Telecommuting Consultants International, Inc.

Working at home: Mistrust still rules

Cultural barrier holds firms back
Bell and Nortel among believers


As wired and technologically savvy as workers are these days, companies should easily be able to withstand a major workforce interruption.

But while more than 1 million Canadian workers plug into their jobs from home at least once a week, according to one estimate, some say a culture of resistance and mistrust among management is preventing many employees from teleworking.

These questions were being raised yesterday as companies grappled with the idea of a strike by CN workers who drive trains for GO Transit.

"The idea that somebody may not show up for work is enough to literally put fear into their hearts in a very significant way," said Linda Russell, managing partner of Telecommuting Consultants International, a Toronto-based company that helps companies make virtual workplaces.

"For companies who understand that we can manage a man on the moon from Texas, but they don't understand that somebody who's 30 kilometres from the office can actually work, then (a transit) strike is going to be difficult," she added.

Russell said that while teleworking may be on the gradual increase, the Canadian workplace has been a slow adapter and that a transit strike would have a greater negative impact now than it would have 10 years ago when the idea of teleworking had far fewer believers.

"There's more people working in Toronto than there were 10 years ago. There's a million more cars," Russell said.

In York Region, where traffic data show a strong preference to drive alone to work, Markham's transportation co-ordinator Lorenzo Mele says that it appears teleworking, or car pooling for that matter, has not yet taken hold.

"Many people trumpet its virtue and the uptake is not huge," he said.

Of the nearly 160,000 people who travelled from York Region across Steeles Ave. into Toronto each morning last year, 76 per cent travelled alone in an automobile, Mele said, adding that the numbers have not decreased since the last survey was done in 2001.

Who knows how many of those drivers are carrying BlackBerries, cellphones and laptops, all the tools required to work at home?

"The reason why there isn't more uptake into telework is there's a cultural barrier there," said Mele, who is working on a telework policy for Markham employees. "If a manager is managing by attendance as opposed to performance, productivity and other measures, then clearly something like telework could never fit into the way they do business."

Still, some large employers have telework policies in place. At its Brampton headquarters, Nortel Networks Corp. allows 13 per cent of its workforce to work full time from home and 36 per cent to do it part time.

At Bell Canada, 2,000 employees telework full time nationwide and 14,500 have remote access to the company system so they can access from a variety of locations. Bell also offers what it calls flexSpace, satellite offices so employees living in Mississauga and other areas surrounding the downtown core can work closer to home.

Doing its small bit to ease congestion is the new SuiteWorks satellite office in Barrie, a 20,000-square-foot space that companies can lease for employees living north of Toronto. It opened Monday.

Aided by VoIP technology and lured by the prospect of avoiding the unpleasant morning Highway 400 crush into downtown, some workers will be able to plug into their jobs at the facility that will accommodate 120 remote workers.

"The beauty of VoIP is that the number follows your computer," said chief marketing officer Stuart MacMillan. "An individual sitting in Barrie can have a 416 area code and it rings at their computer."

To Russell, managing partner of Telecommuting Consultants International, establishing a telework policy not only prepares companies for lost productivity during a transit shutdown, it just makes good business sense.

She bemoans Canada's grudging move toward telework, noting in a research paper she co-authored that U.S. federal and state governments offer tax credits and other incentives to companies that buy equipment and other services that allow for virtual work.

Source: The Toronto Star