Should we all just stay in bed?

NASA is paying guinea pigs to work from their bed – but how productive can we be outside of the office? Melissa York investigates the pros and cons of homeworking

THIS week, US space agency NASA announced it was looking for regular guys like you and me to join a special project. Hold on before you get too excited, though – the job doesn’t involve you leaving earth.

It doesn’t even involve you leaving your bed.

Scientists are offering £11,000 to healthy individuals willing to lie in a bed tilted at a six-degree angle for 70 days to study the effects of microgravity on the body, to help astronauts prepare for long-duration space flight.

Bed-bound space researchers are allowed to read books, mess about on their iPads, do Sudokus, eat until their eyes fall out, or work remotely as long as they never leave the comfy confines of their duvet dungeon.

Sounds like the best workplace in the world, doesn’t it?

Some employers clearly think so – the number of homeworkers in the UK has shot up, according to the Office for National Statistics. Figures for 2012 show that around 3.8m workers in the UK sometimes work from home out of a total workforce of 29.2m people – that’s just over 13 per cent or about one in every eight of us.

BT was one of the early pioneers of remote working after it established a “teleworking scheme” in 1986, allowing employees with certain job roles to choose to work from home.

The company employs around 73,200 people in the UK and 7,400 of these are classed as homeworkers.

BT says every homeworker saves them £6,000 a year, they are 20 per cent more productive, they take fewer sick days, and flexible working encourages 98 per cent of staff on maternity leave to come back to their jobs, compared to the private sector average of 85 per cent.

David Dunbar, general manager of BT Flexible Working Services, says:

“For BT, flexible working is an important business enabler – we find it can increase productivity, cost efficiency, motivates our people and releases more potential for our customers, as well as delivering significant accommodation cost savings.

“We also find that agile working policies can achieve a better balance between work and family commitments. That’s important to everyone, not just those with young families or caring responsibilities.”

Working from home also depends on what the day job is exactly.

HSBC cashiers and call centre staff may have to trudge their way into work but 15,000 of the bank’s 35,000 UK staff can work from home if they choose.

HSBC spokesman Mark Hemingway says: “For all admin work we do actively organise it so that people can work from home.”

This may involve some companies investing in laptops or smart phones for their staff in the hope it will reap the rewards through better staff morale and lower rates of absenteeism.

There’s even a Telework Association, which has a volunteer board of directors that dishes out advice to homeworkers. Shirley Borrett, development director for the Association, says in-house research has shown “almost all homeworkers get more done.”

She adds: “Most people want to do a good job and if managers trust them and manage people by what they do rather than how long they’re present, then productivity increases and everyone benefits.

“There have been reports about people like midwives, emergency services and even retail workers who can’t work from home.

“But if more people who can do it did so, then midwives and others would have much less trouble getting into work.”

But not everyone believes working from home yields the best results.

Back in those hazy days leading up to the London Olympic Games, ministers were recommending people work from home instead of commuting into the City to avoid unnecessary congestion.

Boris Johnson was having none of it, branding the proposed situation “a skiver’s paradise”.

The Mayor of London joked: “We all know [homeworking] is basically sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again.”

Similarly, when Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pinchette, was asked how many of his employees work from home, he replied “as few as possible”.

A leaked memo from another Silicon Valley giant Yahoo! in February this year banned its staff from working from home.

The head of human resources, Jackie Rees, explained to her fellow “Yahoos”: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.

“That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

In response, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson called Yahoo!’s decision “perplexing” and “a backwards step” on his blog.

So it seems that NASA’s offer would only be possible if homeworking tickled your particular employer’s fancy. But what advantages would working from bed hold for the employee?

The National Careers Service says the benefits of working from home gives you greater choice over the hours you work. It allows you to pick up the kids from school; frees up time and money spent on travelling; lets you avoid the stressful commute (and that guy who’s constantly asking if he can “borrow” a tea bag).

Drawbacks of homeworking, according to the NCS, also include missing out on in-house training, sacrificing your living space and not knowing where work ends and home-life begins. If you’re using a personal laptop for processing sensitive work data, you’re also at greater risk of catching a virus or being hacked into.

As I type, part of me wished I were tucked up in my bed with a steaming bowl of soup. But then again, as Google’s Pinchette says: “There is something magical about sharing meals... about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer, ‘What do you think of this?’”