About five years ago, telecommunications giant Telus Corp. did an audit to find out how many of its 41,000 employees were using their assigned office space.
The company discovered that just half of employees were working at their desks on any given day. On top of that, about 10 per cent of the company's 4.8 million square feet of office real estate was empty because no one had ever been assigned to it.
That launched a rethink at Telus about the way offices can work, which its executives say is unprecedented in Canada, though not elsewhere.
The company decided to try to get 70 per cent of its employees to work mobile – either at home or on the road – with brief drop-ins for office time.
As a result, Telus has reduced its office space across the country by a million square feet and is planning to drop another 400,000 in the near future. It is using the money saved from selling or repurposing that space to build or renovate deluxe new offices for its employees in Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City and Vancouver, among others. Telus announced on Thursday it is planning to build a 58-storey, 750,000 square-foot tower in Calgary at 100 7th Ave. S.W. Telus Sky will transform Calgary's skyline with "an architectural marvel, creating a dynamic community of blended urban living and working," the company says.
"We want less space but better space," said Andrea Goertz, the company's senior vice-president for strategic initiatives.
That trend – less office space; space that's designed for people to drop in rather than occupy a designated chunk of real estate permanently; more people working from home or on the road – is one that has emerged in Europe and the United States in recent years, but less so in Canada until recently.
"Workplaces are really shifting to shared-amenity spaces to maximize the return on investment for companies," says Teresa Miller, a Vancouver interior designer with the international architecture firm Perkins + Will. "It's a real game-changer."
Companies that she has worked with such as CBRE Ltd., a real-estate brokerage based in Amsterdam, like the benefits they see, said Ms. Miller: reduced operating costs, improved staff retention, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and flexibility. She said CBRE doesn't even have its own chief executive officer in Amsterdam working out of a conventional office any more.
For architects and designers, that means creating new kinds of offices to accommodate this different way of working.
"It's opening up this whole area of offices as little neighbourhoods, with coffee bars or places for people to connect with each other," Ms. Miller said. "In a traditional model, it's all about the private office. It's part of the boomer generation mentality, if you own something, you've made it. But we have this huge Generation Y, where access trumps ownership."
Certainly the idea of giving up her personal cubicle at a Telus building in return for flexibility and time saved commuting appealed to Marla McNabb.
Ms. McNabb has worked for Telus for 24 1/2 years, in recent times as a marketing manager. For 23 of those years, she commuted five days a week to an office in Burnaby, B.C. That was a minimum of an hour for Ms. McNabb, who lives in a suburb much further east in the Fraser Valley. And, because there was massive construction going on to replace the bridge crossing the Fraser River on her route, sometimes the commute could be two hours each way.
Two years ago, with her daughter going into kindergarten, Ms. McNabb thought about quitting. But her manager suggested she could work part of the time from home.
Now she spends about three days a week at her home office. When she needs to meet with her 12-person marketing team, either all of them have a joint phone conference or she books, through Telus's online system, a desk in the shared office. About half the team now works at least part of the time outside the office.
When Ms. McNabb makes an online booking for a desk, she can see who has already reserved around her for the day and she can choose a place that is close to her team.
The rotating seats also allow her to meet people from different departments. "I like it. It's refreshing, there's always different people sitting nearby."
Not every business is embracing the new-style office. Ms. Miller said that it took two years for the Vancouver CBRE office to be convinced it could work the new way. "And we still get a lot of pushback with legal firms."
Andrew McAllan, vice-president at Oxford Properties Group in Toronto, said professional-services companies such as lawyers and accountants still want a fair amount of fixed office space. Those companies have gone so far as to reduce the amount of space per person and also have moved to a format with standard-size executive offices – no more differentiation between senior and junior partner offices – in order to make their spaces more flexible.
Even Mr. McAllan's office is 20-per-cent smaller than it was two decades ago. He believes the companies most likely to drastically reduce their space and encourage the majority of their employees to work from home are the technology-oriented companies like Telus.
Another example he has observed in Canada is Royal Bank of Canada, which has built some "touchdown spaces" for its employees.
But even high-tech companies often want the face-to-face contact among their employees.
Google, for example, recently leased seven floors in a 50-year-old building in downtown Toronto.
"They incorporate an element of flex space, what Telus might call hoteling. But we find that for many companies, to really build collaboration, people need to be in contact with each other."
And, he said, "we're not at a point where the vast majority of customers would want to be interacting over a video phone. We are, after all, social animals."
Telus's system works because its entire business is based on helping people connect virtually, Mr. McAllan believes.
"Telus is an adopter because it's so tech-driven. It's based on how to have a virtual office in space. People can dock and the system recognizes them and routes all their calls there."
But that may change over the years, as more companies start adopting a Telus approach.
For Ms. McNabb, however, the biggest advantage is that it allows her more face-to-face time with the key people in her life.
"I just got nominated to be on my daughter's PAC [parent advisory committee]. If I was commuting two to four hours a day still, I couldn't do that."
When disaster strikes
The flooding last month in Calgary showed another advantage of telecommuting.
Andrea Goertz, senior vice-president for strategic initiatives at Telus Corp., said employees were able to keep working without having to venture into the disaster-hit areas such as Calgary's downtown. "Having the technology and processes in place that enable our team members to work from home helps us to continue working when weather or a natural disaster strikes, whether that means not having to struggle through traffic after a big snowstorm or being able to continue serving our customers when something more serious occurs.
"… During the recent flooding in Alberta we asked our employees in the affected areas to work from home so they could maintain phone service for our customers and emergency responders without having to risk their personal safety. This also kept our team members out of the downtown core, allowing the city to focus their efforts on the massive cleanup."