Telework expert offers his perspective — from home

TORONTO — The prefix “”tele”” is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “”long distance.”” Bob Fortier, president of InnoVisions Canada and founder of the Canadian Telework Association,

took this to heart in his address on “”Tele-Everything”” to the attendees of the inaugural New Mobility Industry Forum in Toronto: he did it from Ottawa.

Fortier, a long-time proponent of the teleworking model, described why he decided to telecast his talk.

“”First of all, it takes advantage of the medium. It also saves me time, money, and — no offense — germs,”” he joked, and admitted to the audience via satellite that there are trade-offs in terms of the benefits achieved through working at home.

“”Before tele-things were around, you had to get off your tush and have face to face conversations with human beings. Now we have less reason to move physically and have fewer social interactions,”” he said.

However, if you are able to find the right balance, teleworking or tele-commuting, is an attractive alternative for both employers and employees, Fortier said. Defining teleworking as paid workers performing some or all of their duties from a remote location, Fortier said that in Canada the move towards this model has been a quiet revolution.

“”In Canada there are over a million teleworkers, but they’re not full-time teleworkers; they tele-work a few days a week, and it’s informal with no policy or training,”” he said.

Most teleworking arrangements are made on the fly between management and employees, he said, which can be problematic because the benefits are more difficult to measure.

“”With no established rules, the teleworking situation won’t work as well as it should and the guidelines for ROI are not quantified,”” he said. Organizations that do implement formal tele-working policies will inevitably see benefits in terms of productivity, reduced absenteeism and a cost savings in office space.

In fact, Fortier estimated that at an aggregate level, an organization with 100 employees could save five million dollars a year by allowing its staff to telework twice a week.

Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM have both implemented large-scale teleworking initiatives and have saved $150-million and $700-million respectively, he said.

Yet, the concept of teleworking is new enough that it is still facing managerial resistance.

“”Governments have failed to latch onto tele-work in a big way, despite the potential to help clear the air and achieve other economic benefits,”” he said. He noted that Toronto is well-positioned to become a leader in telecommuting because of its high percentage of knowledge workers and its notorious traffic congestion.

Fortier also cited Toronto’s recent SARS-related quarantines as an example of why teleworking should be a large part of contingency planning in today’s “”open for business”” economy.

Since 1980, the number of drivers on the road has increased by over 31 per cent, the number of registered vehicles on the road has increased by nearly 40 per cent, and the amount of time spent in traffic has increased by 232 per cent. By allowing employees to work from home, fewer drivers will be on the road, reducing gridlock and transport issues, he said, echoing the conference’s theme of moving minds rather than people.

With technology getting “”slicker”” over time, the real hurdles to fully taking advantage of the opportunities around tele-work are human-based, he said in a sentiment echoed by the panel’s moderator, Bob Willard, the author of The Sustainability Advantage.

“”In the writing and work and studies I’m doing now, I’m convinced that we’re not faced with a technological challenge. Moving mindsets is the biggest challenge,”” Willard said.

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