“We are hurrying back and forth across town, morning and night, to situations which we could quite easily encompass by closed circuitry.”
– Marshall McLuhan, CBC TV interview, 1965
More than many people in the public sector, city councillor Josh Matlow appreciates the benefits of a flexible workplace.
“This morning I scheduled my day so I’ll be at City Hall later,” says the Toronto politician and first-time father of a three-week-old daughter, Molly.
“So this morning, between changing diapers and giving my wife breaks at home, I’m getting a lot of work done, answering calls and e-mails.”
Welcome to the new world of government telework. Mr. McLuhan’s vision of nearly 50 years ago is alive in the public sector today, as more bureaucrats and elected officials are doing their jobs far away from central office, delivering their work electronically and holding meetings by video and smartphone.
It’s happening, with varying intensity, in cities, provincial capitals, U.S. states and national governments around the world.
The trend is becoming possible thanks to everyday technology: smartphones, GPS tracking, desktop video and access to files via cloud computing.
The move to permit, and even encourage, more remote work is driven by cost, efficiency, labour market conditions and practical matters such as the need to deal with gridlock and pollution.
Yet, while most government employers appear to be open to flexible arrangements, in Canada there is still not much of a formal or legally established framework, even according to the government itself.
“The City of Toronto doesn’t have any policy that I’m aware of,” says Mr. Matlow, who represents a midtown ward.
But he notes that enabling more city employees to work without commuting could ease the stress and congestion that is costing the Greater Toronto Area an estimated $6-billion a year in lost productivity, according to the Toronto Board of Trade.
Other jurisdictions have taken formal or legal steps to encourage flex work, but even these are still in early stages.
In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the Telework Enhancement Act, requiring the heads of government agencies to establish a policy for employees to telework, determine who is eligible and communicate the policies. The U.S. General Services Administration even has a website to help managers set up telework policies.
Last November in Britain, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Glegg announced a plan to extend the right to “properly flexible” working arrangements to all employees with children, in the public or private sectors, by 2015.
And in Sweden, the public sector’s Swedish Agency for Government Employers sets a framework for the national and municipal governments – about a quarter of Sweden’s work force – to negotiate local working hours and include flex time provisions.
“It’s very important to give flexibility – depending on what you’re supposed to do at work,” says the Swedish Agency’s spokesperson Anders Stalsby.
“It’s more something that [individual government] agencies decide on. If there’s a large authority with workplaces all around the country, you can save a lot of money with telecommuting.”
In Canada there is no federal law or cross-country policy. According to a 2010 case study by Transport Canada, “Canada’s Treasury Board has established a policy to guide federal departments and agencies in creating and administering telework opportunities.”
The Treasury Board “has also initiated limited efforts in the areas of telework promotion and training. Some individual departments and agencies have taken internal initiatives to raise awareness of telework, develop their own telework policies, and improve telecommunications infrastructure.”
Telework is also happening at other government levels, often with the direct encouragement of employers.
Often the arrangements are informal – a trusted senior employee will quietly get dispensation to work from home, if the job doesn’t require scheduled meetings or interaction with the public, and if the employee can be available by phone or e-mail.
Some governments are trying to formalize flexible arrangements, so employees know what options are available and employers can keep track.
“Telecommuting and flexible hours are all part of the tool kit that employers need to use,” says Simon Farbrother, City Manager for the City of Edmonton.
From his vantage point, in a relatively tight labour market (unemployment in Edmonton is only 4.3 per cent), these types of flexible arrangements are “engagement opportunities” and retention tools – job conditions that make good people want to work for the city and stay in their jobs.
Edmonton’s flextime program lets many of the city’s 10,000 workers “buy” additional days off during the year by working an extra fraction of an hour each working day, negotiated to the minute between the city and its unions and professionals.
There are restrictions – the extra days can’t be banked beyond three days, and the extra time worked each day in exchange for the flexibility varies according to whether the employees are unionized and what type of work they do.
“Our flexible workday program is really good,” says Aly Moorji, who serves as team lead for recruitment in Edmonton.
He takes off every third Friday. Under Edmonton’s flextime rules, professional civic employees in Edmonton can gain up to 19 extra days a year working eight-hour days instead of the standard, negotiated 7.38 hours a day.
“When my wife decided to go back to work part-time on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it was definitely good to be there every third Friday with my kids.” The savings on daycare alone made it worthwhile, and the quality time is an added bonus, Mr. Moorji says.
“People are looking to work at a place that offers some flexibility. Organizations should be as flexible as possible.”