VSJ – June 2007 – Sounding Board

Robin Jones considers some of the issues associated with the development of home working.

Much of the time, I work at home. There’s no reason not to. There are few things that can’t be done via the telephone, the (now almost redundant) fax, email and various flavours of remote access software at least as well as face-to-face. As a result my commute is the thirteen steps between the kitchen and the office, carrying a mug of coffee. And my understanding of the term ‘tailback’ is restricted to the dog wanting a game before I start work.

Of course, people who contact me (or whom I contact) don’t necessarily know that. My favourite example occurred several years ago while I was working on an upcoming IAP symposium. One of the speakers rang me with a query. I say he rang me. In fact, he rang the office and was put through to me at home as though it were a simple extension. So he thought I was in West London. I knew he worked for a company in Bath, so I assumed he was there.

I dealt with his query and then, by way of conversation, he said, “I’m working from home today. I’m looking out over a stream with kingfishers on it.”

“I walk my dog along a kingfisher stream every morning”, I responded, “Where do you live?”

“Great Chart, near Ashford”, he replied.

“That’s amazing”, I said. “I live in Singleton.” (Singleton is about a mile from Great Chart.)

“Oh, well”, he replied, “I live in Singleton really.”

A further exchange of geographical detail confirmed that we were about 120 metres apart.

Now the point of this story is that it was completely irrelevant that we were so close; we could as well have been in Bournemouth and Bogota, without in any way degrading our corporate identities. Virtual and real space are becoming interchangeable.

So why is the 7.25 to London Bridge still oversubscribed to the point of serious discomfort? Do all those people really need to go to the office? Hard data are difficult to come by. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published at the beginning of the decade suggested that 25% of employees spent some of their working time at home. A Labour Force survey in 2005 suggests this has stayed pretty stable in the intervening five years. And, it says, only a tenth of this number work largely at home. So why are we collectively so slow to respond to overcrowded motorways and trains, not to mention to do our bit to reduce energy consumption (and, by implication, our own overheads)?

Traditionally, management has been blamed for dragging its feet, being suspicious of the work rate of employees who are out of sight. But major employers have shown this to be unjustified. BT has more than 9000 home workers – over 10% of its entire workforce. They report improved staff retention, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity and reduced costs among other advantages.

No, the serious problems to be addressed are those associated with data. If sensitive company information is to be spread across the world (and over workers’ kitchen tables) it needs to be properly protected. As it is, few days pass without the appearance of a story about sensitive data having been potentially compromised as a result of a notebook computer having been left in a pub/taxi/ burger bar (delete as applicable). So the responsibility falls to IT departments to develop a set of robust standards and protocols to protect its data.

But hardware manufacturers could do more than they have thus far. For instance, wireless routers usually need a good deal of configuration before they can be described as secure. Granted it’s not particularly difficult but why should non-technical users have to know about IP addresses just to point their browsers at such devices so that they can give them commands? It’s as though a car manufacturer, having introduced air bags, were to say to its customers, “Of course, you’re not protected until you’ve set up the air bags and you’ll have to read pages 158-163 of the manual to find out how.”

If we can get past the security issues, there’s a potential serendipitous advantage – resilience. If data and hardware are distributed, a physical disaster – flood, fire or explosion – at the centre is, with planning, much easier to recover from. After all, that’s what the Internet was designed for.

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

Comments are closed.