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As government telework expands, things to consider

A woman works on her laptop sitting on a sofa.

Tomasz Trojanowski/iStockphoto

The advantages of flextime and telecommuting seem obvious for the employee – you get to come and go from work and balance your job with your other obligations and your spare time.

But flextime and telecommuting can be tricky for public sector workers and the governments and agencies that employ them. Case in point: In Toronto, eight transit security employees were recently fired and now face criminal charges, alleged to have been faking doing their jobs and writing phony tickets while given wide latitude during the day.

As cities, provincial and territorial governments and Ottawa look at expanding flextime and telecommuting, here are some things to consider:

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COST/BENEFIT – Transport Canada's 2010 case study on telework notes that there are clear benefits to letting more people work outside the office – less traffic and sprawl, better employee motivation and retention, less need for office space and parking. But the study is thin on the actual measurement of these benefits – there are clear advantages for the environment and energy use, but studies are mixed on whether productivity is increased significantly.

EMPLOYEE OPTICS – How does it look to the public if government workers are not in the office from 9 to 5? In some cases it makes perfect sense – people preparing reports, or those who don't need to meet directly can be just as effective, if not more so, working remotely. Also, how does it look to the department head if you're physically at work less often, even if you're working just as hard.

MEASUREMENT AND FAIRNESS – In the private sector, "balance days" and "working from home" are often arranged or encouraged informally. When this happens in the public sector, it can trigger perceived inequities unless it's arranged formally. Cities like Edmonton negotiate with their workers down to the minute how much extra they need to work each day in order to get extra time off in exchange.

TIME OFF AND ON – One unpleasant side effect of flextime for some people is that it blurs the difference between work time and time off. This can put demands on employees when they were expecting not to be working. At the same time, employers will often expect that if you have flex time for appointments and personal calls, you should not be doing these when you actually are in the office.

TECHNOLOGY LIMITS – A video conference or Skype call can save taxpayers thousands of dollars and save employees time. But this is only true if the technology is up to scratch. Tech support is key: No one benefits from a meeting where people can't hear each other or which is delayed because the system doesn't work.

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