On 10 January 1994, Lord Birdwood (Conservative) opened a short debate on a motion about the “critical importance to employment, productivity and quality of life of the growth of flexible working”.[1] In his introductory remarks, Lord Birdwood explained that flexible working, “sometimes known as teleworking”, started as a “person working remotely, from home, using a telephone”. He added:

[…] it got started around 1967 with a company called F International. Since then the practice has become more sophisticated, and while the option of working from home remains, advances in electronics make it possible for people to work together as teams from cars, from hotel rooms, satellite offices, or purpose-built telecentres. And suddenly the whole world has become one person’s ‘office’.

The phrase ‘teleworking’ was first used in the Times in 1984,[2] albeit a fleeting mention in an extract from Norman Macrae’s book which predicts a world in 2024 where “most people no longer travel to the office but telecommute via personal computer terminals from homes in equatorial sunbelt countries, or wherever they want”.[3] This followed other such futurist works, such as Alvin Toffler’s ‘The Third Wave’, published in 1980, that envisioned a new post-industrial economy of telecommuter homeworkers, which he called “the electronic cottage”.[4] Press articles reporting the potential benefits and pitfalls of teleworking followed over the next decade.[5]

1. “Many jobs could be done anywhere”

Against this background, Lord Birdwood opened his remarks by commenting that technology’s impact had already been “tremendous”.[6] He noted:

One in three households now houses a computer and six in 10 people use information technology as a standard part of their work. Whereas physical presence is really essential for many kinds of work, it is not when the main medium for communication is data down a wire. Thus many jobs could be done anywhere; they are independent of location.

He identified several broad benefits of flexible working. The first was the impact on transport policy, which he said was “self-evident and potentially enormous”. He also thought through flexible working “important barriers are removed for people who find travel difficult”. Lord Birdwood foresaw economic productivity gains too. He concluded by urging:

[…] departments of state to coordinate their respective interests […] accompanied by a review of the legal and financial disincentives to flexible work. After all, the government are well placed to show the way in their own huge workforce.

Contributors considered flexible working in a broader framework. For example, Lord Desai (Labour) thought “one aspect of creating new working practices is to consider work as a flexible experience over a person’s life cycle”.[7] He argued people needed to “remain active throughout their life cycles, whether that involves working, retraining or obtaining new skills, and occasionally perhaps taking a holiday as and when they wish”. Lord Dahrendorf (Liberal Democrat) echoed this, saying:

It would be a great step forward if we were able to use modern technology, as well as our social and organisational imagination, to interweave work and life much more than has been the case for an important century in the history of mankind, if not more.[8]

He pointed out, however, it could only “come about if one achieves something which is rather complicated; namely, matching individual wishes and organisational needs. That is not an easy thing to do”. He thought that was:

[…] particularly true in the area of public services, where the rest of the population rightly expect certain services at certain times and where matching that expectation […] can be exceedingly difficult.

He said he was also concerned about the implications of flexible working on casual working, fearing a consequential rise.

Lord Rix (Crossbench) reflected on the implications for disabled people. He argued:

Technology has shut some employment doors, but it can open far more that were formerly bolted [and] barred by problems—some imagined, some real—posed by travel, access, disability and, above all, prejudice.[9]

The Earl of Liverpool (Conservative) thought there were prospects for raising regional employment, saying:

If companies can fully grasp the concept of ‘outsourcing’ and become comfortable with the idea that much of their in-house work can be done remotely from the office, then there is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of benefits. It can bring employment back to the regions.[10]

Lord Rochester (Liberal Democrat) noted its significance given demographic changes with more of the workforce having caring responsibilities.[11]

2. “How best to use the working day”

Viscount Torrington (Conservative) observed that flexible working could not be for everyone:

Until someone comes up with ‘beam me up Scotty’ technology—perish the thought—it is most unlikely that the car worker will be able to take his work home or the fisherman to fish from his sitting room. Equally, there will never be a substitute for the face-to-face meeting in business.[12]

Nevertheless, he said the debate was one about “how best to use the working day” and he hoped remote flexible working would continue to be encouraged. He concluded:

The environmental effects of eliminating commuting alone would be of massive benefit to society. But increased productivity, reduced stress and improved lifestyle are the ultimate benefits of flexible working for the workforce.

In contrast, Baroness Turner of Camden (Labour) voiced concerns about employment policy generally, concluding her remarks by saying:

[…] there could be great benefits for all in greater flexibility, but it must be undertaken in an environment in which there is voluntary agreement, rather than one in which people are compelled to accept the only kind of employment available, without regulation and without employment protection, because that is all there is.[13]

3. Not “some magic wand”

In reply, Lord Henley, parliamentary under secretary of state at the then Department of Employment, said the government was committed to “creating a flexible, efficient and competitive labour market”.[14] He said that employers and individuals were best placed to “decide which working patterns and employment relationships suit their needs and circumstances”. In response to concerns around compulsion, he thought such arrangements “can be beneficial to both sides and not a mere matter of beneficence from on high to the employer. There are benefits to the employee as well”. However, he thought technological changes like flexible working “must be looked at most carefully”, adding:

I do not believe that we should immediately assume that all of them, like some magic wand, will solve all the problems which noble Lords have put forward. They will not necessarily solve all the traffic problems […] or the problems of pollution.

Lord Henley went on to observe that “obviously, many jobs could be done by means of teleworking”. Turning to the work of the House, he commented:

I look with somewhat mixed feelings at a future when debates in this House are conducted by means of a video-link. I trust that at least one member of the usual channels will take on board my desire that debates in this House will continue to take place in this House rather than by means of some advanced form of teleworking.

Cover image via Wikimedia.


  1. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, cols 35–9. Return to text
  2. Norman Macrae, ‘The life-swapping path to happiness’, Times, 5 September 1984. Return to text
  3. Norman Macrae, ‘The 2024 Report: A Concise History of the Future 1974–2024’, 1984. Return to text
  4. Alvin Toffler, ‘The Third Wave’, 1980, pp 210–16. Return to text
  5. For example: Brian Groom, ‘Loneliness of the long-distance programmers’, Financial Times, 28 April 1984; Tim Jones, ‘When the office is at home’, Times, 15 September 1988; Peter Large, ‘Hope of 800 jobs from teleworking’, Guardian, 21 March 1989; Leslie Tilley, ‘Phone home for work’, Times, 22 June 1989; and David Hewson, ‘Teleworking is still a commuter’s dream’, Times, 30 July 1993. Return to text
  6. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, col 36. Return to text
  7. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, cols 39–41. Return to text
  8. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, cols 41–3. Return to text
  9. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, col 46. Return to text
  10. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, col 48. Return to text
  11. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, col 51. Return to text
  12. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, cols 44–5. Return to text
  13. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, col 56. Return to text
  14. HL Hansard, 10 January 1994, cols 56–9. Return to text