In Switzerland, as in other developed countries, advancing technology is increasing the opportunities for working from home. However, Swiss companies and employees have been slow to take up the opportunity.
Only an estimated 25,000 people in Switzerland - or less than one percent of the workforce - come under the category of "telecommuters".
To address some of the open questions relating to telecommuting, businessmen, academics and government officials have been meeting in Bern for a one-day event organised by the Science and Technology Council's Centre for Technological Assessment.
The centre's own research on this new mode of working found that one of the main problems is that companies feel unable to monitor their employees.
"A major reason why the phenomenon has not caught on as fast as expected factor is the lack of trust on behalf of company management," the centre's director, Sergio Belluci, explained.
"They think workers cannot be relied on to work as efficiently at home. But, actually a study in Germany found that it's really a psychological barrier and that actually employees at home were more motivated and worked much harder."
In the most basic terms, all one needs is a computer with Internet connection, an e-mail address and possibly a fax machine. But the fact that it is possible does not necessarily make it desirable.
On the one hand telecommuting can open up new possibilities to parents wishing to balance their family and professional lives, but it can also increasingly confine young parents to the home.
The Centre for Technology Assessment says the impact of telecommuting can vary a lot depending on the type of job being done. Within Switzerland, men and women working from home are generally doing very different jobs.
Many men are often in the software business or in predominantly high-level jobs, while women tend to be employed in less challenging jobs, and loneliness can set it.
"Often the women are less qualified and do routine typographical jobs, for instance," said Lucienne Rey, the woman who headed the research by the Centre for Technology Assessment.
"Men, however, are in more managerial roles. They have to communicate more with their colleagues or subordinates and are therefore less in danger of feeling isolated than the women are," she said.
To counter such feelings, Rey says projects encouraging face-to-face meetings with employers on a weekly basis need to be instituted.
She is generally positive about the potential impact of telecommuting. At a national level, she says it could help rural areas hold onto qualified people who would usually head for the big cities when looking for jobs.
Working from home can be a highly cost-effective option for companies - they can save on rent, and office infrastructure. It can also be extremely effective for parents wanting to spend less time commuting and more time at home with their children.
Long train rides or hours stuck in snarled traffic during rush hour often make it tempting to imagine what it would be like not to have to waste precious time commuting and to have an office in the comfort of one's own home.
However, it does take discipline on behalf of the employee, and if women make their home their office, it can mean having to do both housework and paid work.
Bellucci maintains that for gender equality to truly take a step forward, it would be best for employees not to work full-time from home.
"I think that in the future, it would be best for both men and women to work from home part of the time. Perhaps a combination of a couple of days at the office, and the rest at home."
Martin Fuhrer, a software engineer who works from his home in Bern, is very positive about the experience. He and his three partners all work from home, meaning they can save on office rent and work when it suits them.
"When you're designing software an idea can come to you even at 2am in the morning," he says. "If you have your office at home, you can get up and do your work at any time of the night even - it's ideal for your creativity."
by Juliet Linley
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