Canada's work force is spending less time at the office, and with a sharp increase in remote and mobile employees, managers are struggling to ensure that those who are out of sight are not out of mind.
In 2011, Statistics Canada found that 11.2 per cent of staff worked from home eight hours a week or more.
Just two years later, a survey by Arcus Human Capital reported that 18 per cent of Canadians were telecommuting, and a recent poll by Bank of Montreal found that 23 per cent of Canadian businesses now offer some telecommuting option.
The trend toward mobile work, which began in Silicon Valley and is slowly gaining ground in Canada, means employers are now dealing with greater physical distances from their employees, And as a result, trust is emerging as the new currency in business.
While there are many concerns for employers when it comes to remote workers, such as potentially lower employee engagement and oversight; and fewer social interactions with co-workers, Stephen Harrington, manager of Deloitte Canada's human capital consulting group, believes there are many benefits for companies that embrace mobile or flexible work.
"Organizations that are going to really win at this, they won't wait to get dragged there, they won't wait until this is done to them," he said. "Instead, they'll look at this not as a gift to employees, not as an entitlement, but as a way to win some real business benefits."
Mr. Harrington cites lower overhead costs for employers and higher productivity from employees as some of the benefits associated with offering flexible work hours – but only if all employees are treated equally.
"If you're mobile and that means you're treated differently than the rest of the business, then that can quickly become negative," he said.
"So ask yourself some questions. Are your mobile employees on the radar for career path and succession? Are they getting the same career opportunities as everyone else? Are they always that one person who's on the conference call with 10 other people who are in the room?"
Mr. Harrington said that many of the minuses disappear as flexible work hours become the norm within office culture. His hypothesis is supported by a recent Gallup poll, which found workplaces that provide flexible hours to all employees witness an increase in employee engagement and job satisfaction.
"The one policy-oriented variable that we found that works really well when it's possible to do in an organization – and it relates to higher levels of well-being for employees and also higher engagement of workers – is flex time," said Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist for workplace management and well-being.
"People who work remotely 20 per cent of the time or less tend to have the highest level of engagement."
Gallup's study found that the sweet spot was allowing 20 per cent of work time as flex time. But employees who spend most or all of their time away from headquarters are at a higher risk of becoming disengaged and unmotivated.
For Toronto-based wireless company Wind Mobile, keeping a cohesive company culture was a challenge for its 1,300 employees, 55 per cent of whom work from kiosks and corporate stores scattered across the country.
"We've grown so quickly, and as a national company I wanted to make sure from an HR perspective there was a consistent recognition process," said Robert Aiello, Wind Mobile's vice-president of human resources. "It's difficult to recognize someone who is in a remote location versus someone who is in a corporate head office."
To cope with the geographical challenges, Wind recently launched a company-wide recognition program called Living Our Values Everyday, or LOVE.
The rewards platform is powered by Achievers Corp., a Toronto-based employee-recognition software developer that allows employees to recognize co-workers for their achievements over a company-wide news feed. It also allows managers to award employees points that can be redeemed for prizes ranging from gift cards to iPads to vacations.
Though the program is optional, Wind Mobile saw 92 per cent of its staff sign on in its first month, and during the first two months, employees gave co-workers 8,200 virtual pats on the back.
Achievers founder Razor Suleman said the program allows Wind Mobile's employees to feel closer to one another, despite the distances.
"You want to grow and scale and turn into a big company, but you don't want to lose the magic of what it's like to be a startup where everyone is committed to the cause and everyone feels like they're contributing."
Mr. Suleman adds that as Wind Mobile continues to grow, keeping that startup feel will become increasingly challenging, but tools like LOVE can help maintain a cohesive work environment.
"The challenges that we've seen companies have is really getting those people to feel connected, for them to still be aligned to the mission of the organization," Mr. Suleman said. "The further away you get from the mother ship, the signal gets weaker, and that's true whether it is communication or motivation, because you don't get that same buzz of energy that you might coming into HQ or interacting with people face to face."