More companies open doors for teleworkers

Want to know how to save your company $5 million a year? Send your staff home. Or at least that’s what Bob Fortier, the Ottawa-based president of the Canadian Telework Association, suggests.

Working from home has become an increasingly standardized option for many employees, whose companies are seeing both HR and financial benefits from this trend.

“It’s an idea whose time has come, but will take some years to reach its full potential,” Fortier said. “There is a huge number of Canadians who are currently teleworkers, at least here and there – occasional teleworkers – but the numbers will grow significantly.”

Fortier attributes the growth of the teleworking community to the evolution of IT.

“It’s growing parallel and due to the information revolution,” Fortier explained. “To be real, most telework does use some form of information technology – that’s the key driver. Because information technology has penetrated into so many facets of our lives, there is a huge number of homes with computers and Internet access, and as they get easier to use and more inexpensive, it’s only natural that we will be able to do more activities anytime, anywhere. Combine that with some of the specifics, like the fact that we’re so wired here in Canada and that a large proportion of workers are willing and able to telework, and we’ve got a high-demand phenomenon.”

IBM Canada Ltd. is one company that’s acknowledging this phenomenon and accommodating employees who would like to explore the option of teleworking. According to Susan Turner, working from home is one of four options that IBM gives to its employees.

“It’s absolutely encouraged,” Turner, the Markham, Ont.-based director of diversity and workplace programs for IBM Canada, said. “In some cases there are jobs that aren’t appropriate for home work, but it is a workplace flexibility option for employees to consider.”

At IBM, the employee approaches the manager about working from home, rather than the other way around, because as Turner explained, not everybody’s home situation is conducive for telework. However, Turner estimates that approximately 11,000 of IBM Canada’s employees work at home on a casual basis.

“Out of 19,000 employees, three per cent work at home full time. They don’t have an IBM desk or a workstation, but do have the ability of coming into the office to use the mobility centre, where they can dock into the LAN, use photocopying equipment and hold meetings.”

Like most other companies who facilitate home-based staff, IBM provides the tools for teleworkers to perform away from the office, including high-speed connectivity, appropriate hardware and software and network security.

Ann Smith is one of Canada’s growing number of teleworkers. As director of marketing for AT&T Global Network Services, Smith works from her Ottawa home, while the rest of her team works from the company’s Toronto office. For Smith, the decision to telework was made because of geography.

“It was one of those beyond my control type of situations,” Smith explained. “They closed up the offices that I used to work in so I had two choices: work from home or move to Toronto.”

According to Smith, the biggest challenge with teleworking is maintaining open communication with her co-workers.

“You don’t have the opportunity to have hallway discussions, so you have to make yourself available and take the onus upon yourself to communicate. You have to learn to work quite differently.”

In terms of quality of work, Smith has found that her productivity has increased since starting her teleworking career.

“I get so much more work done, because generally I’m uninterrupted. My hours are much more flexible because I can start earlier – I don’t have to work in commute time. I can put sweat pants on and not be concerned with what I look like. Instead of starting at eight, I start between six and six-thirty and don’t wrap up until five.”

This increase in productivity is a common result of teleworking, according to Fortier who routinely performs feasibility scenarios for companies evaluating the option of telework.

“Productivity increases with telework between 15 and 20 per cent. If you see even a 10 per cent increase in productivity, that means that for every 10 teleworkers you have the equivalent of one free worker,” Fortier said.

“For a company that knows nothing about telework, we factor in start-up costs, equipment, the writing of guide books, IT and remote access costs, and factor in savings through productivity, real estate, retention and relocation. In a scenario of 100 workers working from home two days a week for one year, a company can save over five million dollars, net. This is a conservative estimate.”

The personal benefits are not to be ignored either, according to Smith.

“For those with children, it’s a huge plus. It contributes to the quality of life for yourself and your child,” she explained. “I’m a believer of a home/work balance. You have to be disciplined enough to stop when it’s time to stop. If you lose that balance, you could become isolated and unhappy.

“The part that I find difficult is that I do miss seeing real people, but before I made the decision to work from home I interviewed a lot of people that I knew who were doing it. I made an informed decision and went into it with my eyes wide open.”