It’s time for governments to take the lead in helping people work at home

In 1983 I attended a product introduction for Ottawa-based Mitel’s Kontact “”executive workstation,”” which was really an integrated desktop workstation with two telephone lines, personal contact directory management, un-hosted point-to-point e-mail, agenda/calendar, word processing and much more.

I pointed out that it was really a home workstation, because if you put one of them in 10 people’s homes and gave one of them a MicroVAX minicomputer you had an instant decentralized company — out of the box. Today we would call it a “”virtual corporation.”” System integration for this company involved merely plugging standard telephone jacks into the wall and into the Kontact. I ran a company, called PTC, which sold this equipment into the home workplace market both here and in southern California, until British Telecom bought Mitel and decided it should only make PBXs. In an act reminiscent of the destruction of the Avro CF-105 Arrow, they took all of the Kontacts out of the factory in Renfrew and drove bulldozers over them. So ended the career of what was then the finest home workstation in the world; even today there is no desktop product with the same degree of computer-telephony integration. True, the Kontact had a proprietary operating system (Stu) and while they added on CP/M when we also called for MS-DOS, they were out of budget. However, Mitel had already given us a contract to help plan a 32-bit Unix-based successor, but it, too, fell victim to the BT accountants.

This bit of history is particularly tragic for Canada’s public sector because rather than running cutesy commercials with young actors imploring us to “”take the one-ton challenge”” for the Kyoto Accord, the governments of this country should be leading by example. In other words, they should be exploiting the environmental, energy and economic benefits of the home workplace.

Like many countries, Canada is now facing the challenges of economic re-orientation, the need for sane energy management and increasing environmental decay. However, we also have a very special opportunity, one not as readily available to most other Western democracies. Our great expanse of land, once seen as a barrier and a handicap, could now prove to be our greatest advantage. Now that microelectronics technology has made information the raw material of work for most of us, there is no particular need for many of us to travel to the office each day. The home workplace will not detach the individual from the organization either in the formal or the informal sense. Nor will it create a new isolation. Even the single person living on a homestead 80 km from the city will have a wider range of recreational and cultural opportunities than he or she would now even if living in a downtown apartment.

Keep HR out of it

Unfortunately, since the demise of Kontact, both large private sector corporations and governments have been wandering in the wilderness when it comes to teleworking. Some years ago, a few well-placed individuals (wrongly) convinced corporate America that telecommuting was mostly a human resources issue, which it decidedly is not. A successful home workplace project must balance four factors: workflow, human factors, technology and logistics. When any one of these four dominates the others, you have a formula for a lacklustre trial, if not an outright disaster – and those who observe the telecommuting sector have seen plenty of both. While many millions today work full-time or part-time from home, the vast majority of them are in small and medium businesses and in the new virtual corporations that have used the home workplace from the outset. That is precisely because in larger organizations HR has unduly dominated, and in many cases spoiled, telecommuting trials.

It is time for all governments in Canada to lead by example, in order to make the home workplace a priority. At the federal level that means taking responsibility for it away from the Public Service Commission (the HR branch of government) and also reducing the role of Treasury Board in technology management. For provincial governments, it means giving companies economic incentives to proactively support the home workplace. For municipal governments it means changing zoning laws so that home-based businesses are not zoned or taxed as if they were in industrial parks.

Daniel R. Perley is an Ottawa-based advanced technology executive who has also worked as a senior bureaucrat. E-mail him at

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