The Toronto office of T4G Ltd. has work spaces for at least 140 employees, but on a typical midweek morning, fewer than 30 of them are occupied.
And that’s a busy day. The technology services company has become close to virtual, with staff free to either work from home or on the road most days.
“We define work as an activity; it’s not a location or a set period of time. Going to work means working wherever it may be convenient,” explains Paul Barter, the company’s vice-president of research. “We don’t make people punch time cards. As long as they’re providing what it takes to be successful, who cares where it is they do their work?”
Mr. Barter believes that makes people more productive. “It just makes sense. If your work is done in front of a computer each day, it’s a waste of time to have to commute for an hour and a half to the office to do that.”
Ellen Auster, professor of strategic management and policy at York University’s Schulich School of Business, adds that there are advantages for both employers and employees by decentralizing the workplace.
“There are advantages [for the employer] even before they get the folks on board,” she says, noting the money saved on real estate and taxes, and the cost of managing and maintaining a building. There’s also better work-life balance for the people doing the work, a smaller carbon footprint with less commuting and high-tech virtual meetings.
“Go backward 10 years and it was an incredible challenge because all you had was the telephone,” she said in an interview. Think of the time people spend on the road to a workplace and it can add up to 10 days a month – “time you could be working for your company and achieving better life balance in the time you’ve saved.”
The multifaceted accounting house PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP supports flexibility and a decentralized approach – not surprising with 25 offices across Canada, and more globally.
“It’s at the core of what we do,” says PwC’s Penny Partridge in the Toronto office, where she is leader of human capital. Flexibility creates productivity, she says. To reach goals in their personal or business lives “people need time in their day. With the millennium generation, age 32 and under, it’s the way of the future.”
But what about the productivity of these out-of-office workers?
Measuring productivity “is a 19th-century issue,” Mr. Barter says. “We’re a 300-person company, so how do you measure how productive any one person is? And what good is being productive by writing a lot of lines of software if it’s not what a client wants and isn’t helping the company grow?”
“The important questions are: What are people doing that help us make money and do the clients think we are doing a good job for them and do they keep coming back to us?” To answer those, the company has developed ways to track the amount of work time employees are billing to clients, how profitable their work is and how satisfied the customers are with the results.
The process starts with a meeting between each employee and their managers at the start of the year to write what T4G calls an employee’s charter, laying out the requirements of their job and setting measurable goals for the year.
These are accessible on employees’ computers in the form of dashboards that provide daily references to their performance in meeting the goals.
In addition, managers get feedback from clients in the form of questionnaires and personal meetings that assess how employees are meeting their needs and what they could improve.
Accountability – making sure the employee is doing the kind of work the company wants and delivering on goals – is important in this approach to work, says Ms. Auster.
“I think what we end up with is more metrics, and in the case of T4G, more transparency on metrics, which I would argue is always a good thing,” she says.
“The more knowledge we have, both as employers and employees – where we’re excelling and what we find challenging – is going to enable both sides to solve problems more quickly and address the issues, provide training, provide development,” Ms. Auster says.
Problems arise when an employee doesn’t know the employer wants him to improve or doesn’t understand what the employer views as a weakness. “And so, by having increased accountability, that provides more information on both sides.
“Fundamentally, we should be creating organizations and work contexts and work challenges that enable people to be inspired. If businesses are engaged in activities that create value and protect the planet … then we have employees that are passionate, and the more passion we can create for people around the work, then the less monitoring and Big Brothering we need to do anyway.”
Some employees, particularly in human resources and accounting, still find it more efficient to come in to the T4G office on Toronto’s east side. When others do come in to the office for meetings, they use shared desk spaces. Because all the mobile employees are issued computers equipped with Microsoft Lync, a business equivalent of Skype, and earphones, teams can hold daily or weekly face-to-face meetings remotely.
But the company still finds it is important for developing a sense of corporate identity to get the employees physically together on a regular basis.
At monthly meetings and events, including an annual Christmas party, “There may be people who have worked at the company for years who are meeting for the very first time,” Mr. Barter says.
The bottom line is the policy has been effective for the company and is popular with employees. In a business that has high employee turnover, T4G has a very low staff churn, he says.
“The big part of the reason we can keep talented people is that they like the ability to work from anywhere.”