Sharp rise in telecommuting as Canadian firms strive to cut costs

Changing employer and employee needs have triggered a sharp growth in Canada’s “virtual work force” (Canadians who work from home, or from third-party locations such as an alternate office, a customer site, a coffee shop or library).

Today 10 per cent of Canada’s labour force – or 2.5 million people – work outside the office at least one day a week, says Roberta Fox, a board member of the Canadian Telework Association. Fox is also president and senior partner at Fox Group Consulting, a Toronto-based telecommunications analyst firm.

Government jurisdictions across North America are adopting telework policies and programs.    

South of the border, the soon-to-be-installed Obama administration is likely to introduce tax incentives for teleworkers. And this, observers say, will fuel growth of the practice.

Here in Canada, Alberta’s greater Calgary region will be launching a regional telework program this year focused on providing a common set of tools to employees.   

But it’s in the private sector – especially the financial services and telecommunications industries – that we witness the biggest growth of this practice.

One example is Canadian telecom firm Telus Corp. that has experienced dramatic results from its Workstyles initiative launched a year and a half ago.Its purpose is to help employees work when and where they are most effective.

The program is available to everyone in the company if their job allows it, says Mark Lang, HR business partner at Telus.

He said 18,500 of his company’s 30,000 employees are remote-work enabled and 15,500 of those do work remotely once a week.

On any given day there will be at least 6,500 people telecommuting, Lang says.

The Workstyles program seeks to enhance employee flexibility, contribute to the environment, and reduce real-estate costs.

Since its launch the program has produced many tangible benefits.  

For instance, according to Lang, staff satisfaction and engagement is now greater, and this has reduced employee turnover. Attendance has also improved.

“I don’t think telework is making employees more engaged, but it’s allowing them to choose where they can be most effective.”

Lang notes that the program did encounter initial resistance from some managers — mostly from the baby boomers.

He said much of the resistance was caused by “perception” issues. Managers were concerned they couldn’t see if their report was working all day.

“But the issue should be performance. If employees are getting their work done and meeting all goals, who cares if they take a break to walk the dog?”

Lang compares the virtual office to being in university. In high school, attendance mattered, but once you get to university – all that matters is performance. This type of thinking needs to be applied to the workforce, he says.

“The millennials probably wouldn’t work for us if they couldn’t work from home. They demand flexibility.”  Now, however, telecommuting is constant across generations.

Employees do need to work out a deal with their managers. The decision is 49 per cent team member, 51 per cent manager, Lang says. A conversation needs to occur to decide when and how often telecommuting will occur.

The next big change Telus hopes to make with their program is to decrease real-estate in response to the high demand for telecommuting.

The company hopes to cut back on office space and save money by implementing a hotel-type desk rental service in order to take full advantage of their strategy.

According to the Canadian Telecommuting Association, the average cost of an employee, per desk, in the Greater Toronto Area is approximately $1,000 a month.

One company that tracks the benefits of telecommuting is Vancouver-based Teletrips.

Ian Gover, president, says the typical organization can save $6,000 to $9,000 per flexible worker and each worker can save 160 hours in commute time each year, saving four work weeks and 3,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions.

Teletrips’ mandate is to help businesses adapt to changing workforce demands. The organization focuses on what it calls the “triple bottom line” – environmental impact, economic impact and societal impact.

Gover says it’s not just about throwing technology at the problem but integrating technology with organizational protocols to help managers lead across distances, including a network of places including home, office and business centres or customer locations.

While most firms approach Teletrips asking to help cut costs and real estate, companies also benefit by improving environmental strategies and improving the work-life balance of employees.

Kate Lister, entrepreneur and co-author of Undress for Success – The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home, which will be released in March, said nearly six out of 10 employers identify cost savings as a significant benefit of telecommuting.

IBM slashed real estate costs by $50 million and Nortel estimates it saves $100,000 per employee it doesn’t have to relocate.

Telecommuting could also have other cost-saving benefits for companies, such as reduced attrition rates, Lister says. Ninety-five per cent of employers say telework has a high impact on employee retention and 92 per cent of employees are concerned with the high cost of fuel.

Two-thirds of employees would take another job to ease their commute and losing a valued employee can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000.

It could also improve attendance rates, Lister says, noting that 78 per cent of employees who call in sick, are not really sick. Teleworkers typically continue to work when they’re sick and return to work more quickly following surgery or medical appointments.

And while many managers are concerned about productivity being reduced from home Best Buy, British Telecom, Dow Chemical show that teleworkers are 35 to 40 per cent more productive, Lister said.

Many teleworkers will work during the time they were supposed to be driving and end up being more focused than they would be at the office, avoiding distractions of other employees near the coffee maker.

Telecommuting also improves the company’s environmental standing and reduces each its carbon footprint. If just half of the offices of the new teleworkers could be eliminated, electricity saved could power around 190,000 homes for a year.

Sun Microsystems reported that its 24,000 U.S. employees participating in the Open Work Program avoided producing 32,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide last year by driving less often to and from work, according to Lister.

Employees also save on gas, business clothes, dry cleaning, food and parking. It also helps reduce stress and helps employees make more time for exercise.

However, both Lister and Fox say telecommuting isn’t for everyone and note that some employees experience loneliness when working from home and need to go into the office frequently.

Telecommuters should also be self-directed, Lister says, as well as comfortable with technology, as IT support won’t be a few steps away.

Fox also advises against new employees telecommuting. New employees need to get to know the company’s culture and be around experienced staff.

To successfully implement a telecommuting strategy, Lister advises that management go through a training program and then create an overall plan with program goals as well as address legal and safety issues.

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