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Top employers help staff steer clear of rush hour

Mary Keating works from her Fonthill home for two or three days every week.

Glenn Lowson for the Globe and Mail/glenn lowson The Globe and Mail

Commuting to work is a major commitment for Mary Keating. The trip from her home town of Fonthill, Ont. to the downtown Toronto offices of Hill & Knowlton Canada takes a gruelling two-and-a-half hours, and it brings her through a congested traffic corridor that has only gotten worse in the nine years since she took the job.

Happily for Ms. Keating and her co-workers in the public relations firm, commuting is somewhat optional. Flexible policies, new technology and an understanding attitude means most employees can set their own hours in the downtown workplace.

"There's all kinds of different accommodations that can be made," says Ms. Keating, who runs the firm's technology practice with a team of 15 employees. She comes into the office for long days on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but works much of the rest of the week at home, communicating with her colleagues and clients by e-mail, instant-messaging and conference calls. "I feel like I have the best of both worlds," she says.

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Ms. Keating moved to Fonthill two decades ago, and started her own communications consultancy at home when her daughter was born shortly afterwards. She took the job in Toronto with the understanding that the company would support her, both from a cultural and a technological standpoint, in working at home every second day.

"For me, flexibility was the price of entry," she says. "I wouldn't even be working at Hill & Knowlton without it; the travel would be too onerous … I'd just burn out."

Making such allowances in a city that has all but lost the battle with the automobile allows the company to attract and keep the best work force possible from throughout the broad region.

"We try to find the best people available, and not all those people are right in the city," says Ilyse Smith, general manager of the Toronto office for Hill & Knowlton.

The company makes working arrangements with employees on a case-by-case basis, she says.

The firm's predominantly young and female staff have commitments at home that can range from sick children to carpool duty – although one employee simply wanted to avoid the morning rush-hour, working productively from home until it was over, explains Ms. Smith.

According to the Toronto Board of Trade, Torontonians spend an average of 80 minutes getting to and from work – the longest commute in Canada, and longer even than those in New York, Los Angeles and London, England.

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Ms. Keating says commuting "is getting less and less predictable," which can be a problem for a client-service business. "There can be a pop-can on the side of the road, and it will slow traffic down for an hour," she says.

She is able to take the train for half her commute on some days, but finds it just as bad.

Amex Canada Inc. helps its employees avoid the city's gridlock by offering flexible hours as well as amenities such as a full gym, a wellness centre, convenience store and flu-shot clinic right at its offices in Markham, Ont.

"Canadians are known for being hard workers and spending a lot of time in the office; we want to ensure that the time they're spending there is as comfortable as possible," says Jason Colley, the company's director of human resources.

Employees can fit in workouts before their work-day begins, or incorporate monthly massage appointments into their schedules, he says. "We've really put an emphasis on providing programs and services that can help our employees achieve a healthy lifestyle, both inside and outside of work."

Amex also offers its employees flexible work arrangements, such as summer hours, compressed work weeks, flex-time and telecommuting, in collaboration with managers. "The traditional 9-to-5 doesn't work for everyone," Mr. Colley explains.

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Technology, such as mobile applications that allow staff to participate in conference calls or listen to e-mail messages on the road, plays a big role in being able to work remotely, Ms. Smith says.

"There's a culture shift that's taken place," she says. "Technology has changed all of our lives so much that the accommodation has happened almost naturally, without people having to ask for it."

Some employees have jobs where they need to physically work in the office, and Hill & Knowlton requires that everyone spend at least some time there, she adds. "I believe very strongly in the importance of having a place to go, of shared energy and creativity, of people being together, working on projects."

Ms. Keating says that she enjoys seeing colleagues face-to-face on the days when she commutes. Tasks tend to extend outside of typical office hours when she works remotely, although she doesn't mind. "There isn't any job that isn't 24-hours any more."

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