Telework pilot cruises along at Ontario Central Agencies Cluster

Around five years ago, the very prospect of staff from Ontario’s Central Agencies I & IT Cluster (CAC) ever working from home would be considered preposterous.

In fact suggestions to that effect made during CAC open forums or Town Hall meetings were usually met with snickers, recalls David Webb, service manager, CAC.

Webb was describing CAC’s telework journey during a presentation at the Showcase Ontario Conference in Toronto last week.</pSEE VIDEO: CAC’S TELEWORK JOURNEY

Five years ago, such skepticism about the viability of a CAC telework project was understandable.

One of eight clusters serving the information technology (IT) needs of ministries and agencies across the Ontario Public Service (OPS), CAC has a pretty high-profile clientele.

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With about 200 staff attached to offices in Toronto and Oshawa, the Cluster’s customers include the Ontario Premier’s office, the Lieutenant-Governor, and the Cabinet office – as well as the Ministries of Finance, Revenue, and Energy & Infrastructure.

“They’re a pretty demanding crowd,” Webb noted. “We can’t make any mistakes in the services we deliver.”

And that possibly explained the apprehension – at the time – about a telework initiative.

After all, wouldn’t work-at-home employees automatically compromise the quality of services CAC is able to its high-powered clients? For a while, at least, this appeared to be the unspoken assumption.

Fast-forward five years … to today.

A telework pilot takes off

The CAC is already four months into its telework “proof-of-concept” pilot, and, in retrospect, many of those misgivings seem unfounded.

Managers, said Webb, are reporting no issues. “Performance is same or better; availability [of their reports] is same or better.” He said many managers are using the term “seamless” to describe the transition.

“Basically, people went from working in the traditional office to working in their home office, without their managers sensing any change in their availability or communication. So that’s very positive.”

Teleworkers, who don’t face as many distractions and interruptions at home, are reporting improved productivity. “As they aren’t moving as much between boardrooms, they’re more available for work,” Webb said. “They’ve also slashed their expenses significantly. They’re spending less on things like gas, parking, lunches and laundry.”

The pilot seems to be cruising along very nicely. But a lot of things had to happen – over the past five years – to even get it off the ground.

It was a confluence of factors that made it all come together, say Webb and others spearheading the intiative.

For one, requests for an employee telework program kept cropping up at virtually every Cluster meeting. The issue also figured repeatedly in employee surveys, noted Webb.

To top it all, the Ontario Public Service’s (OPS) HR Strategy was unveiled and testing out flexible work programs was a key pillar of that strategy. “So we decided to take a hard look at [telework] and see if it would work for us.”

The proof-of-concept pilot was launched in March this year.  Its goal: to transform CAC into an organization capable of location-independent work.

Improved employee relations, recruitment and retention was yet another goal, as was “greening” of the OPS through reduced travel and printing. Fewer commutes and cutting down on dedicated office space, it was believed, would sharply reduce both staff and organizational expenses.

But all this had to be accomplished without affecting CAC’s availability to its clients.  

Another consideration was to get the pilot to function effectively within CAC’s specific context – a highly unionized environment.

CAC employees are affiliated with various advocacy groups, such as OPSEU (the Ontario Public Service Employees Union) and AMAPCEO (the Association of Management and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario).

“We had their bargaining agents on board with us,” Webb noted. He said the agents were also excited about the pilot as their membership clearly wanted it.

All aboard

Participation in the proof-of-concept, was “entirely voluntary”, Webb emphasized.

He said a call for potential participants was sent to everyone in the cluster. “No one was excluded – it went right from the CIO, down through the ranks of our technical folk, admin folk, managers and directors.”

All these groups, he said, are represented in the proof of concept.

Ultimately, 20 individuals (10 per cent of the CAC staff) were selected for the pilot. Participants include a director, several managers, and members from the two unions – OPSEU and AMAPCEO. “It’s a fairly good test bed.”

Selection criteria were open and unambiguous, Webb said. Participants needed to be:

  • Working at their job for six months or more
  • Have no need for daily interaction with their clients
  • Capable of accessing from home all the tools needed to do their job effectively – such as files and e-mail

In addition their manager would have to approve. The work arrangement for the pilot is: three days at home, two days in the office.

The pilot doesn’t involve use of any special equipment or tools. “Right of the bat we decided that people would be provided with standard IT equipment,” Webb said. So tools provided to teleworkers include: a standard notebook, a standard virtual private network (VPN), a phone at their desk at home  that can connect to their office phone. 

No printers were provided, but this didn’t affect the effectiveness of the teleworkers. Webb who teleworks himself, recalled how he discovered he could manage just fine without printers. “I did a recruitment during which I had to read 400 résumés – all in PDF format. But I managed to do that without printing them off and managed to hire that way.”

The good, the bad and the ugly

The impact of the telework pilot, so far, goes beyond tangible results – such as improved productivity and cost savings.

There are other benefits, Webb suggested, that are more difficult to quantify.

“People are saying: I feel better about being an OPS employee, because my employer trusts me and has given me this opportunity.”

But there are some less savoury aspects to the pilot as well.

For instance, though there aren’t any show-stopping tech problems, Webb noted some issues with the current teleconferencing set up.

“Not all the boardrooms are wired properly, which is a challenge as most of the meetings we have with teleworkers are via teleconference.”

He said work-at-home employees, on their part, aren’t completely comfortable with teleconferencing and need to hone their skills in this regard.

“There’s a lot of rustling of papers over the microphone, conferences not being set up or materials not being sent. The thing is people aren’t yet used to it yet.”

Webb believes there’s also a need to introduce videoconferencing. “With video teleconferences, you can see people’s facial expressions – and communications would definitely be enhanced.”

Yet another challenge is that participants in the telework pilot sometimes have a hard time separating their work from their life.

At 5:30 pm when, typically they might just be getting up from their desk at the office, at home it may be a different story, Webb noted. “They may continue to work, sending out one more e-mail, or putting finishing touches on a document.”

Bottomline: People have to develop strategies to finish the day.

He said there’s also sometimes a feeling of social loss that some employees have to grapple with. “I feel this myself sometimes – I’m a social guy, and would chat at the water cooler. When I’m at home, my wife’s there … I love her to death, but also like to talk to someone else once in a while.”

The loneliness of the long-distance worker

Experts in alternative workstyles say such a feeling social isolation is normal – and one of the phases most teleworkers would go through.

Roberta Fox, a board member of the Canadian Telework Association has had a lot of experience guiding firms in launching alternative workstyles programs.

Fox, who is also president and senior partner, at Fox Group consulting identifies six phases of teleworking.  She says many long-time teleworkers her company has interacted with have gone through these phases.

They are:
One: I’m really excited about being able to work from home.
Two: Freedom! I have fewer distractions, more flexibility, a greater sense of accomplishment.
Three: Unfortunately a lot people – myself included – became telework junkies or teleworkaholics, and lost some of our work-life balance.
Four: Possible burn out and frustration.
Five: Lonely and isolated from co-workers and company.
Six: Final adjustment, after you’ve re-evaluated your reasons – individually and organizationally – for becoming a teleworker.

The process of moving from phase one to six may take around two years, Fox said.

On his part, Webb said he ensures he does all the social things he needs to the two days that he’s in the office. “I schedule team meetings to make sure I’m face-to-face [with co-workers] twice a week.”

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