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part three: telecommuting

Since we started this series on the benefits of telecommuting – the fancy name for working from home – we've received plenty of responses from people who are fairly passionate about the topic.

It appears that some folks working in the office might dream about working from home, but pretty much nobody who has started working from home dreams of going back to the office.

For the past year, there has been a systematic movement to build support for the concept of telecommuting in Canada. Last year, job-hunting site Workopolis launched a campaign to establish a national work from home day in Canada.

Although the campaign is at least in part a form of advertising for Workopolis, it has gained some traction, including support from some politicians on Parliament Hill. Workopolis claims that more than 77,000 people have gotten behind the movement.

More interesting than the campaign itself are the stats that Workopolis uses to support the claim that telecommuting is more beneficial for just about everybody than traditional office work.

According to the site's surveys, almost 90 per cent of people polled who work from home say it has made them more productive. Additionally, businesses find it easier to hold on to employees who work from home because those employees tend to have greater work-life balance. And the fewer employees a company has working in the office, the less office space they need to pay for.

But employees also benefit in other ways from not going into the office. Workopolis estimates the average Canadian wastes 182 hours and $3,000 a year on costs related to working away from home.

Beyond the cash and time savings, anecdotal evidence suggests that people who work from home tend to be, well, pretty happy.

Despite the numerous benefits, there are still costs to small businesses looking to adopt a telework policy.

Even though the Web has made it much easier to tap into office networks from just about anywhere, it's unlikely that a small company can establish a telework system without putting money into some software and hardware upgrades.

Those include everything from video cameras and video-conferencing software to collaboration software that lets multiple users edit the same document from multiple locations.

In addition, managers must make sure they have policies and practices in place to ensure that telecommuting employees aren't forgotten because they're not in the office – or, on the other hand, that they're not expected to work at all hours of the day and night because their home is their new office.

As well, some of the benefits for employers, such as the need for less office space, aren't likely to materialize overnight.

Fortunately, the solutions to at least some of these problems are becoming easier to find.

Software such as Skype, Google Docs and even newer versions of Microsoft Office are designed specifically for collaboration and communication over computer networks.

They are also relatively cheap, with Microsoft offering the new version of Office to small businesses on a sort of rental payment model, part of the company's attempt to convince its business customers to adopt more cloud-based services.

But the bigger question for businesses is whether the stated benefits of telecommuting for employees (time and money saved, better work-life balance) as well as the societal advantages (reduced traffic, lower carbon emissions from employees not have to drive to work) outweigh the cost of making a company telework-friendly.

This series continues next Thursday.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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