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Pete Hoskin

Peter Hoskin: The joy (and politics) of working from home

This slow, sullen period before autumn demands a change of pace — and who am I to defy it? So, rather than talking Cameron and Osborne and Clegg and Coalition and reshuffles, I thought I’d start off by describing a typical working day at ConservativeHome. I have only two of these “duty days” (as we call them) a week, with Tim, Paul and Matthew covering the rest of the time; but I imagine it’s similar for all of us. Harry Phibbs rounds out the editorial team, of course, but his custodianship of the Local Government pages works slightly differently.

The duty day begins at around 5am, courtesy of the most brain-chiselling alarm that I can find on my mobile phone. Then, après caffeine, it’s to the Internet to start compiling the newslinks for the ConHome homepage. Finding political stories great and small, pruning them back to a sentence or two, planting them in a sensible order — it’s a job that tends to take at least a couple of hours by itself. But the duty editor must also ensure that the morning’s selection of blog-posts is there and linked to, as well as prepare a ToryDiary post of his own for when the whole shebang is published at 8.30am, quick, quick, quick! This, I find, is the most fevered, most bloodshot part of the day.

After that, the situation remains busy but not so fraught. The morning newsletter is published, and then more time can be taken to write and prepare posts for throughout the day. And once some background tasks have been accounted for — sifting through the comment threads, adding to our MustBeRead Twitter feed, etc. — that is really what it comes down to; preparing posts. The day is spent wired to the news until the sun fades. Barring a breaking story, this typical duty day will have simmered down to very little by around 8pm.

All of which adds up to a fairly full working day. But here’s the thing (or at least it struck me as “the thing” when I moved on from my old job at The Spectator): very little of this happens within filing distance of an office. In my case, it happens from home or from a cafe or the local library — anywhere that can be reached by the Internet and a mobile phone signal. I am now one of those people whom the social scientists call a “telecommuter”. We commute to work not in any normal sense, but parked on our sofas, trundling down the information superbridleway in our slippers. And that suits me just fine.

Of course, working from home is not for every job: as a rule, weapons manufacture and kitchen worktops shouldn’t be encouraged to mix. Nor is it for every employee: many thrive on the discipline and camaraderie of the traditional workplace. Society would collapse in on itself otherwise. After all, the day-to-day existence of the telecommuter can be weird, troglodytic and even a little bit unedifying. A recent survey found that 20 per cent of American telecommuters play computer games during their working hours. 25 per cent work in their pyjamas; 7 per cent in their underwear or completely naked. This is not Goldman Sachs or the West Wing.

But telecommuting still ought to be regarded as something greater than, as Boris put it ahead of the Olympics, “sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again” — and not least because many more of us are choosing to do it. According to an analysis by WorkHubs Network, the number of people working from home has risen by 24.1 per cent over the past decade, to 3.83 million. Another study, this one by Cisco Systems, found that around a third of students now regard working remotely, outside the office, as “a right”. These are stunning trends that even science fiction writers have been slow to spot. We have been taught to anticipate the rise of monolithic mega-companies such as Weyland-Yutani or the Tyrell Corporation, when there is action in the other direction as well. Work is, in some cases, becoming more diffuse and smaller scale.

And this could be good for the economy, too. One of the most meticulous experiments into telecommuting was recently carried out by O2. They basically emptied their Slough office, allowing over 2,500 members of its staff to work from home for the day — and the results were impressive. Of the 2,000 collective “commuting hours” that were saved, around 1,000 went towards extra work. The remaining 1,000 hours went towards more leisurely pursuits, such as extra time with the family. 88 per cent of the staff were found to be just as productive working from home as in the office, with a third being even more productive. And that’s before we consider the costs and emissions that were avoided from fewer journeys being made.

More work, more family, less cost? Little wonder why Conservatives such as John Redwood are taking telecommuting so seriously. Stir in the report which suggested that the Exchequer might save £15 billion if more public sector workers operated from home, and it’s no surprise that David Cameron and George Osborne are taking it seriously too. Although this is largely about businesses and the provisions they make for their staff, there are ways that the government can encourage domestic endeavour. The Treasury’s current thinking about “mini-jobs” — allowing tax-free, low-paid jobs — could be one of them. Those long-standing plans to spread broadband around the nation are another.

Ah, so I did talk about Cameron and Osborne and the Coalition after all. Apologies. It’s just that, in a strange sort of way, there’s a connection between my working day and one of this government's greatest tasks. When it comes to surging out of our current slump, it would help if some prevailing attitudes towards work were readjusted for the better; whether it is about the value of Work Experience or the usefulness of the home-worker. And with that point made, I think I'll go and play some computer games in my underwear … I mean, prepare a blog post. Duty calls.


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