It was a snowy, bitter morning in Toronto, but lawyer Allan Rakowsky was getting ready to head out for a round of golf after finishing a consultation with a Bay Street client. The fact that he was in Florida was business as usual for him and his client back in Canada.
This winter, the partner with Rose Persiko Rakowsky Melvin LLP is a snowbird, handling his practice from a home office in his beachside Jupiter, Fla., condo and using a smartphone on the golf links. He’s found he can keep up his legal practice from just about anywhere. Last year, he handled the legal work for a major transaction while he was vacationing on a cruise ship.
It’s been a revelation for someone in law, traditionally one of the most office-bound of professions.
“I was always worried about taking holidays because I was afraid I’d be missing things if I wasn’t in the office every day. Now I’ve got an inexpensive program on my computer that lets me see the same screen I would see if I were sitting at my desk in Toronto,” he says.
“I really believe I’m just as productive here; I still put in a full day but I can set my own hours.”
It’s a radical shift in thinking that’s shaking up the very definition of workplace.
We’ve already passed a tipping point in the death of the 9-to-5 office routine in Canada, says Sara Mann, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont.
“We found that what we traditionally think of as a standard five-day-a-week office arrangement is now actually non-standard, and flexibility about time and location of work is already much more the norm,” Prof. Mann says, referring to a yet-to-be-published study that analyzes Statistics Canada data she did in collaboration with researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton and Memorial University in St. John’s.
The study found that just 43 per cent of employed Canadians have a standard five-day work schedule every week. About 36 per cent can set their own flexible routines, another 29 per cent can vary the days or weeks that they work, 7 per cent work four days a week or less and about 5 per cent work more than five days a week.
The results are significant because just a few years ago, most employers resisted employee requests for flexible hours and working from home, Prof. Mann says.
Surveys of managers routinely found a majority feared that employees who were out of sight might not have their noses to the grindstone.
But the new study has found that employers are now the ones initiating flex programs, Prof. Mann says.
“Our findings suggest that flexible work schedules are created more for business reasons than for worker interests,” she says. “Typically you would imagine that organizations would think of offering flexible work schedules as an employee benefit or perk and that is certainly how the employees perceive it. But our study showed that organizations are offering flexible work schedules for their purposes, like being able to hire part-time staff and saving on office space.”
“The younger generation is now expecting this type of arrangement, and if employers are reluctant to offer it, it will be difficult for them to retain their employees,” she says.
However, it’s no longer just a generational issue, because everyone has become comfortable with using technology to communicate across distance or even with the people who sit next to them in their office, says Robyn Bews, director of the Workshift program for Calgary Economic Development, a corporation funded by the city to encourage employers to offer options to commuting to work.
For the past four years Workshift has been helping employers in Calgary set up flexible work programs and this year it will launch a national effort to set consistent standards for employers in other cities.
“We’ve changed everything in the way we communicate in our daily lives. Nearly everyone has a device in the palm of their hand that they can use to manage their work and, even in the past year, I’ve seen a surge in acceptance of the fact that most people can work from anywhere from both employees and employers,” she says.
There is no time in the foreseeable future when our social systems, communication styles or technology will have us migrating back to a tethered state; employees have already left the building and they won’t be coming back.
“But many organizations are still not doing enough to leverage the trend. There are still workplaces with cultures of distrust and managerial mentalities that are a throwback to the industrial revolution,” she says. Workshift’s message is that “organizations are left with two options: evolve or become a relic.”
But that’s not to say it’s right for everyone or that companies should force it on reluctant employees, cautions Kate Lister, president of the California-based Telework Research Network, which has analyzed the results of more than 2,000 studies on various aspects of remote working and workplace flexibility.
“While the studies consistently show that the majority of employees would jump at the chance to work at home – largely because it reduces stress and improves work-life balance, forcing it on people is a recipe for disaster.” Common concerns such as whether they’ll have the discipline, whether it will affect their career advancement, co-worker jealousy, and loneliness can be easily overcome with training, but they should be addressed, she says.
“The trend is clear. Both employers and employees are seeing the overwhelming advantages of workplace flexibility. Those organizations who aren’t already working toward it need to start if they expect to compete in the years ahead,” she advises.