There’s no workplace like home

Why run the gauntlet of rush-hour traffic when you could work the hours you want from the comfort of your own home? If this sounds appealing, you’ll need space, an understanding family and strong self-discipline to make teleworking a success

So you love the idea of defining your own working day? You delight in daydreams of dumping your boss, having friends over for lunch and finishing at four? Clearly, working from home is the only way forward. But it’s not all tea and cakes for people who take this oh-so appealing career option.

Temptations abound and the variety of extra-office activities are limitless. Friends and family know you’re at home and often expect you to be ready to play.

Then there are those duvet days that can easily slip into duvet vacations without anyone knowing. Dress-down Friday becomes dressing-gown Monday and the only thing that can get you moving is you.

Naturally, you need to work out whether you can keep temptation at bay. If you’ve got what it takes, however, the benefits will ensure you remain a homeworker forever.

“Flexibility and the prospect no more commuting are two main factors pushing people to work at home,” says Sandi Mann, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire and a flexible-working adviser to companies such as the BBC and BT.

“People are sick of fighting through the traffic and having to be at their desk at a certain time. They want more freedom, a better work-family balance and less stress. And those things are linked into being at home more often.”

Gradually, more of us are taking the plunge. The 2003 Labour Force Survey reports that more than 2 million or 7.5% of the working population are opting for some form of teleworking, that is, being based at home and linked to the outside world via computer, telephone, internet and fax.

Occupations range from those you might expect, such as web designers, to those you would not. Solicitors, radio presenters, audio typists, architects, travel agents and journalists can fulfil their roles outside the office as long as they have the right equipment.

“When teleworking first started, modems passed information at 9,600 bits per minute. Broadband is at least 10 times faster,” says Alan Denbigh, the chief executive of the Teleworking Association (TCA), the UK’s leading body for promoting telework.

“Although there haven’t been many stunning pieces of legislation, if you take all the changes together – such as tax incentives and an employment law that supports flexible working – it’s easy to see that now is a much better time to start working from home.”

This all sounds very inviting but are you really suited to this way of doing things? “It’s important to know yourself very well,” says Linda Doe, a chartered psychologist who advises companies such as BP, Nationwide and Microsoft on effective homeworking strategies.

“You need to know if you can maintain your self-motivation and, just as importantly, know what demotivates you.”

You should also consider your style of interaction. “Think about how you like to work and the type of communication you enjoy, that is, face to face or on the telephone,” says Doe.

“Do you prefer working things out on your own or swapping ideas with a team? And do you deal with problems or decisions alone or seek the input of others?” It is still possible to get others involved in your work when you’re based at home, she says, it just requires organisation.

One of the key factors that could influence your success or failure as a teleworker is your level of competency at the outset. The lack of expert knowledge can be stressful. Asking a question of the colleague sitting next to you can feel very different from telephoning someone for an answer, particularly if you don’t really know them. “Ideally you should learn the job, then do it from home,” suggests Doe.

These might seem like minor niggles but they all add up to one big lifestyle change.

“What you tend to get is a honeymoon period – when you first work at home everything is hunky dory,” says Mann. “Then all kinds of issues begin to creep in. You’ll get friends popping round for a chat. Many people still hold the impression that if you don’t go to work in a suit and with your briefcase, you’re not actually working.”

And there’s the question of your own self-discipline. Perhaps you will not have any problems getting your work done but you might discover hidden aspects of your personality – the cookie monster, for example. It is, after all, far easier to eat a whole packet of chocolate biscuits when it is open beside you and nobody can see you nibbling.

Whether you’re a nibbler or not, research reported last year in the journal New Technology, Work and Employment suggests teleworkers are more industrious than their office-based colleagues.

“People who work from home are more productive and they work longer hours than people who don’t work from home,” says Mann, who conducted the study. “They’re trying to prove themselves,” she says.

That is great for a while but overwork could eventually lead to illness. And then what happens? “There’s an expectation that you can always crawl to their computer. When you’re at home you can’t be seen to be ill,” she adds.

Happily, most of these challenges can be overcome. You can certainly limit your chances of overdoing it by making a distinction between your home and your business, physically and psychologically.

“Its very important to have a separate place of work. Some people are very fortunate because they can convert a garage or bedroom into a study. Otherwise you find yourself sitting at your desk all the time and always working because work is always around you,” says Mann.

Then there is the rest of the household to consider. “Conflicts happen when a partner or children want the home worker’s day to end at a time that conflicts with the worker’s own ideas,” suggests Doe.

“One characteristic that defines the successful homeworker is the ability to stand back and assess themselves and their family’s needs – and discuss and agree a working model that suits everyone.”

And she offers a stark warning: “Homeworking cannot be combined with child care in the same temporal space: you can’t do two things well at the same time.

“You need someone else to take responsibility for the children if they and you are both at home. Over time, as children get older, they have a greater understanding of your work space.”

Do you think you have the right personality, the right home environment and an understanding enough family to enable you to become a teleworker? Then there are a few practicalities to sort out.

Check your mortgage and lease details to see if there are any restrictions on running a business from home. Work out what equipment you need and get expert advice before purchasing. And keep yourself safe by downloading a copy of the homeworker’s health and safety booklet from the Health and Safety Executive’s website.

And then? “You’re in the strongest position if you are in work already,” says Denbigh.

“If you are a parent of a child that is under six or disabled then there is legislation that creates a framework for homeworking. It enables you to make an application to your employer in a very formal way.

“The firm has to respond within a certain number of weeks and, if it does not let you do it, it has to give a good reason why not. If the company can’t justify its refusal this could lead to an employment tribunal but usually it’s a matter of working out a practical way forward.

“If you’re looking to go down the self-employment route, TCA is one source of jobs. But there are number of websites where you can search under terms such as ‘home-based work’. Watch out for the scams and the multilevel marketing schemes,” he says.

“If you want to work from home but you’re not sure what to do, it’s worth looking at the skills you have already and make best use of them.”

Successful teleworking requires a lot of preparation and adjustment but if you can get things running smoothly the benefits are huge.

“Organising your own work load and seeing your own results can be immensely rewarding,” says Doe.

“And varying working hours around the times when you feel well motivated adds to personal productivity and effectiveness,” she says.

It also allows you the flexibility to have fun while others are slaving at their desks.

“Working from home is a challenge but, like all challenges that are realistic to your skills, it is very rewarding and motivating in itself,” Doe adds.


· The Which Guide to Working from Home, by Lynn Brittney (Which? Books)

Success stories

Virginia Maughan-Jones, 35, worked as an office manager in financial services before deciding she wanted to cut the commute and develop a more flexible working style.

Now an employee of Evergreen Business Solutions, she works as press researcher and administrator from her home in Shropshire. She’s married with a two-year-old daughter.

“I collect the early morning newspapers from the newsagent at 5.45am. I’m heavily involved in press research and monitoring adverts so I spend a lot of time trawling through the papers looking for the latest news on a particularly topic, such as mortgage lending. I then summarise what I’ve found in a report.

“I also get involved on the secretarial side, doing straight-forward typing or formatting documents for companies.

“You’ve got to be quite disciplined, otherwise there would always be the temptation to do the household chores. Luckily, I’ve set up a little office in my home. Once I’m at the door, I’m not tempted to get involved with the activities of the rest of the house.

“I have a nanny and she and my daughter are far enough away that I can’t even hear them. The only time I might see them is when I pop into the kitchen to get a coffee or something. I can just say hello to my daughter and give her a little cuddle, which I really love.

“I speak to colleagues on the phone so I don’t feel isolated. And it’s really good because there isn’t lots of chatting and office politics to deal with. On Monday morning you don’t think: ‘Oh no, I’ve got a whole week of working in an office.’ It seems more natural this way. It helps that I really like the job, of course.

“You do have to enjoy your own company. And you must be able to pick things up quickly because you haven’t automatically got somebody to chat to and ask how they would do things. But I love not being in a polluted city. I can just pop out and breathe some country air. And I have more time to spend with my family.

“The one disadvantage is you are always at home – that might be a claustrophobic for some people. You really need to be able to get out and do other things in your leisure time otherwise you lose the balance you were looking for in the first place.”

Kathryn Cork, 28, has been a field technician with Yorkshire Water for more than four years. It was the job description that attracted her rather than the fact it was a home-based role. She is linked to work via her laptop and mobile phone. Cork lives with her partner, who also works from home.

“If a customer has a problem that has anything to do with water, I will investigate and try to sort it out. It could be a change in the quality of the water, in which case we would take samples. Or it could be a burst pipe in the middle of the road.

“When I get up in the morning, I have my breakfast and sign on to the my computer and check what jobs I’ve got. That’s when I plan my route. I cover Bradford and parts of Leeds and I’ll do about 50 to 60 miles a day.

“I don’t go into the office very regularly, unless I’m in the area and I need to go to the toilet. That’s one thing we don’t have in the vehicle.

“Every Monday we spend an hour discussing anything that’s gone on over the weekend. Most of my communication is done from home or on the mobile if I’m out and about. Not having to go into the office means you free yourself up. There’s no unnecessary to-ing and fro-ing.

“I don’t get the chance to go back home once I’m on the road, unfortunately, because I live in Oldham, which is 26 miles from the area I cover.

“When I lived in Bradford it did give me that opportunity. The flexibility was useful. But now my partner also works from home, so it’s just as well I’m on the road a lot of the time, otherwise it could get a bit much.

“The most important tip I’d give is to remain positive about what you do. If you worry about being on your own, it will get you down. But if you can keep yourself enthusiastic and make a point of developing a customer-friendly manner, it helps you feel good and you do a better job.”

Cliff Wright, 40, is an illustrator. He left university 20 years ago and, after two-and-a-half years of touting his work around London publishers, eventually got one of his own books into print.

He mainly illustrates picture books for four to seven-year-olds but has completed advertising briefs and created posters and cards. He’s best known for his cover illustrations on the second and third Harry Potter books.

“I work in a studio at the top of my house on the East Sussex coast – I’m lucky enough to look out onto sea. Wherever I work from I like to see some landscape. I’ve occasionally worked in cities but I find it stifling. I need the natural environment around me. It’s just so inspiring.

“I’ve always had a passion for what I do but one of the most difficult aspects of working from home is time management. I had one summer where I was illustrating a dozen books. I was working, eating, sleeping and that was it.

“At the busiest times I worked from 8am to 11pm. I struggled when I first started so when the work does start to come in, its tempting to take everything and you feel very grateful that you’ve got anything at all. But it burns you out if you’re not careful.

“I’m taking it easier these days and my enthusiasm is burning bright. I’m still working on a number of books but I’m also doing drawing workshops these days. They focus on exploring awareness and the ability to see the truth of the object in front of you.

“So often we glance at an object and we think we know it. Then we draw what we imagine is there, rather than what is actually there and, understandably, we’re disappointed with the results. These workshops are about challenging assumptions, not only about drawing but about life.

“Having always worked for myself I know the importance of making time for fun and taking regular breaks. I need to share stories and experiences with people and I have a network of colleagues and friends that are in the same boat. They help keep the balance.

“Work is creative, inspiring and it pays the bills but it should never become so important that it destroys your enjoyment of life.”

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