Sunday, Jan 7th 2001
Life section

Home work is not always fun

Working from home is not quite taking off the way futurists had predicted as people crave human contact and technology often fails

ONE of the most commonly anticipated changes that is supposed to occur in the workplace at the turn of the millennium is that more people will be working from home, and that there will be fewer or, in effect, no more offices as we know them.

In 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler, who has been proven right in many of his predictions, pronounced confidently that within our lifetime, urban downtowns would 'stand empty, reduced to use as ghostly warehouses or converted into living space'.

Another prediction foresaw that 66 per cent of workers would work from home by the millennium.

But it's now 2001, and offices look like they are here to stay, here and elsewhere.

In Singapore, vacant office space in the private sector in the third quarter of last year was 600,000 sq m, out of the available 4,966,000 sq m, compared with 750,000 sq m out of the available 4,700,000 sq m in 1998.

In the United States, a 1998 survey shows that the office occupancy rate dropped to single digits for the first time since 1981, despite office completions doubling in 1997.

Figures of home workers in the US are unreliable, ranging from one million to 40 million, depending on how the category is defined.

The low-end figure comes from government data, while the higher figures, more often than not, come from people with things to sell, and include anyone who takes any work home, such as teachers who take papers home to grade.

One study of a telecentre which packed off its workers to work from home found that 25 per cent of them gave up within the first five months, and 50 per cent within a year.

In 1994, Wired magazine, the bible of the new economy, profiled an advertising company, Chiat/Day, which restructured its new offices in New York and Los Angeles, to accommodate the new wired future, in which no one had a room, and employees did not have designated desks.

Employees would check out a laptop and a cellular phone at the start of the day and find a place to sit, then check them back at the end of the day.

People were also not supposed to sit in the same place on consecutive days. Anything that could not be stored digitally - Jurassic stuff like books, files and papers - were put away in hall lockers at the end of the day and taken out again in the morning.

Chiat/Day was the agency that produced those clever Apple ads in the 1980s, including the very successful Think Different campaign.

With hot desking, it was going to show that it could think differently too, keeping its people on the creative edge of the business.

But five years later, in 1999, Wired reported that the company had returned to conventional offices.

This example was cited in the book The Social Life Of Information (2000) by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. The authors point out that people like Toffler who predicted the demise of the office assumed that since workers would increasingly be handling information instead of things, they could do much of their work at home.

But as they assert: 'The idea of managers working remotely with information inevitably ignores the much more difficult, intangible, but inevitably face-to-face side of management, the management not of things or of information, but of people.'

They also highlight two other key points which techno-evangelists ignore: the frailty of the technological systems, in part thanks to the instability of rapidly changing technology; and the social aspects of work.

Anyone who has worked on a computer at home for some length of time will have suffered inexplicable crashes, loss and corruption of files, and other malfunctions.

Help is supposed to be a click away, but often it isn't, and you can end up spending precious hours just trying to get the temperamental machine rebooted. Work hours spill over inevitably into private and family life.

The home office is also supposed to save a company costs. But take the case of California advertising agency CKS (now USWeb/CKS).

It had about a quarter of its employees working at home, but estimated that new technologies there cost the firm between US$10,000 (S$17,000) and US$15,000 per employee per year - though employees were still paying half the costs of hardware.

The importance of the social aspects of work cannot be overstated.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of America's leading psychologists, says in his 1997 book, Living Well, our everyday life is defined not by what we do, but also by who we are with. Our actions and feelings are always influenced by other people, whether they are present or not.

Our well-being is deeply attuned to relationships, and that consciousness resonates to the feedback we receive from other people.

Since so much of our time is spent at work, it is often where we find our social life.

Of course, there are friends who aren't colleagues, but we don't get to see them as regularly.

It is not surprising, therefore, to read a report in The Straits Times on Dec 21 last year that a study carried out by the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England, had found that working from home could be more stressful and bad for a person's health than a day at the office.

The researchers studied a group of national newspaper journalists who worked at the office, and another who were allowed to work at home, after going into the office for years.

They found that home workers suffered from being isolated.

They missed the company of their colleagues, the interaction of other employees and even - yes - the tensions that often occurred at the office.

Dr Sandi Mann, who helped lead the research, reported: 'Single workers suffered from irritability, resentment, frustration and stress from being home alone, with no one to talk to and only a computer screen to stare at, day in and day out.

'Married men found it was not always a good thing to work from home, seeing their wives throughout the day, every day of the week.

'Many reported there were more arguments and many missed the 'joy' of arriving home after a hard day's work at the office. Though most married teleworkers got more time to see their children, this often proved a distraction to their work.'

Certainly, if one is an artist, writer or scientist, or if one has a rich inner life, then solitude is necessary, if not enjoyable. Even so, creative individuals stress the importance of seeing people, hearing people and exchanging ideas, according to Csikszentmihalyi, who interviewed 90 of possibly the most interesting people in the world and leaders in their fields, for his 1996 book, Creativity.

The writer D. H. Lawrence said somewhere once: 'I never know what people mean when they complain of loneliness. To be alone is one of life's greatest delights, thinking one's own thoughts, doing one's own little job ... '

Yet, in a letter which he wrote to a friend, he complained: 'I suffer badly from being so cut off. But what is one to do? One can't link up with the social unconscious. At times, one is forced to be essentially a hermit. I don't want to be ... One has no human relations - that is so devastating.'

I am writing this column at home, where all is quiet except for the chirping of birds in the trees outside my window. But now that it's done - phew - I can't wait to log off, switch off the laptop and dash to the office where I have spent 26 years of my life.


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