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Many companies see the value of telecommuting while other worry about productivity.Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Canadian businesses are split on whether or not telecommuting is a good practice, says a new survey.

Among Canadian companies in the Bank of Montreal poll that offer telecommuting to their work forces, 65 per cent said it has a positive impact on employee productivity and 58 per cent report it makes for a better quality of work by those who telecommute.

However, 61 per cent of businesses polled expressed concerns over the possibility of lower morale and 53 per cent said they worry that productivity would fall if telecommuting – allowing employees to work remotely away from the office – were permitted.

The survey results come on the heels of Yahoo Inc. chief executive officer Marissa Mayer's decision a few months ago to no longer allow telecommuting. The move came as a surprise to many people, especially in the Internet sector, whose more informal rules and infrastructure make it easier to work away from the office.

Ms. Mayer's edict also triggered a widespread, polarizing debate over the practice.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said he agreed with Ms. Mayer's ban, describing telecommuting as "one of the dumber ideas I've ever heard."

Virgin Group PLC head Richard Branson said on the company's blog that not letting employees work outside the office is "old school thinking."

"In an evolving work force, Canadian businesses are fighting to be flexible, innovative and enticing by offering incentives that will benefit not only the organization, but also their employees," Bank of Montreal senior vice president for commercial banking Steve Murphy said in a news release Friday.

"These flexible work arrangements help employees achieve greater work-life balance, improve workplace productivity and strengthen employee morale."

The poll found that 64 per cent of companies offering telecommuting deemed it as having a positive impact on morale as well as helping attract and retain talent.

And 54 per cent of those companies reported lower office and overhead expenses.

About 23 per cent of companies surveyed offer telecommuting, with large firms twice as likely to offer it (47 per cent) as smaller businesses (22 per cent).

Only 8 per cent of employees of all businesses work remotely, according to the poll.

Alberta is the province where companies (34 per cent) are most likely to offer telecommuting, while businesses in the Atlantic provinces are the least likely (16 per cent).

In a sector-by-sector breakdown, business and finance polled the highest of those offering telecommuting: 28 per cent, while manufacturing and retail tied for second (14 per cent), services came in at 13 per cent and agri-business was last at 3 per cent.

The BMO report points out that telecommuting is not always just working from home.

"In fact, mobile workers can be among a company's more productive workers because they often work at different locations within the company or at a client's site," said Michael Thornburrow, senior vice president of corporate real estate at BMO Financial Group.

"Recognizing this, as well as wanting to avoid the cost of empty workstations when employees are on the road, on vacation or sick, many employers are moving to 'hoteling' – where employees do not necessarily sit at the same workstation every day. This approach provides a more flexible environment, and can lead to improvements in employee productivity, employee satisfaction as well as real estate savings."

The poll was conducted by Pollara with a sample of 500 Canadian business owners, conducted between Feb. 25 and March 15, 2013. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Follow Bertrand Marotte on Twitter: @globemontrealOpens in a new window

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