Working from Home and the Transport System

We go to work, despite the jams

But why do we still do it? Why do we put ourselves through the agony of commuting? It is one of the great mysteries of the modern world, and a rebuke to the futurologists. Do you remember all those people – about five or 10 years ago – who said we were going to be working from home?

They had every reason to be confident of their predictions. We have the gizmos to make it so simple, if we choose. We have computers and broadband and high-speed access to Skype and all the technology a man could need if he chose to stick at home with his wifi.

They said that, in a few years’ time, we would all be tele-cottaging and distance-working and generally interfacing from afar, and what utter tripe they talked.

Almost every day we see an increase in the tide of humanity that washes over the landscape. Last year alone, the numbers of passengers travelling by train grew by 6.7 per cent – double the rate predicted by Government.

The number of Tube journeys is set to rise from one billion to 1.5 billion a year. The number of car passenger journeys rises inexorably, we endure longer and longer traffic jams, and in an effort to escape the congestion, more and more of us enjoy the Palio of cycling in London – and all for what?


So that we can get into an office, and have a meeting in which the prime topic of conversation will be when to have another meeting; and in spite of all the opportunities to put our feet up chez nous and take it easy, surrounded by our own half-drunk cups of coffee, and refreshed by raids on our own fridge, the number of women working from home is still a piffling two per cent of the workforce, and the number of men working from home is still one per cent – and hasn’t even gone up in the past few years.

Why do we do it? Why do we chivvy ourselves out of the house and plunge into the mad Limpopo of the transport system, roaring with blocked hippos and fuming crocs? Well, as a keen student of human nature, I would say there are two broad reasons.

The first is that we may not like work very much, but we do like our offices. The office is the natural habitat of Homo sapiens. It is the place we like to go during the day, just as baboons choose to congregate on some special kop or crag.

Like baboons, we go there to groom and to socialise. We find that we need the tension and the jokes, not to mention the acrimony and the rivalry and the tears, and frankly no amount of electronic interchange is a substitute for that ability to gossip and plot.

We need to henpeck and to be henpecked; we need to read our fortunes in the eyes of others, and we need to feel ourselves physically inserted into a hierarchy because otherwise – alas – we have this floaty feeling that we don’t really exist; and no matter how bad it is being a cog in the machine, it’s better than being a discarded cog at the side of the road.

Which brings me to the second big reason why we all commute, when modern technology would easily permit us to stay at home, and that is that working at home is so supremely dispiriting.

You know what happens. You get up, slightly later than normal, with that languorous feeling that you are going to be “working from home”.

Instead of crashing into the shower and getting on with the day, you find that you linger, unshaven, for too long over the newspapers; and you find yourself so sunk in consequent gloom that you decide to fortify yourself with another cup of coffee, and a quick squint at BBC News 24, and then you conclude that you really must hit the desk.

And as you drift towards your workstation, your eye is caught by some title in your bookshelf and you settle down to read and – bang – by the time you look up, the morning has gone.

Deprived of that vital stimulus of competition, your mental flywheel is hardly turning, and why should it? There is no one to impress, no one to intrigue against, no one to worry about; and that is the real problem with working from home.

The beauty of an office is that it creates terrors of one kind or another, while at home you are obliged to cudgel your own flanks, to create your own fear – and, in the stupor of your domestic surroundings, you fail to make the leap of imagination.

You polish off that bottle of wine at lunch, and then you have a snooze, and then you find the afternoon has gone as fast as the morning, and the children are back from school, and you have managed to spend a whole day “working from home” in which you have achieved two thirds of diddly squat.

Working at work may be unproductive, my friends, but working from home is simply a euphemism for sloth, apathy, staring out of the window and random surfing of the internet: and that is why it is so imperative that we get the transport system of this country moving.

What with all those trips to the kettle and the television, and keeping the central heating on, I am not even sure that staying at home is the eco-friendly option.

That is why we need a bigger and more generous vision for transport in this country than the measly effort announced by the Government this week.

Where is the dynamism? Where is the hope? Why can’t the Government go out to the capital markets and raise the cash for the kind of high-speed rail links that are now commonplace in other European countries?

When are we going to end the fantastically expensive ideological warfare between Gordon Brown and the present Mayor of London about how to repair the Tube? Judging by this week’s announcement, the Government seems to hope that, if it charges enough for rail travel, people will just give up and stay at home.

Labour must understand that this is going against human nature. Our species yearns for the office, and the job of government is to help it get there.

33 thoughts on “Working from Home and the Transport System”

  1. I think that Boris has missed a very important aspect to the British way of working. Most people need to show that we are at work to impress that we are devoted and commited to the company. Being absent from the office shows lack lustre to many bosses. Furthermore to leave early or arrive late is also seen as something akin to lack of motivation and commitment to the company! How many people have I observed that just wait for the boss to go home and then pile through the door 5 mins later. I say this also from personal experience. I doubt this will change in the near to medium term.

  2. Once again, the government has shifted the responsibility of the railways on to the psuedo-privatised rail companies. Brown has supposedly cut taxpayers’ contributions and raised ticket prices to pay for mediocre upgrades. How is this rail privatisation? It is merely getting the railways off the government’s books and anger at the railway companies. The government is still running them and making them more and more expensive to use. So much for getting people out their cars to cut CO2 emissions.
    http://www.pickinglosers.co.uk/

  3. I think many managers are also suspicious of “working from home” for the exact reasons in this article. Without systems in place to check an employee’s productivity levels at home, they assume that most people spend the day idling around before cramming in half an hour’s work on a report and sending a couple of tactically timed emails.

  4. Superb. But none of it explains why an office in London, or some other location miles away, offers advantages over an office round the corner. The problem is not that we all want to go to work, but that so few of us live near where we work. No amount of spending is going to overcome the economic inefficiencies of half the population of the South-East trying to squeeze down the same bottlenecks at the same times of day.

    But dare a candidate for the Mayoralty of London suggest either that jobs move out of London or massively more homes move into it? Probably the former, because commuters like their gardens, access to the countryside, and reasonably civilised schools for their kids.

  5. Yes to Boris’s comments.
    Plus, the transport system should be reliable for those going on so-called leisure trips also, which descend into ordeals when faced with transport problems.

  6. To state that working from home is a euphemism for sloth and apathy only goes to reinforce barriers to flexible working arrangements, which employers now have a duty to consider for employees who request them.

    I am a busy in-house lawyer working for an international business based in the US. I support businesses across several time zones. If I didn’t have the flexibility to work from home then I would be much less able to share the burden of childcare and my wife would be unable to pursue her career.

    I know of several conscientious, hard working mothers who, if their employers would only allow them to work from home one or two days a week, would be able to spend another couple of hours each day with their children instead of fighting with the hoy poloy on overcrowded trains, tubes and buses in and around London. This short-sighted refusal to consider more flexible working arrangements is not only affecting their motivation levels but it may force them to give up work completely. And for what? an unjustifiable requirement to attend an office every day and be bored by the piffle of gossip and petty politics.

    Sure, London and this country needs a better transport solution for the future but, for the good of the economy and family life, you shouldn’t be discouraging initiatives that encourage more flexible working practices.

  7. Sorry Boris, you’ve missed the mark with this one; must have your head in the clouds thinking about your incipient ‘Mayordom’.

    I’ve worked at home for years and don’t suffer from any of the problems you mention (sloth, apathy etc) I have a load of very satisfied customers, a thriving business and no car (or imminent court case for assault as a result of having to commute on trains with seats clearly designed for bottoms rather than shoulders)

    4/10 see me.

  8. Excellent point, bgp. I used to make the daily journey to hell and back – a commute from Cambridgeshire to London which sometimes took two hours each way. Now our office is in a rural spot, 20-minutes from home with only combine harvesters likely to delay the run. It’s a joy by comparison. And the flexibility of travelling makes it easy to build in an element of home-working. If a crisis looms, just drop everything and nip over to the office.

    I cannot understand why impoverished farmers don’t release more land for small-scale office and industrial use. The planning system is against it too, obsessed as it is with “sustainable” development. By my understanding, sustainable used to mean having services and amenities available to a population cluster such that it achieved a degree of self-sufficiency. Now, of course, it has all been muddied by climate change, where sustainability is measured by carbon footprints and other dodgy criteria.

    But if that’s the case, small industrial developments stack up nicely – short journeys, lower stress levels, better use of people’s time and more opportunities for home-working.

    For sustainable read “controllable”. Policymakers cannot cope with the thought of dealing with individuals rather than herds.

  9. We cannot let this pass without another stonking great plug for Personal Rapid Transport http://www.atsltd.co.uk/

    Your own pod to whisk you straight to your destination. Low cost, no noise, no smell … it has to be the transport mode of the future.

    Come on, Mayor Boris. Show the world what Britain was made of before cowardly, vision-free governments dragged us into our current state of mediocrity.

  10. An entertaining article as usual and some good points, but I agree with JHL and Ed W. I gave up driving for two hours each way to sit in front of a screen, when I can do exactly the same at home. What do I miss: the sales calls? Nasty coffee? Being able to admire my colleagues? Jams? £25 a day on parking and petrol? Not on your nelly.
    Contrary to reducing productivity, I now work more hours with fewer interruptions. Working from home encourages diverse forms of enterprise and entrepreneurism.

  11. Which brings me to the second big reason why we all commute, when modern technology would easily permit us to stay at home, and that is that working at home is so supremely dispiriting. (Boris)

    Utter tosh!!

    I worked at home for years, writing computer software, and emailing it to my employer.

    Working at home I could concentrate on the job, starting and stopping when I wanted, taking breaks from it as and when I liked, and wearing what I liked. Whenever I had to work in an office doing the same thing, there’d be constant interruptions by phones, other people’s conversations, etc.

    Everybody I knew in the same line of business preferred working at home.

  12. Each to their own, but I wouldn’t want to work from home, and in my experience of people working from home (local government) it is just an excuse to skive off. I’ve done it a couple of times where I had to go out and do some work nearer where I lived than the office. Both times I did about 3 hours work for a 7 hour day.

    I’ve spent time unemployed before, it was tedious, lonley and boring. I imagine working from home would be just the same.

  13. But the obvious answer is a rapid transit system that’s reasonably comfortable, safe, and cheap enough to price many commuter vehicles off the road on workdays. Looks good environmentally and is better for the vast majority. People working from home or not working from home is a rainbow coloured Boris herring.

  14. Working at home I could concentrate on the job, starting and stopping when I wanted, taking breaks from it as and when I liked, and wearing what I liked.

    And having a fag when you liked.

    But I think “utter tosh” is a bit strong, Idlex. Working from home suits some but not others. You need the self-discipline to resist that half-empty bottle on the kitchen worktop and the call of the weeds in the flowerbed.

    I would not recommend home-working to a school or college leaver starting out on a career. The buzz of the office, the human interaction and the infusion of other people’s work culture can be of lasting value.

    Once you’ve experienced office life, home working makes a wonderful change. Thankfully, I now enjoy the merits of both.

  15. I ran my own company working from home for a long time – and everything you say is true, Boris. After the fire of inspiration had worn thin (in which I worked 16 hours a day, racking my brains for fun), it turned into a succession of random web surfings, crosswords, bicycle rides and helping the neighbours with everyday tasks.

    In all of the sardine-tin jostling and rubbishy office politics there is the sense that you are all pulling for something, some energetically and some reluctantly.

    Anyone who doesn’t endure the rigours is not one of the gang, and that includes all the “skivers” sitting about at home. I think there is a lot of status involved. And as we all know, statuz meanz prizez. Low-status people die younger, having spent much of their lives being shat on from greater heights! If only the homeworkers could have a badge proclaiming how valuable they are, so that people envied them and thought them wonderful, it might be different.

  16. PaulD,

    And having a fag when you liked.

    Not necessarily. Your home office is covered by the smoking ban if someone works with you who does not live at that address (e.g. if your accountant comes round regularly), or “if people who do not live at the dwelling come to give or receive goods or services.” So better not have any stationery deliveries from Viking, for instance. (Lights blue touch paper and stands well back.)

    As for the rest of this thread, “it takes all sorts” and “each to their own” seem to be the relevant phrases. As with most things, we don’t need to define any activity or choice as inherently good or bad. We just have to let people make their own choices, and expect them to accept responsibility for those choices. Freedom and responsibility. It’s almost “trusting people and sharing responsibility”, except the responsibility is ours individually, not society’s.

  17. Well, I’m a bit tipsy, and would just like to say this. My PC login went wrong at work on Wednesday morning. I told the manager he needed to phone IT and reset my login, but they didn’t click onto this being the problem for about 4 hours. My login didn’t start working that day, or the first 6 hours of the next day. So I had to go and listen in to some of the ‘top sellers on department’.

    I fell asleep, the top team is run by a bitchy homosexual who managed to purvey his obnoxious attitude to people stupid enough to buy our product throughout his team of one other (slightly younger) bitchy homosexual bloke and a borderline dwarf woman who thumps her hand on the desk when a customer objects to buying something she’s already registered on their account before they agreed.

    I spent ages listening to them both con, trick and scam the ‘customers’ into ‘buying’ (I use the apostrophies because they both word their pitch in such a way the customer doesn’t actaully know they are buying anything) the products and services.

    Then I fell asleep, and got told called into the office and told off for being ‘unprofessional’, coming from a twenty-something idiot who regulary uses the word ‘nigger’ in team meetings.

    You can’t beat being in the office.

  18. Interesting link PaulD. I like this bit:

    < ‘Ed comes from a Labour family. It was the welfare state, created by a Labour government in 1945, which enabled his father – from a widowed family in a working class community – to get a scholarship to University.’<

    It casually forgets to mention that the particular piece of welfare his Father benefitted from, a grant, was abolished by Blair and Brown. What rot anyway. I come for a ‘Labour family’, my Dad votes Labour, his parents always voted Labour. Doesn’t mean I’m ever going to though. I was happy in 1997, at 17 years old, when a beaming Tony Blair was elected on his ‘education, education, education’ mantra. Next thing you knew he’d turned around and decided to charge you £1,000 to go onto higher education and abolished the grant.

  19. Excellent Boris.

    You hit the nail on the head of the futility of offices.

    I SO hope you become Mayor of London and paint the town red; it needs a visionary who has enough balls to turn the tables and you, are thankfully now in our midst.

    Break a leg and all that bollocks!

    a HUGE BO JO fan 😉 xx

  20. Good god, if Boris thinks that the internet doesn’t offer opportunity for intrigue, drama and terror, he really HASN’T been paying attention. I volunteer to give him the five-cent tour any time, provided he brings a signed waiver from his parents.

    Also, a very interesting study came out a few years back from I think it was Harvard but I could be wrong on that. It was funded by a large corporation who wanted to know how much less time its telecommuters were devoting to work than its in-office workers. What they didn’t figure on was that the study actually studied both groups of workers and concluded that they applied themselves to their work for roughly the same amount of time each day. Office workers spent more time reading blogs and gabbing with their cohorts, while telecommuters generally chatted via IM while doing their work. The results were so consistent that they suggest that the amount of work we can get accomplished in a typical day is hardwired, and that we will do it whether or not we’re stuck in the Panopticon of the typical cubicle farm.

  21. Well, Boris just emphasises the idea that most of use need to be watched, and need a bunch of white guys telling us what do to. As an American expat running a very lucrative business from home here in the UK, please, can you back off, Boris?

  22. < ‘The results were so consistent that they suggest that the amount of work we can get accomplished in a typical day is hardwired’ (raincoaster)’<

    Nonsense, it’s all linked to the labour market, employment conditions etc.

  23. Very nicely written as always, but completely wrong on almost every count. The numbers of homeworkers is soaring, all studies show that productivity of homeworkers is higher than those in traditional offices and that they are also happier and healthier and, on the whole, have better life/work balances. The increase in those working from garden offices underlines the fact that they are also greener – your garden office can have a green roof, solar panels, and requires almost no heating. The office is simply not our natural habitat – until the Industrial Revolution the majority of people worked from home and we are now seeing a move away from that factory-based phase. There are so many clichés in this article that it’s impossible to list them all and comment on them – suffice to say that these might be things that you do when working at home, but I think you’d have difficulty finding anybody else who shared these problems. Somebody gave you 4/10 earlier. I’d give you 10 for style, 0 for content since there’s no research whatsover done on the subject.

  24. No, Steven. The amount of work you do for your boss is affected by labour market conditions, particularly whether or not they’ll give you a full-time job (which they generally won’t, in North America), but the amount of work you do isn’t constrained by that. Barring situational or clinical depression, even those who are technically unemployed find useful occupation for between five and six hours every day, which is about the same amount of time that hunter-gatherers spend “working”. And it’s also the amount of useful working time that the Harvard study I mentioned measured.

    People who have jobs where they sit at a desk all day and “do nothing” write a lot of novels, trade a lot of stocks, and read a lot of newspapers. They don’t just stare into space.

  25. It’s Boris’s roundheads and cavaliers again, isn’t it? Most people here (including Boris) are assuming that other people experience the world in the same way that they do. Or the minor variation on that unempathetic delusion – that the average of people’s behaviours or preferences is a useful measure either of what is or what ought to be. Why is it either necessary or useful to make a judgment about how people in general respond to home- or office-working? The truth is that people will respond in different ways. You only need to make judgments about this if you intend to encourage one choice or another. Why would you do that? Laissez-faire, laissez-passer.

  26. Home working is fine for the middle classes that do interesting and creative things with bits of paper and thier brains.

    For saps like me who work in a factory having a part finished unit transported to my home where I take it one step closer to completion then have it transported to the home of the person that does the next bit would never work.

  27. The invention of the computer and the internet means that it’s just as easy to goof off at home as it is at the office.

    People who do work at home end up with a routine.

    Any employer who needs to check what his workers are doing at any one time has no management skills. What he needs to know is how much work comes from the employee. If he doesn’t know that he’s got bigger problems than unsupervised workers.

  28. Of course, we couldn’t have office affairs if we didn’t go to offices…there is that. But far be it from me to be doing the connecting of any dot-like objects.

  29. Enjoyed your perspective Boris – nothing if not entertaining!

    I strongly advocate home working, but also believe that face-to-face time in the office is vital too. I’d hate to drop out of the office banter, sweepstakes, gossip and camaraderie that this environment brings.

    So, my view is that flexible working is about balance – choosing where you work based on what you need to get done on a given day and always ensuring that home time is balanced with quality office time too. I reckon about three days a week in the office, two at home, is about right for most people, in a typical working week.

    If you want to look at a blog debating everything around next-generation working, whether for or against – please feel free to leave your views at http://www.moof.mobi

  30. Sorry to birng in an extra point, but isn’t the idea of “Working from home” that the employee rather than the employer suddenly finds themselves lumbered with the costs of providing a workspace ?

    Sitting at the kitchen table with a PC might be fun for some but most of us would be much happier with a separate space for work. That means that the 2 bed house you were going to buy now needs to be 3 bed to allow for one of them to become an office. With house prices at the current level this isn’t sustainable.

    And no, the emplyeer isn’t going to pay you more if you offer to work from home. Those savings get passed on to…your employer.

  31. I commuted to London for 7 years when I was younger and spent at least 3 hours a day travelling on top of a long day at work but compared to the hours that i work now it was nothing. I now work from home on a full time basis. I am also a full time mother of a 7 year old and a baby. My day starts at 5am when I get up ahead of my family to start clearing my e-mails from my clients. Aftera couple of hours I get myc children up and get them fed and ready for their day. I then walk my son to school and return home to put my baby to bed. I then return to my workstation to contact clients and work as hard as possible whilst my baby sleeps. Once she wakes I continue work while she plays, in between time, having to feed and change her. The next thing is the school run again. Out again walking with the pram. On returning home I am back at my workstation whilst also preparing a meal for my children. It is then bath and bed time. Once the children are in bed I will continue working until my desk is clear . I will then sit down at about 10pm when my husband returns from work. This happens every day- can Mr Johnson claim to be so busy himself. Home working full of apoathy and sloth, I don’t think so. I challenge him to work so hard!

  32. The argument doesn’t make much sense. Firstly it is a fact that more people are working at home – at least part time, and secondly, if as Boris suggests, more people are now travelling into work than before, it can hardly be because they used to work at home, and are now choosing to commute, but for some other reason – for example that there has been an increase in the number of jobs in London. However, why more people don’t work at home is puzzling – unless their homes are not large enough to contain a place to work undisturbed.

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