Still Skeptical about Telecommuting?

Before the recent ‘forced experiment’ caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic, many of us fell into a few camps: either strong advocates or staunch disbelievers of remote working.

A vast majority of employees worked almost exclusively at the office, and perhaps saw Telecommuting as a ‘unique benefit’ offered to employees to achieve a work-life balance. There was also several managers publicly saying that they were in favor, but privately not so much; concerned with a decline in productivity or at worst, mistrust.

With the COVID-19 situation, after this four month ‘pilot project’, many of these managers were surprised by a new reality;   they discovered, perhaps surprisingly, that in Telework, the TELE prefix means ‘a lot more of’!

With the gradual decrease in confinement restrictions and a return to pseudo-normal work/life possibilities, hopefully planned in September 2020, organizations with most of their workforce historically in offices, must prepare for the inevitable and potentially drastic but beneficial shift towards remote work – if well planned.

A few statistics to further the argument:

As a result of this unplanned pilot project, more research and firsthand tangible evidence shows that ‘loss of productivity’ is no longer a legitimate deterrent to implementing a clear Telecommuting policy.  Here are a few interesting statistics:

• In 2017 in an analysis by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics, it was noted that the popularity of Telecommuting has increased by 91% in the last 10 years

• In a survey carried out by Indeed in 2018:

  • 75% of remote employees say that off-site work has improved their work-life balance;
  • 71% of Telecommuters say they are happy with their current job, compared to 55% of employees on site.

• In 2019 in a study by the International Workplace Group in the United States:

  • 80% of workers say they would refuse a job if flexible work was not one of them;
  • 85% of companies say that productivity has increased “due to the increased flexibility”.

• In a survey carried out in the United States by the Airtasker firm in 2020:

  • On average, Telecommuters will work 16.8 days more annually than an employee in the office;
  • Office workers spend an average of 66 minutes a day discussing non-work-related issues, while Telecommuters spend only 29 minutes a day doing the same with their colleagues;
  • Telework employees save more than US$4,500 annually in gas.

What about Canada specifically?

Before COVID-19, data on Telecommuting in Canada was outdated. Statistic Canada’s General Social Survey (GSS) in 2016 reports that just 12.7% of the workforce worked at least one hour of Telecommuting per week. About 2.8% of workers worked more than 15 hours a week.

In Quebec, there was the CIRANO report on the impacts of Telecommuting in 2018, but it is based on Statistic Canada’s 2010 GSS.

A newer study, in a Leger poll conducted in late April 2020, found that 50% of Canadians were Telecommuting, mainly because of confinement. According to the same survey, 79% of Telecommuters said they liked the experience. 

Finally, an article from May 28, 2020 from Statistics Canada mentions that 38.9% of Canadians have a job that can probably be done via Telecommuting. It also presents the companies by sectors that are best suited to start this paradigm shift. Not surprisingly, Finance and Insurance, Professional Services and the Information Industry are at the top of the ranking. Educational Services are in second place, but the recent experiences in primary and secondary schools have not been conclusive.

On your mark, set, Telecommute

Surprisingly, research made for the preparation of this article, led us to the Quebec Telecommuting Association (Télétravail Québec), a non-profit organization listed in the lobbyists register and founded in 2019 to promote the establishment of Telecommuting and generate legislative changes.

On their website, there is a link to their Guide to Telecommuting in an Organization (Guide d’implantation du télétravail en entreprise), which is a robust 50 page guide written by Technocompetences, a sector committee for IT workers .  Although only available in French and written in 2016, it is an interesting and comprehensive document. 

With our recent and personal experiences in Telecommuting at Systematix, we have developed a condensed version of the main steps to set up Telecommuting in your organization on a permanent basis.

Senior Management Sponsorship and Support

To be successful and aim for sustainability, the initiative must be clearly endorsed by management. This seems rather obvious, but you have surely lived the painful experience of projects where we seemed to be on the right path and making gains – only to see the project stopped after the piloting phase.

If you consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a forced ‘pilot project’, which affected most, if not all of your workforce; unless you experienced serious technological problems, the results are clearly evident.

Telecommuting simply stated, works.

Next, you will need to determine the optimal number of days required for Telecommuting. It would be simple to say 50% of the week, but it would make more sense to authorize full days, considering transportation and logistical challenges. To reach an average of 50%, it makes sense to go with 40% or 60% of the time depending on the employees and their responsibilities.

Reorganization of office space

This new operational ‘normal’ will also impact the reorganization of office space and for some people, parking spaces.  After keeping a few fixed offices for certain personnel – we have to be realistic: Rome was not built in one day – dedicated office space will be a thing of the past. For coveted parking spaces, it is pragmatic to think that organization will be able to cut about half of those, depending on daily office attendance.

Personalized workspace will also be a thing of the past. Those who want to keep a personalized work area for the day will be able to bring photos and other decorations in their bags and take them back at the end of the day… perhaps even storing their belongings in a locker onsite.

Work organization and meetings in the office

Whether organization-wide, by department, or even on a personal level, work contributions and the monitoring of work progress are key factors in a successful implementation of Telecommuting.

Holding 15 to 30 minutes “scrums”, (minimally two to three times a week), provides an update on issues of the week. They also help to maintain social contact on a regular basis. During these meetings or when managing your daily tasks, discipline and structure is mandatory. The dynamics of a videoconference leads to more effective meetings when well conducted and held without technical difficulties.

However, maintaining team spirit and a sense of belonging, remote working 100% of the time does not seem to be a viable solution. Videoconferencing is good, but there is nothing like a real eye contact, which is essential to team bonding.

The lack of live contact is often a comment from our colleagues as one of the negative aspects of Telecommuting. In addition, we all know that there are certain situations where videoconferencing will not work, and we can easily warrant face-to-face meetings when necessary for more difficult situations.

Managing work schedules is more complex with Telecommuting, but it is a lesser evil when we analyze the benefits.

There are multiple and diverse benefits from Telework

We can start with the business benefits: with fewer staff on the premises of an organization, it is easy to understand that there will be a reduction in operating costs. We mentioned earlier that in the majority of cases, Telecommuters increased their productivity. However, we must not fixate on just this basic benefit, and look to the benefits associated with expanded team mobilization and staff retention.  In case you’ve forgotten, prior to the current pandemic, we were experiencing a different crisis, specifically the scarcity of skilled workers. This issue should come back to the forefront before the end of 2020.

A recent OWL Labs report on the state of Telecommuting presents some very interesting data. We can see that more than 80% of people mention the following:

• that they would be happier and less stressed by being able to Telecommute;

• that they could better reconcile their professional and personal life;

• that employers who allow Telecommuting demonstrates that they care about the well-being of their employees. Ultimately, if you are not allowing Telecommuting, and your competition is, you’re going to feel the pinch.

Another very telling statistic of this report indicates that 71% of respondents would be willing to choose an employer that allows Telecommuting. In addition to an increase in the quality of life for employees, we can also think of a reduction in transport costs which is obviously combined with a saving of time.  Therefore, the benefit is tacit:  less time transporting to work, more time working. 

Although not specific to your workplace operations – when we look at Telecommuting in a more global way, we have seen in the last few months a significant positive impact on the environment. In this BBC article, it says that pollution in New York State has decreased by almost 50%!  Healthier environments equal healthier workers!

Lastly, the current elevated containment situation is only temporary. However, if even a 25% increase in Telecommuting than before COVID-19, it certainly offers a faster return on investment than the major public transport projects currently (and seemingly never ending) underway in the most Metropolitan areas.

Telework? Tell me where I sign! 

In any endeavour, you have to weigh in the pros and cons. While in many cases the Telecommuting experience will be beneficial, it takes discipline to be effective and not get distracted. Not all employees will be more productive, or even effective.  This challenge can become a source of employer-employee difficulty, or even create conflict between normally cordial employees.

Telecommuting does not lend itself well to all activities, and despite increasingly powerful collaboration tools, long sessions of remote work are not always easy to manage effectively. There will always be situations where eye contact will be required to reach the goal. Group dynamics are always more interesting with human contact and work constitutes for many an important social network that is essential to their well-being.

In addition, as evidence suggests that in ‘most cases’ people work more effectively, this can have a long-term negative impact on quality of life. As mentioned in an article from La Presse written at the start of the pandemic, it is a question of balance.

Despite these few potential challenges, we are certain that Telecommuting will now be part of our daily professional lives. Let’s be prepared, listen and be positive agents of change.

About the author

Pierre Kergoat
pierre.kergoat@systematix.com

Mr. Kergoat has over 30 years of experience in information technology, including more than 15 years as a project manager and coordinator. Among his responsibilities, he runs the STX Studio in Montreal, where he is responsible of the solutions developed within the Studio and for setting up Systematix Centers of excellence.