Finding flexibility: the pros and cons of telework

A U.K. study found that small businesses are loathe to embrace working at home – and may be missing out on productivity benefits. But is the same thing happening in Canada?

The survey was sponsored by Citrix, which makes remote access technology. Citrix claims the survey results show that SMBs are paying lip service to the flexible working concept.

In Canada, larger employers have deeper pockets, and some have formal teleworking programs in place, said Bob Fortier, president of InnoVisions Canada. Smaller businesses tend to have more informal teleworking arrangements in place, if at all, since developing a program takes time and an upfront investment.

But the number of Canadian teleworkers is on the rise. “We have the technology now that enables us as Canadians to conduct more of the types of transactions that used to require face to face,” he said. Home offices are becoming increasingly sophisticated and Canadians have access to high broadband penetration.

Many SMBs are already offering flexible work arrangements at a managerial level, where an employee might ask the boss to work from home on Mondays (which eventually morphs into every Monday). “It’s between the boss and the employee,” said Fortier. “There’s a lot of informal telework that’s going on.”

At Fox Group Consulting, based in rural Ontario, all employees are distributed and virtual. “We come together at the beginning of a project or to launch a project,” said Roberta Fox, president and senior partner of Fox Group Consulting. She’s also a director of the Canadian Telework Association.

“SMBs that understand the power of technology are just as good or sometimes better than enterprise customers because we have flexibility,” she said. “I can roll something out to 14 people much faster [than a larger enterprise].”

Some small businesses, however, may not be geared toward remote access technology. A construction company, for example, would be more dependent on mobile technology and wireless access than providing access to central servers.

Telework is dependent upon the employee’s role within the company and how automated that role already is, said Fox. In some cases, it may be a case of retaining current employees by allowing them to work from home on occasion or offering flex hours.

Some companies, like IBM and HP, have well-defined telework programs, which have policies about covering costs, facilities guidelines, and health and safety guidelines. Other companies do it on an ad hoc basis; when they have a problem, that’s when they’ll worry about developing policies.

In the U.K. and Ireland, the culture is more authoritarian, said Fox. “Our culture is not generally authoritarian first, it’s more accepting first, so I think that has a lot to do with what their view is,” she said of the U.K. survey results. The differences in business management culture would make the U.K. perspective not entirely relevant to Canada, she added.

But the barriers that existed in telework 10 years ago are still the same, said Fortier. The biggest barrier is management resistance where you have “managers from the Jurassic era who prefer to have the troops circle the wagons or who have attitudes that are overly prudent,” he said. In other cases, they have misconceptions about what off-site work means. These managers haven’t learned how to do telework properly or compared the costs and benefits.

In years past, providing technology to support home workers – such as provisioning laptops and creating virtual private networks – tended to lie in the domain of larger enterprises, said Darin Stahl, research lead with Info-Tech Research Group, based in Waterloo, Ont..

In smaller businesses, teleworking was typically offered to two or three key mobile salespeople, and even then they didn’t have full access to back-end systems.
“We’re seeing a real change in the technology,” said Stahl. In survey data for 2007, Info-Tech found there would be a 29 per cent increase in spending on mobile technology by companies with an employee count of 1-100. For those with more than 500 employees, that number jumped to 40 per cent.

“There’s a growing notion that you’ve got to have the right tools in place in order to make this work,” said Stahl. “Then the challenge becomes, what about the people and processes?” And that, he said, is where adoption is slow.

In a small business, one person might be wearing many hats – and if those hats are not physically in the office for part of the week, that could affect business processes. “There are ways around that,” he said, “but it takes some significant changes with the way that companies organize themselves to support those teleworkers.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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