Telework “with a new twist” making a huge comeback in Canada

It’s the ’70s all over again.

This time around, soaring fuel costs and grid lock traffic are driving Canadians to review their work-style options, and – not surprisingly – many are choosing to telecommute…when they have the choice, that is.

Until this year’s spike in gas prices, the notion that telework really doesn’t work was quite prevalent.

A couple of years ago, Svein Bergum, a researcher with the Eastern Norway Research Institute in Lillehammer actually asked his colleagues around the world that tough question: has telework failed?

A quarter of the 31 researchers Bergum polled – all of whom study telework – believed the concept had not delivered, while a greater number thought it just wasn’t being talked about a whole lot.

But that picture is fast changing – in Canada’s IT sector at least.

Telecommuting is not only being talked about more, some tech industry observers say the idea is making a comeback, but with a new twist.

“In the past, employers were the ones advocating telework,” noted Diane Horton, human capital management leader and resident telework expert at IBM Canada. “Today the pressure is coming from employees.”

She said developments in Web-based technology, a new understanding of telework dynamics, and shifts in workforce demographics are conspiring to boost the trend even further.

But it’s the price of gas that’s making all the headlines.

For example in a recent survey of U.S. drivers, Big Blue found out workers are fed up with longer commutes, increased pollution, and higher fuel prices.

Forty-six per cent of respondents to IBM’s Commuter Pain Survey conducted in May said $4.50 per gallon of gas is the break point at which they would seek alternatives to driving

About 27 per cent of the respondents said there were times when they “turned around and gone home” because of traffic congestion.

One out of three of the respondents want their employer to provide the option of working from home.

The study polled 4,000 drivers in 10 U.S. cities – but its results reflect realities in Canadian cities as well, said Horton.

Some three years ago, IBM developed Mobility@Work, a consultancy service designed to help businesses develop telework strategies for their company, including appropriate technologies.

The program was launched when the need for people able to work remotely was particularly acute – as a result of events such Toronto’s SARS crisis.

Horton said that back in 2005, she and her colleagues normally received three to four calls a year from clients inquiring about telework. This year that number has gone up to 10 and 2009 is still five months away.

Big Blue is a pioneer in the area telework – and internally has implemented the concept very successfully, as one Canadian expert points out.

IBM had just around 10 teleworkers in Canada in the 1980s. But today the company has about 5,000 teleworkers, noted Roberta Fox, principal of consultancy firm Fox Group Consulting in Mount Albert, Ont.

The consulting firm has a division that specializes in providing telework advice and services to clients.

Fox noted that IBM later worked with Bell and Hewlett-Packard in the 1990s to exchange information on telework and develop telecommuting best practices.

Corporate interest in telework, Fox said, appears to come and go.

“Telework has waxed and waned over the years, appearing to be driven by tech trends and market realities.”

The analyst said the crippling fuel crisis in the 1970s gave rise to the notion of working from home, and probably the emergence of the word telecommuting.

The trend peaked in the 1980s when skyrocketing real estate costs began hammering companies that maintained offices in skyscrapers in the downtown core of most cities.

Armies of workers converted closet spaces and basements into home offices and laptop lugging road warriors took toiled in the netherworld world between office and home throughout the 1990s.

But somehow their numbers diminished around 2000 and 2004 as employees soon exhibited a resistance to the work-from-home notion, Fox said. It was a phase of disillusionment with the concept.

There was a sudden belief that somehow teleworkers didn’t have the same opportunities as regular workers.

Many teleworkers felt “isolated” and “burned out”, according to surveys conducted by the Fox Group. On the other hand, other studies indicated teleworkers also started incurring the ire of their office-bound colleagues.

The company found people were being given the technologies to work from home, but not the training, coping skills, and support necessary to deal with the altered work environment.

Studies done determined that providing workers with the technology to telework isn’t enough. Other things were needed for the success of such programs.

Some teleworkers needed opportunities for interaction with colleagues. In some instances access to supplies and courier services were needed, as well as opportunities for career advancement.

These days when gas prices are once more on an upwards swing, Fox expects teleworking to become more popular.

Recent surveys indicate anywhere from 2 to 2.5 million Canadians work from home at least one to two days a week. Actual teleworkers in the country could number around 800,000, said Fox.

A host of other factors are driving adoption.

For example, today new technologies — including a host of Web-based applications, and hardware – enhance connectivity and collaboration between remote locations and the head office.

Connectivity via mobile devices has also increased tremendously.

Changing demographics is also pushing telework, Fox said.

Gen Y employees are entering the workforce in large numbers – “tech-savvy individuals who are only too willing to extend the boundaries of the office.”

In addition, retiring baby boomers, who are not yet ready to throw in the towel, continue to work from home in a part-time capacity.

Horton of IBM agrees.

In the past, she said, it was figures that showed a 15 to 30 per cent increase in teleworker productivity, and 25 per cent reduction in real estate costs that got the employers interested.

Today, she said, employers are supporting telework because the millennials are demanding it – and any company that wants to retain top talent needs to offer that option.

However, telework is not for everyone, Fox says. Managers must consider each employee’s aptitude, work habits and temperament to determine if a telework arrangement will benefit the worker.

Fox cites herself and her husband as examples: “My husband is naturally reserved. You would think he would be a natural teleworker, but he actually yearns for more co-worker contact and finds it difficult to be isolated for long stretches of time.”

Fox on the other hand, is a more outgoing person. “But I need to be by myself in order to concentrate on my work. So teleworking suits me fine.”

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