From ‘The Cloud’ to business phone collaboration systems, it has never been more practical and profitable to facilitate telecommuting (AKA virtual commuting, mobile commuting, teleworking, remote working). Part-time or full-time virtual teams have many proven benefits for employers, staff, and the environment.
A 2012 Reuters Ipsos worldwide poll indicated one in every five employees work from home frequently. Canada has been slow to embrace the concept, however, with only 11.2% of staff working from home as little as eight hours each week, according to 2011 Statistics Canada data. However, 2013 research indicates that the situation has, and will continue to change.
Canadian businesses are getting more and more excited about the possibilities of remote workers and virtual teams, due to increasing evidence of the many benefits of a flexible workforce. Research and guidance is also increasing in Canada as more businesses explore telecommuting and virtual commuting. Organizations like WORKshift are expanding to provide guidance on a national level. Research continues, some funded by grants like the new lab being built at the University of Calgary. The lab will model virtual team collaboration to study team behaviour and the impact of psychological attributes of team members. The goal is to improve the effectiveness of virtual teams through employee selection, training and development.
The 2013 Arcus Human Capital Survey reported that 18% of employed Canadians say they telecommute to one degree or another. A 2013 Bank of Montreal (BMO) poll, Canadian Businesses Report Significant Divide on the Benefits of Telecommuting, indicates 23% of Canadian businesses offer some form of telecommuting or mobile options. 22% of small businesses offered telecommuting options, compared to 47% of large businesses.
BMO Survey: Businesses Offering Telecommuting Provincially
- Alberta (34%)
- British Columbia (26%)
- Saskatchewan (23%)
- The Prairies (23%)
- Quebec (23%)
- Ontario (20%)
- Atlantic Provinces (16%)
“In an evolving workforce, Canadian businesses are fighting to be flexible, innovative and enticing by offering incentives that will benefit not only the organization, but also their employees,” said Steve Murphy, senior vice-president of commercial banking for BMO. “These flexible work arrangements help employees achieve greater work-life balance, improve workplace productivity and strengthen employee morale.”
The benefits of telecommuting cited in the report included:
- 65% of Canadian businesses offering telecommuting to their employees reported increased productivity.
- 58% said the quality of work produced by telecommuting employees was higher.
- 64% of Canadian businesses surveyed saw a positive impact on morale and the ability to entice and retain high quality employees.
- 54% said office and overhead expenses were reduced.
With today’s technology, there is no reason why many jobs can’t be done from the home office, such as sales or customer support. Some of today’s careers are even more suitable for it, such as internet marketing, website management, or blogging. Employers simply focus on results rather than a time clock. It’s easy enough to tell if the job is being done or not. Where or when it’s done isn’t a major concern. It is no different than contracting someone to do a job. They work independently and the job gets done to your specifications.
Top Telecommuting / Mobile Worker Sectors
- Business and Finance (28%)
- Manufacturing (14%)
- Retail (14%)
- Services (13%)
- Agri-business (3%)
Telus has been a leader in remote employment for several years, with almost 50% of their employees working remotely. They plan to have 70% of their staff of 40,000 people working remotely or mobile commuting (at least part-time) by 2015. Independent studies have placed Telus employee engagement at 80%, ranking them in the top 1% globally, and productivity has increased. They’ve been able to reduce their real estate footprint by more than a million square feet, with a goal of a $50 million dollar reduction in lease expenses by 2016. Their CO2 emissions have been reduced by 20,000 tonnes in just two years.
Of course, Telus isn’t the only Canadian champion of remote workers who is saving piles of money with their initiative. ATB Investor Services in Alberta has more than 160 employees who work from home an average of two days each week, reducing workspace expenses by $1.1 million. Novatel and Eagle Professional Resources are also embracing the flexible workplace concept after positive results from their pilot programs.
Many companies have taken mobile commuting to a whole new level, making their entire company “virtual” with staff spread out across the country and around the World. Shama Kabani, author of The Zen of Social Media Marketing and owner of Marketing Zen Group, employs an entirely virtual staff of 30 based all over the World. She says she loves the unique culture it fosters, built on a foundation of trust, faith and confidence in the employees’ ability to get the job done without micro-management.
The Benefits of Remote/Virtual Staff
If there’s one benefit of home-based staff that cannot be argued, it’s the cost savings. A 2011 WORKshift Canada report, The Bottom Line on Telework, demonstrated employers can save over $10,000 per year for every employee that telecommutes only two days each week. The report also said that 4.3 million Canadians who have suitable jobs and want to work from their home office could save Canadian businesses a total of $53 billion each year. The estimates included the financial benefits of lower overhead, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and increased productivity.
Increased productivity greatly impacts the overall financial benefits of working from home. In February, 2013, Stanford University reported the results of a Chinese experiment conducted to determine the benefits or drawbacks of having staff work at home. The subjects were some of the 16,000 employees of CTrip, A Chinese travel agency. The results of the experiment were a 13% increase in performance. The improvement was attributed to a 9% increase in the number of minutes worked during their shifts, due to a reduction in breaks and sick days. The remaining 4% increase was attributed to a greater number of calls taken per minute.
Specific benefits of telecommuting include:
- Remote workers use their own equipment and workspace, thus saving the company money in overhead.
- New employees will often accept lower wages for the option to work at home. Not only because they want to work from home, but also because they save money on commuting, wardrobe, etc.
- Employees are more productive, if for no other reason than wanting to keep the option to work from home. Many also work longer hours. 56% of respondents to a 2010 Telus survey said flexible work options would make them work harder. A 2013 Citrix study showed 18% of small businesses in the United States, Canada and Australia are enjoying a 30% increase in productivity through the adoption of mobile work styles.
- New hires become feasible for small businesses.
- Lower turnover. A 2010 Telus poll indicated 67% of Canadians surveyed would be more loyal to a company offering remote working flexibility.
- Less sick time and childcare issues.
- No commuting issues to make employees late, such as backed-up traffic or bad weather.
- A natural disaster at the home office doesn’t necessarily mean your business grinds to a halt.
- Your talent pool is virtually worldwide.
- You can hire a remote workforce in virtually any country to facilitate global expansion. Content, eCommerce and customer support can be provided by staff in that country using their native language.
- It reduces the corporate environmental footprint, including lower real estate requirements and less individual commuters.
Is There a Downside to Remote Working?
The BMO survey revealed that 61% of businesses hesitating to implement telecommuting suggested they were worried about lower morale. 53% cited concerns about a possible loss of productivity.
Problems with remote working arrangements do exist, but are often attributed to manageable issues:
- The program is not planned or managed properly – When companies say their mobile commuting options aren’t working due to a lack of productivity, accountability, etc., it’s often the management policies and procedures that are the problem. From hiring the right people having clear, detailed policies, remote working requires proper management by qualified staff. “Winging it” will set you up for failure.
“The lack of a road map has paralyzed organizations,” says Robyn Bews, Director of Calgary’s WORKShift program.
- The position is not suitable for it – Many positions are unsuitable for mobile commuting and not all of them are obvious. Jobs requiring collaboration vary in suitability, for example. Sometimes the obstacles could still be overcome with proper facilitation, such as more elaborate collaboration tools.
- Work-a-holics – A benefit of working from a home office is an improved work-life balance. However, some people (like myself) work much longer hours at home than they would in a traditional workplace. I do it because I find it enjoyable and I know when to stop, but other people can’t find their off switch. This results in high stress levels and burn-out. Businesses can implement policies to help manage that problem as well, such as turning off access to the company intranet after 6PM.
“Organizations that continue to resist are going to find themselves in an awkward position in the coming years,” Robyn Bews told The Calgary Herald. “Let’s face it, the people have already left the building. Driving to work en masse in so-called rush hour often to sit at a desk and do something you could easily do from home or closer to home is a behaviour that is choking our cities, killing our productivity and harming our health.”
What About the Slackers?
There are some leaders who will never accept that an employee will work if they’re not under constant supervision. However, slackers are slackers. They’ll be unproductive no matter where they are, as this Common Work Time Wasters post by Business Insider demonstrates. Others are simply not good at working independently and should recognize that in themselves.
Hiring for remote employment requires special evaluation. It’s no different than finding someone who is personally able to work as a nurse or 911 operator. Different positions and environments require different types of people. Not everyone has the need to be onsite to work as part of a team, nor do they feel isolated if they work at home. Any business can design tests and evaluative interview questions, and look for a demonstrated ability to work independently.
Need Some Guidance?
WORKshift, a Calgary initiative that provides structure to flexible workplace arrangements, is going national in 2013.
Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.
Growing the Virtual Workplace: The Integrative Value Proposition for Telework, by Alain Verbeke, Robert Schulz, Nathan Greidanus and Laura Hambley.
The Virtual Manager: Cutting-Edge Solutions for Hiring, Managing, Motivating, and Engaging Mobile Employees, by Kevin Sheridan.
Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams, by Kimball Fisher and Mareen Fisher.
Does your company offer mobile/telecommuting? Please share your experience in the comments below.
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Arcus Human Capital
Reuters Ipsos: About one in five workers worldwide telecommute
Bank of Montreal Canadian Businesses Report Significant Divide on the Benefits of Telecommuting
The Calgary Herald
The Globe & Mail
Does Working From Home Work? Evidence From a Chinese Experiment. 2013.
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