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Trust gap should no longer be an acceptable barrier to providing staff with remote working options, says one careers specialist.Getty Images/iStockphoto

It's been more than a decade since early adopters such as Telus Corp. began offering remote working options. Yet, despite measured gains, such as lower overhead costs and employee turnover rates as well as higher employee satisfaction, some corporate managers in Canada still have difficulty trusting staff to work from home. At the same time, employees worry they will be considered less productive if not physically present in the office.

"If you've had the same managerial style for a long time it can be scary to change that up and learn to trust your employees when they're not around," said Brie Reynolds, the senior career specialist for FlexJobs. "Any manager that's interested in growing as a manager can do it, but it does require that shift."

According to a meta-analysis by Global Workplace Analytics, three-quarters of managers say they trust their employees, but one-third would still prefer to see them perform their duties in the office "just to be sure." Furthermore, a recent study by collaboration- and communication-technology provider Polycom Inc., found that 62 per cent of remote employees fear that their co-workers view them as less productive.

"The new way of working is really focusing more on output, and I think if an employer can focus on that versus amount of time and location of work, it works to their benefit, because employees are more productive when they have that flexibility," said Jim Kruger, Polycom's chief marketing officer.

Though Telus had no formal company-wide remote working policy before 2006, individual departments and managers had already been allowing their teams to work from home part-time as a perk well before then. "This was when mobile technologies were just starting to kick off, and I would say that our overall office occupancy was sitting around 50 or 60 per cent," said Geoff de Bruijn, the company's vice-president of corporate services and sustainability.

This realization prompted Telus to create the Work Styles program, which provides flexible working options for most staff. The company's 26,000 Canadian employees however, need to earn the right to work remotely, and about 70 per cent of those eligible take advantage.

The program recognizes that not everyone is able to be just as effective while working from home, and that it should be considered an earned privilege rather than an automatic employee right. Mr. de Bruijn explains that if staff members have a history of productivity or performance issues in the office, then they are less likely to be given the opportunity to work independently. "Team members who are scoring really low on the performance reviews are a red flag, and they might not be the right fit for this program," he said.

The company's internal surveys have found that 92 per cent of staff believe the program has been successful for them as individuals, 90 per cent said it factors into their decisions to remain with the company, and 98 per cent said it improves their perception of the company. Through their annual staff surveys, Telus also found that a majority of those who take advantage of the Work Styles program evaluate themselves as more productive while working from home, while a majority of managers score their employees' remote performance as about equal to in-office performance.

Similarly, a survey of 1,700 full-time North American employees by Softchoice, an IT services provider, found that 62 per cent of employees feel they're more productive while working outside the office, and at least 70 per cent would switch employers in order to do so more often.

In a 2016 survey of 300 Canadian IT decision makers by Citrix and Leger, 67 per cent of respondents indicated that increased mobility improves worker productivity.

But not everyone is able to be just as effective while working from home.

Mr. Kruger of Polycom explains that for certain roles it's much easier for managers to switch from location-based assessment to results-based assessments. Sales staff members, for example, are often given specific targets that they either hit or miss.

"For the traditional functions that isn't always the case – it's not black or white – so it comes down to making sure that as a manager you set the right objectives and expectations for output," he said. "If an employee is meeting or exceeding those, the employer shouldn't care if they took a couple hours to take their child to soccer practice in between."

The solution may come from finding a balance between remote and in-office work. According to a Gallup study, workers experience the greatest productive gains when they spend 60 to 80 per cent of their time working offsite, and the remainder working from the office.

"You don't have to have everyone working from home all the time," said Ms. Reynolds of FlexJobs. "From an employer's perspective, consider what are the most important things that people are doing in an office, things that they can't do from home."

Ms. Reynolds adds that some employers may prefer to have a designated day or two in which every staff member is present in order to host company-wide meetings in person. Others might find more significant overhead savings by ensuring no more than half of their staff is present in the office at the same time while others may see the benefit in allowing individuals to determine the schedule that works best for their unique situation.

Whichever policy they choose, however, Ms. Reynolds believes the trust gap should no longer be an acceptable barrier to providing staff with remote working options, she says.

"If you're hiring the best people for the position, you should also be hiring people you can trust," she said. "If you can trust your people than you should trust them to work remotely as well as they work in the office."

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