Can you trust a contractor at home?

The number of Britons working from home has escalated since 1998 by 18 per cent annually, according to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

"Over 2 million people in the UK now use IT to help them work away from the traditional office environment," it says. This represents some 8 per cent of the employed workforce.

And yet according to Les Berridge of Matchtech plc, an IT & Communications sector member at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, only about 5 per cent of contractors on his books work from home 'in some capacity,' and few agreements have any allowance for home work from the outset.

"I would estimate that about 2-3 per cent of our contract vacancies allow for some home working - usually development jobs," he says.

Not only do these figures contrast with the DTI estimates, but also IT analyst Gartner believes home working is exploding. "In 2006," it says, "higher prices for commuting, organisations' plans for disaster preparedness and wider availability of residential broadband Internet access will combine to increase teleworking by 9 per cent."

It seems the IT contract sector is slacking, but you would think contractors are ideally placed to work from home and would relish the opportunity. Apart from the many roles that require thoughtful concentration, contractors are technical enough to deal with badly behaved communications software.

Jane Marple has been contracting since 1994 and runs teams of systems testers. She loves working from home and enjoys the flexibility it offers. On rare occasions, she even takes her work to the beach. She believes this more relaxed atmosphere enhances her work and makes her more efficient.

Something any time-poor project manager would want of the staff, surely? But Marple adds, "I think a lot of companies refuse because they don't trust their staff to do the work."

It seems that developing a trusting relationship is crucial to ambitions of home working and one reason why companies hesitate to offer home working in job adverts. But clients may consider the option later.

"Even if there was originally no provision for it in the advertisement, companies and contractors often come to an arrangement once trust has been established," says Berridge.

Samantha Hopkin is managing director at IT recruitment firm, Times Resources Ltd. She agrees, saying terms of business often evolve from improving relations with IT professionals, contracting in senior roles of project management or interim department heads.

"Where our contractors are paid for a professional working day the trend is increasing that contractors who have already proved their reliability take ad hoc days to work from home," she says.

From a client's perspective, it's not just trust that's important. Information security firm, Websense, recently conducted research on the liabilities of laptops. They discovered that 71 per cent of IT managers believe that laptops used outside the office and then reconnected to the network pose a major danger.

And there are other issues like software licences, says Marple. "Unless you have a remote link to the company network – which many companies are dead against for fear of being hacked into – it can be difficult undertaking some work, like coding and testing, when certain packages are used."

It need not be said that security and trust issues are paramount in the IT industry, which might go a long way to explain why so few contractors work from home. But there are personal factors at play too.

"Cabin fever," says, developer at-home, Nigel Green. "To keep my sanity, I find I have to get out and meet colleagues face to face once or twice a week."

And Robert Dorney, a 20-year contract VB programmer, thinks working at home is a poor choice. "It's not all quiet in the house. There are children to play with, very understanding creatures; two-year-olds - yet a hefty lock normally sorts them out. Then there is the partner, grateful for the company and someone to talk to. To quote her, 'since you're here could you just put up this shelf .'"

Dorney laughs away talk of productivity gains and work promoting flexibility and suggests a pre-requisite for married contractors wishing to stay at home: "Partner training is essential."

Unfortunately, managing toddlers and partners is not always as easy as getting into the car and going to the office, so understandably, many contractors only ever consider office-based contracts.

But according to an extremely unscientific survey conducted on the Contractor UK bulletin board, at least half of you would take a pay cut to work from home. Maybe clients are missing a trick. Not only will they save the desk space and have happier people, but their staffing bill could come down.

With such enticing economics, it's difficult to understand why more contracts fail to enforce home work. Perhaps, secretly, client managers are afraid of diluting their power base. After all, it's so much more fun to strut around the office giving orders than merely sending the occasional Instant Message.

William Knight

Wednesday 25th Jan 2006