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Home comforts? Some 200,000 people leave the daily grind behind every year in the UK, but is teleworking really the answer.

Byline: By GLYN MN HUGHES

IT was going to be the saviour of the Welsh economy. Commuting would be a thing of the past. Rural areas could cash in on the commercial boom which was bringing new economic life to the cities. If you had a computer, a phone and a fax, you could join the revolution and start working from home.

Until, that is, the boss decided that not seeing meant not believing and the rush up the path of the Welsh telecottage stumbled somewhat. Many other reasons, too, combined to slow the growth of working from home.

'Teleworking has grown in places where, perhaps obviously, there is the most natural demand,' said Andy Davidson of the Institute of Employment Studies.

'It can be the nature of the job being undertaken or the nature of the sector involved.

'What we have not seen, though, is a massive jump in numbers of people teleworking. The technology is certainly much more available and there is much more flexibility in the demands made by workers and managers, but there are problems.

'Health and safety issues must be taken into account,' he added. 'There are also questions of insurance, replacement and renewal of consumables and so on. There is the question of how you keep track of remote technology as a manager, although technology is biting back.

'Things such as internet messenger and broadband connections mean a computer is on all the time and can be tracked. People can no longer say they'll dial in to the internet when they need to or have the office call them up when they need to.

'In addition, though, how do you keep track of yourself as a worker? Do you keep an hourly log of what you are doing?'

At present, teleworking is growing by around 200,000 workers each year UK-wide with the total number of people opting to work at home having doubled from 1996 to the present day. Then, 1m worked at home: now the figure is approaching 2m.

Ursula Hughes, who hails from Anglesey and now works for London-based Analytica, has researched the phenomenon.

'On a macro level, teleworking is growing slowly,' she said.

'However, our research has shown that these figures include people who work, say, one day a week from home. Add to that the fact that technology has improved. Computers are better.

Telecommunications are better. Bear in mind, too, that we have to class teleworkers not only as people who work from home, but also people who work from other offices, on their laptop in the back of their car and so on. That area has grown, but those working only from home is growing much more slowly.'

Hughes has carried out a labour force survey every year since 1996 and has come up with some startling facts which explode many of the myths surrounding the culture of teleworking.

'More men than women are teleworkers,' she revealed, 'though there is a higher proportion of women who work only from home.

'We also discovered that those who can work out of the office are generally better educated - they're more likely to be graduates - and they work mainly in professional and technical areas. They're also likely to be mid career, with figures peaking for people in their 30s and tailing off when they get to their mid-40s.

'By then, they will have established an occupational identity. And, let's face it, for young workers, work is their social life. It's where they make their friends, it's where they find their entertainment outside office hours.'

Even more surprising is the fact that teleworking is a largely urban phenomenon' That's because the likes of professional, technical and media jobs are clustered around the big cities,' added Hughes, 'and people can't stand the commute. 'The more crowded the city - London, especially - the more people work at home.

Therein, however, lies another problem, with the creation of the 'lifestyle freelancer', where incomers sell up in cities, move to the country and carry on their jobs from a home bought for a song compared to city prices, but helping to force up rural property prices until houses become unaffordable to the locals - a common tale in North Wales. 'Few jobs are created,' said Hughes, 'and teleworkers' contacts are still in the city or they are with similar people who've moved out. They may employ someone like a cleaner, but that's where it stops. '."

Others will also say there's an environmental impact. Fewer cars on the road means less pollution. Not so.

Evidence is the less they travel for work, the more they travel for leisure. And they do a lot of flitting locally - dropping the kids off, going to the Post Office and so on. Most pollution, remember, occurs in the first 10 minutes when you start the car up from cold.' Management attitudes to teleworking remain a big barrier, however. Most work is managed and assessed by results - something very much in a company's interest. A recent survey by telecommunications specialist Inter-Tel found that 77% of companies said flexi-working had no impact on their company and that 66% had no flexi-workers at all. Many managers of small- to medium-sized businesses said difficulty managing remote employees was a major cause for concern. 'There seems to be a common misconception that the flexible working directives are all about the employee and not the employer,' said managing director Chris Harris.

'But the reality is far from it. Flexible working is a win-win provided you put it in place with the right infrastructure. Many companies already have the computer networks in place to facilitate remote working but they are not exploiting them. 'By integrating phone systems with the IT network, which is relatively cheap and easy to do, employers can divert calls to colleagues anywhere in the world at local call tariff. 'For employers, such initiatives allow them to take advantage of a wider catchment area for skills, and improved motivation, productivity and empowerment that so many studies into flexible working prove will happen. As SMEs struggle to keep costs down as floor space, recruitment and retention rates explode, flexible working had to be an extremely performance enhancing strategy.' That may be so, but some areas of North Wales still cannot access broadband, making flexible working a far less attractive option.

Although 98% of Wales is covered, a few small areas still need to be connected and extra cash to eradicate the Welsh 'digital divide' has been approved by the European Commission. Three years ago, the National Assembly Government proposed a pounds 115m programme to enable the whole of Wales to have broadband access by March 2007. Even so, the possibilities afforded by flexible working and - using the old term, telecottaging - seem immense. One of the longest established centres for distance working, Llangedwyn Mill, near Oswestry, was set up by Antur Tanat Cain to stem the depopulation of the Tanat and Cain valleys.

The range of work which has been undertaken by the centre includes projects such as computerisation of records for computer manufacturers and government departments, language translation work and indexing of publications for historical societies and publishers. The centre is presently used by trainees, small businesses, individuals and community organisations.

Proof, perhaps, that rural communities are able to hold their own

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Picture: RICHARD WILLIAMS; The idea of swapping rush hour traffic jams for the more relaxed pace of working from home holds an obvious appeal. But what is the truth behind teleworking and the statistics that show its exponents have doubled since1996
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 8, 2005
Words:1257
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