.
"In an office you can be seen to be working but at home it is very
difficult to prove that you are working. There has to be an explicit expression
of trust," she adds.

Legal aspects of home working

According to Roger Steel, a partner at solicitors Eversheds, there is a raft
of legal and contractual issues that firms should make watertight before
allowing workers to head for home.

These include whether a worker is breaching the terms of a mortgage or lease
and is 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 for the loss of a company car or a London weighting,
should be considered as well as the right to consult with trades unions, he
suggests. Other areas should be 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 asks.

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

Occupational health issues

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

"If you are employing somebody then the place where 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

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

The person doing the occupational health risk assessment – whether they come
from HR or within the occupational health department – needs to be competent
and, vitally, to know when they are at the limits of their knowledge and a
health and safety or OH issue or concern should be referred on.

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

Maintaining contact

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

"Home workers have to be very self-disciplined. 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 home working is the Co-operative Bank, first
in its debt management division (see case study) and latterly with its
financial advisers.

Alison Booth, HR development manager at the bank, says it now 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, will install equipment and sort out any tax and insurance
issues. Home assessments are done by self-assessment with a company 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, we have a policy that 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

Health and safety

At the Nationwide, Britain’s biggest building society, a formal project to
draw up a health and safety policy for home workers was set in place 18 months
ago, although the society had operated 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
– assessing people’s capabilities and financial issues. Home workers were
issued with information about what to do if there is an accident in the home
and can watch health and safety videos. While there is no psychometric testing,
extensive discussions are held with the employee and manager before the go
ahead is given. A home worker’s support group, called Hug, has also been set up
for the 65 or so formal home workers.

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

Home workers need to feel involved

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

"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 to 15,000 UK staff who work from home in some
capacity, and while there are guidelines and packs available, it is left very
much up to the consultants to provide a specification to fit their needs.

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

"This has been the biggest problem – the ability to support people who
are away from the office for any particular time. 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," says Delany.

Case Studies

Scottish Equitable

The growing popularity of working from home led life assurance firm Scottish
Equitable to put a formal home working health and safety policy in place 18
months ago. The company now has about 30 of its sales consultants working from
home around the country, out of 4,000 employees in total.

The onus for getting the OH and health safety right has fallen squarely on
the company’s OH department. Angela Dunlop, occupational health and safety
adviser, says the key has been learning as they go along and making absolutely
sure a full home and ergonomic assessment is carried out.

Equipment such as a fax, separate phone line and a budget for desks is all
provided and the sales consultants are expected to come into the office at least
once a week.

"They are in regular daily contact with their managers and they can
also contact each other," she says.

Scottish Equitable does not sell policies to the public, only to independent
financial advisers, so there is no contact with the public, and clients are
never seen at home. As many of the sales staff work from laptops, Dunlop has
made sure a separate "docking station" is set up with a separate
keyboard and mouse. Confidential waste is taken into the nearest branch and
disposed of in the company’s normal manner.

The assessment also covers issues such as mortgage and insurance changes,
heating and lighting expenses and installation of fire fighting equipment such
as smoke alarms.

Now that there are sales staff working from home across the country, the
next stage is to ensure regular interim assessments are carried out through
self-assessments. Staff will be sent a video showing them how to do it, she
adds. Follow-up home assessments will then be carried out every two years.

"Home working is not always for everyone. Some people do not take to
it. But for those who do, it gives them more freedom and autonomy in the house.
Some of them have young children and they get to see more of them," says

"If people find they do not like it, we make sure they can be moved
back into the office," she adds.

Co-operative Bank

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 off, the bank, which was one of the first UK financial
institutions to offer home working, 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 and conducted psychometric testing on all employees who
wanted to work from home to see if they were likely to be up to the job. The
project was a six-month trial at first, which has since been extended to a
permanent arrangement.

"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 if my legs were too short. In effect you got everything
you would get if you were in the office," says Milne.

The debt management home working team works set, regular 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 between team members. A team meeting is held at the
Manchester head office every fortnight and staff are encouraged to communicate
with their manager at other times. 

"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," Milne says.

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