Yahoo Inc.'s decision to call its remote workers back to the fold is a blow to the growing move companies are making toward teleworking. But it also raises the question, is Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer right? Does working remotely make you less innovative, less collaborative, and therefore, unable to effectively do your job?
Only a few years ago, as technology began improving to the point that working remotely was a viable option, the thought was that more and more workers would not do their job from a corporate head office. The benefits were a better work-life balance, lower commuting costs, lower real estate and head office costs.
But companies have not taken to teleworking in droves. A 2011 Statistics Canada survey found only 11 per cent of employees did some of their work at home, a figure unchanged since a similar 2008 survey. Why the hesitation on the part of employers? One reason may be in not knowing where to start.
"The lack of a road map has paralyzed organizations," said Robyn Bews. She's the director of WorkShift, an initiative of Calgary Economic Development that has helped 30 businesses in that city with pilot programs for telework for their staff and is now poised to go national.
Another major factor is the old-school mindset in most companies, said Laura Hambley, an industrial organizational psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Calgary. "It's a giant mental shift to move from work being an activity, not a place."
Many Canadian companies have been experimenting with remote work arrangements, spurred by reduced commuting times for staff, improved carbon footprints, real-estate savings, increased productivity and better employee retention rates. A 2011 study by WorkShift, for example, suggested that 4.3 million Canadians with compatible jobs and a desire to work from home part-time could have a bottom-line impact of $53-billion per year in savings.
Many companies start with a pilot project to let staff work at home. Just over a year ago, NovAtel Inc. human resources director Tannis Schwarz launched a six-month pilot at the global satellite company, which has about 300 employees based in Calgary. The company's move into product development in India prompted a general rethinking of working styles and schedules.
The project was a resounding success; when it ended in October, 37 of the 40 workers involved opted to continue – about 15 per cent of NovAtel's staff. More than 80 per cent if them reported improved work-life balance, while all their managers agreed that performance levels had not declined. Ms. Schwarz expects to the number of remote workers double in time.
Another telework program was launched at ATB Investor Services, a division of the largest Alberta-based financial institution. It was prompted in part by the desire to attract younger workers looking for flex-time options, said Sherri Wright-Schwietz, whose title is head of talent. The program now has more than 160 participants, most of whom work an average of two days a week from home.
Ms. Wright-Schwietz, who works from home four days a week, credits support from the top for the program's success. "I'm not sure this would have been such a success if our president wasn't so behind it," she said, noting that the program has reduced premises expenses by $1.1-million.
Despite such successes, many managers worry that they will not be able to monitor employee productivity if the workers are not in the physical workplace. And many workers worry that if they are out of sight, they may lose visibility within the organization.
Even telework champions had to test their own preconceptions in the two Alberta projects; for example, that alternative work arrangements would only appeal to younger staff (older workers seem equally interested), and that there needs to be a standard arrangement for everyone. They also learned to build in time for staff interactions; for example, ATB has social committees charged with getting remote staff together for collaborative time.
ATB uses laptop video cameras for team meetings and stronger video linkups for customer meetings. Neither company monitors employee presence explicitly, although each has guidelines around team communications.
Dr. Hambley recommends formalizing such policies into a "telework charter," a set of rules of engagement for how to work that lays out everything from telephone response times to division of labour.
Telework also relies on employees helping each other keep up communications. At NovAtel, teams are encouraged to put a note on their work station when they are away, and to remember to call teleworkers and get their participation over speakerphone when there is an impromptu meeting. "We have the technology, it's just getting people used to it," Ms. Schwarz said.
– Start small with a pilot to test fears around teleworking.
– Seek feedback at the beginning and end of the pilot to measure the results.
– Build in time for spontaneous interaction with team meeting days and social events for remote workers Involve the whole team in establishing a program, not just the teleworking employee.
– Get in the habit of using technology to loop in remote employees for impromptu meetings.
– Decide on work goals for teleworkers and use those to measure performance.
– Establish a "telework charter" that spells out the ground rules.