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From his home office in Calgary, Sheldon Dyck, president of ATB's investor services division, regularly video-commutes to meetings held at the downtown office. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
From his home office in Calgary, Sheldon Dyck, president of ATB's investor services division, regularly video-commutes to meetings held at the downtown office. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Office tech

Working-from-home's image problem Add to ...

When it comes to using technology to change how his employees work, Sheldon Dyck has led by example. In 2007, as part of its effort to foster more flexible working conditions, his company, Edmonton-based ATB Financial, made a major investment in high-definition video-conferencing equipment.

The $26.5-billion Crown corporation began by enabling video-conferencing in boardrooms and executives' offices. Then Mr. Dyck, president of ATB’s investor services division, installed it at his properties in Kelowna, B.C., and Scottsdale, Ariz.

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He also outfitted his Calgary home office so he could avoid rush hour by video-commuting to meetings early and late in the day. “A few other folks within the executive team and the management team started doing the same,” Mr. Dyck recalls. “And we then had kind of a critical mass, so that for the people I was interacting with, 60 or 70 per cent of the time we were all doing that on a regular basis.”

ATB was an early adopter of consumer technology for so-called telework, which can boost productivity and make workers feel more engaged. But other Canadian businesses remain skeptical of such tools, partly because the consumerization of IT means they must give up some control.

Thanks to the advent of cheaper and more portable installations, about two-thirds of the 350 employees in the three ATB wealth-management companies that Mr. Dyck leads now use video-conferencing. In addition, staff also have mobile devices, mostly iPhones and iPads. ATB has also embraced social media by using LinkedIn to communicate within the business and create specialty groups, Mr. Dyck says.

These technologies are just one element of ATB’s Workplace 2.0 program, which aims to attract and retain talent by letting employees tailor work arrangements to their strengths and preferences.

ATB has partnered with the U.S. creators of the Results-Only Work Environment human resources strategy, says Sherri Wright-Schwietz, head of talent for investor services. It also joined forces with Calgary-based software provider Teletrips Inc. to assess, train, survey and track employees.

For example, Ms. Wright-Schwietz is classified as a flexible worker, meaning that she sometimes works from home or another remote locations. The Teletrips system keeps tabs on where she works and whether she has met or exceeded productivity targets.

Workplace 2.0 has shown results. On average, participants use ATB office space just one day a week – a change that will reduce real estate costs. The program is also having the desired effect on employees, Ms. Wright-Schwietz says. “Based on all of the interim surveys that we’ve done, productivity has increased and engagement has increased.”

As employers compete for young talent, they can’t afford to ignore the opportunity presented by telework. A 2011 survey of some 3,000 students and young professionals by San Francisco-based computer networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. reveals why. Two out of five respondents said they would take a lower-paying job if it gave them more leeway with respect to mobility, choice of devices and social media access.

But telework has an image problem. “People assume the word ‘telework’ means that you go home and you work in your bunny slippers five days a week and nobody sees you any more,” says Robyn Bews, project manager of WORKshift, a Calgary Economic Development initiative that helps local companies introduce telecommuting programs. “That’s just not the case. What we’re doing is promoting [the fact that]individuals work when and where they’re most efficient, often using existing technology.”

At Cisco, employees use technology such as its TelePresence HD video-conferencing platform and Directory, its own version of Facebook, to ensure they have flexible working options, says Nitin Kawale, president of Cisco Systems Canada.

“Our folks have access to these tools every minute of every day,” Mr. Kawale notes. “On top of that ... everyone’s enabled on their devices and everyone’s enabled at home. So what happens is 48 per cent of our work is done off-hours and off-premise.”

Mr. Kawale believes the Canadian business community has been reluctant to follow suit – despite the fact that more than 70 per cent of Canadians use social media. He finds it ironic that in the workplace, many people don’t have access to such powerful tools from their consumer lives.

“This is one of the things that is hamstringing Canadian businesses, and I think it’s slowing down our innovation and productivity,” Mr. Kawale says.

Bruce Matthews, a Vancouver-based business development director in the enterprise division of Telus Corp., flags the consumerization of IT as a trend that will transform the world of work. “Video could be the next killer app, so to speak, in the sense that it’s been talked about for years and it’s never really taken off in the enterprise world,” Mr. Matthews contends. “But I think what’s happening is because of the quality of access now and the quality of devices, video is becoming point-and-click.”

Many organizations are struggling with the bring-your-own-device phenomenon as employees bring their tablets and other gadgets to work, Mr. Matthews says. “People are showing up [with them]because they’re personal productivity tools, and they’re saying, ‘Well, I want to use this.’”

If employers remain wary of those devices, they do have legitimate worries, he adds – especially given the rise of cloud-based data storage. “Someone loses their iPad, which happens all the time, and a company’s intellectual property is on display at Starbucks.”

Another weakness is the scarcity of tools that allow multiple remote users to collaborate on the same document, says Kate Lister, a principal at the Carlsbad, Calif.-based Telework Research Network. “There are some – Google Docs, Adobe has some products – but I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of real-time collaboration.”

Mr. Matthews anticipates the day when he can hold a cross-country video-conference at the press of a button – and let mobile users join the conversation seamlessly.

“If I had a vision for where this goes, I think technology starts to become invisible,” he says. “The technology starts to work the way you and I want to deal with each other as human beings.”

Flexwork tips

Nitin Kawale offers these tips on introducing video-conferencing and other technologies to help create a flexible work environment.

  • Don’t wait: “Some companies, both large and small, public sector and private sector, are actually doing this and they’re doing it well. But as a whole – I speak to Canada as a whole – I think we’re behind. So start right away, and start with video to capture the hearts and minds of your company, and then build your way from there.”
  • Embrace social media: “IT departments are worrying about what access [they]should give employees. Should I let them go anywhere? Should I limit some websites? How much should I track it? That kind of thinking really slows down the proliferation of these solutions. If you have a good code-of-conduct policy in the organization, then let the tools proliferate and deal with issues if you have a code-of-conduct issue. And that suddenly allows you to open up.”


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