Telework pilot heartily embraced by Ontario public service staff

When Carrie Burns-Solitar invited her colleagues to apply for 20 available spots in a telecommuting pilot, 66 wanted the chance to work while wearing a bathrobe and flannel pants.

It was a high-interest response from an office of 400 workers, says the collaboration manager at the Children, Youth and Social Services I & IT cluster in the Ontario government. Employee surveys had shown there was demand for working from home and a six-month trial period to do just that was embraced by staff.

At the public service, they call it “teleworking.”

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“What teleworking means for us is working from home three days a week, in the office two days a week,” Burns-Solitar explains. “Our research shows that’s best for the employee and the employer as well.”

At Showcase Ontario, a Toronto-based provincial government conference, on Sept. 21 it seemed that teleworking was a big theme on the show floor. Public sector offices were sharing their experiences and vendors were demonstrating products to make teleworking better and more convenient.

Tandberg, a Norwegian videoconferencing vendor, was among them. Recently acquired by Cisco in a $3 billion deal, the company was pitching products for a range of situations. Tandberg’s products range from a piece of software to use on your laptop to conduct videoconferencing, to a voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone with video, to conference room multi-camera link ups.

Video is the next step for teleworking. More affordable products may soon make video even more popular, says Dave Nash, senior account manager at Tandberg.

Today’s products go beyond providing a board room environment for video conferencing, he says. “You can have a meeting room with 10 people connecting to these video phones and soft phones on laptops in home offices.”

For now, video won’t be part of the teleworking plan for Burns-Solitar’s office. The manager narrowed the field by rejecting candidates who didn’t have their boss’s approval, or didn’t meet other criteria. Then listed of the candidates based upon where they lived — from those who lived furthest away from the office to those who lived closer..

The 20 lucky teleworkers each were given a laptop and a mobile device – either a BlackBerry or a traditional cell phone – to stay connected.

Burns-Solitar will be staying in the office for now.

“I didn’t think it was fair to include myself in the mix this time,” she says. “I wanted to offer it to as many other interested people as possible.”

The trend of mobile working could explain rising laptop sales in recent years. For instance, a spokesperson from computer manufacturer Lenovo, who made a presentation at the conference noted that in 2000 desktops outsold laptops three to one. Now the ratio of desktop to laptop sales is around one-to-one.

Many of the old barriers to a government agency adopting mobile computing have been overcome, says Peter Hortensius, senior vice-president of Notebook Business, Lenovo Worldwide.

Biometrics allows workers to easily access information that is encrypted to prevent leaks. This is even better than putting a password protection on documents.

“I can’t give my fingerprint to a coworker for convenience,” he says. “I have to be there.”

If a laptop is stolen or goes missing, the data can at least be wiped remotely to avoid “exposure and significant embarrassment,” he adds.

With laptops and smartphones becoming standard equipment issued to telecommuting employees, video gear might not be much behind. Tandberg offers appliances and phones that could be installed in a home office.

Tandberg’s Nash uses one himself to save the brutal rush-hour commute across Toronto. Using video to stay in touch with colleagues around the world has its advantages, he says.

“The power of video on top of your normal telework environment — where it’s just e-mail and the telephone — is body language,” he says. “I can truly see if you can understand what I’m saying, because you’re nodding. You would lose that if you didn’t have video.”

The Children, Youth and Social Services cluster will be evaluating its program by doing a survey of the teleworkers, their managers and colleagues.

“With some key questions such as how absenteeism, productivity, and staff morale have changed,” Burns-Solitar says. “Based on the answers to those surveys, we’ll determine whether or not the telework pilot has been a success.”

If it is a success, then maybe some more of those 66 applicants will get a chance to work from home in their pajamas – so long as they’re not videoconferencing, of course.

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