If you want me to work in an office, I demand to commute in a flying car
A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that one in five employees around the globe works from home frequently, while one in 10 does it every day. Illustration: Getty Images
It was a conversation like thousands of others we must have had during the decade or so that my father drove me to school every morning. But this one made a lasting impression.
My father looked at me in the rearview mirror and told me he was one of a dying breed. In the future, people like him wouldn’t have offices to drive to. By the time I was an adult, we’d all have evolved into something called “teleworkers”. We would do a few hours of work every day in our “electronic cottages” and then spend all the time we weren’t commuting to the office in our flying cars, pursuing more worthwhile projects – and taking occasional minibreaks in space. (With hindsight, I may have made that last bit up.)
My father’s prediction – which was informed by the work of futurologists such as Norbert Wiener and Alvin Toffler – and the longing with which he described it, must have shaped my view of the workplace. I grew up and became that teleworker.
During extended intervals over the last decade, I have had jobs that required my presence in an actual office, but I always seem to return to my version of the electronic cottage – a Macbook jostling for space with half a dozen empty coffee cups on a distinctly unfuturistic wooden bureau in a corner of my attic.
There are lots of advantages to working from home: I don’t have to commute; I get to see my children at lunch time; we can have roast chicken on a Wednesday. (I could work in my pyjamas if I wanted to, but being caught in your pyjamas by the ESB metre man at 4pm on a Thursday is overrated.) But there is one that overrides all the others: most of the time, I find it much more productive.
In his 1980 book, The Third Wave, Toffler wrote that humans would always want face-to-face engagement with others, but he imagined those needs being met by community involvement. Teleworking would “glue the family together”, everybody would be more efficient and have more free time. Bless him.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that. A poll of 12,000 people carried out last year by Reuters/Ipsos found that one in five employees around the globe works from home frequently, while one in 10 does it every day. The rates were highest in emerging markets countries such as India, and lowest in Europe.
Meanwhile, several studies have shown that people who work from home do more work, not less – five to seven hours more, on average. A study published by researchers at Stanford University recently on the 16,000 employees of a travel firm in China found that employees who worked from home were 13 per cent more productive, took fewer sick days, had higher job satisfaction, and were half as likely to leave. On the other hand, they were also half as likely to be promoted.