You’re still expected to show up

When H1N1 came calling, Clare Kumar heard opportunity knocking. After all, the Toronto-based professional organizer figured, a worldwide pandemic meant scores of employees confined to their homes, desperate for the services of someone who specializes in establishing effective and ergonomic home offices.

Not every kind of office job can be done at home

When H1N1 came calling, Clare Kumar heard opportunity knocking.

After all, the Toronto-based professional organizer figured, a worldwide pandemic meant scores of employees confined to their homes, desperate for the services of someone who specializes in establishing effective and ergonomic home offices.

Unfortunately for Kumar, it hasn’t worked out that way: Canada’s employers, it seems, are clinging to the antiquated notion that when it comes to a job, actually going to work is Job 1.

“If your manager gets it and understands the productivity gain, then you’re in a good position,” said Kumar, whose efforts to convince Canadian companies to take her on as a work-from-home consultant have so far been largely for naught.

“If they don’t, it’s back to the dark ages.”

Still, all is not lost for the home-office revolution, say experts who anticipate the second wave of Canada’s H1N1 pandemic to bring with it a fundamental shift in corporate culture when it comes to allowing staff to work from home.

For many, the hope is that the realities of conducting day-to-day business during a pandemic will force managers to rethink their biases and make telework — once considered a viable future vision of the workaday world — a permanent part of corporate life.

Paula Allen, vice-president of organizational solutions and training with Toronto-based health and productivity consultancy Shepell.fgi, said she’s seeing evidence of that already, as clients re-evaluate many of their business practices in developing H1N1 contingency plans.

As they isolated the most critical part of their day-to-day operations, a growing number of companies are indeed realizing that a physical presence in the office wasn’t as vital as they thought, Allen said.

“One of the first and best practices was social distancing, which means giving people the opportunity to work from home,” Allen said in a telephone interview.

“As a result of actually going through that thinking, people are realizing that there is more opportunity to have people telework than what they realized previously.”

Technological advances have also helped change the thinking at companies where telework projects have failed to launch in the past, she added: Clients are taking a second look at the wider variety of sophisticated, user-friendly and inexpensive tools at their disposal these days.

Liz Wright, compensation practice leader for central Canada with Watson Wyatt Worldwide, said businesses need to realize the potential boost a strong teleworking policy could give to their recruitment efforts.

Businesses that place a high priority on employee health are more likely to attract and retain staff, Wright said. Pandemic fears have allowed — indeed, forced — some companies to reconsider how they value the health of staff.

“I think it could be a win-win on both sides, allowing employees some flexibility while ensuring that the business gets done the way it should be done,” Wright said.

“I think it’s a bit of a mindset around new ways of thinking around work, and I think employers are starting to realize that.”

Some say the pandemic is going to put the very concept of telework on trial as companies confront long-held trepidation that critics call a byproduct of mistrust and misinformation.

Apart from wary managerial attitudes, economic factors could be contributing to corporate reluctance to make changes, said Bob Fortier, president of the Canadian Telework Association.

“Faced with economic constraints and probably an already higher-than-average instance of absenteeism, many companies are hurting right now and they might not feel they have the resources to put a quick program together,” Fortier said.

Indeed, many businesses would in fact experience cost savings by tweaking their telework policies, he added.

Many managers cling to the notion that employees who are not in the office are less productive than those who are under direct supervision, said Wright.

Such attitudes have no basis in reality, said Fortier, who cites an average productivity increase of 10 per cent in the various companies he has helped to implement telework. A 2007 study by Robert Half Technology, which surveyed some 270 chief information officers, found increased productivity a common benefit of telecommuting.

Allen said she believes businesses will come to embrace the concept whole-heartedly once they’re forced to rely on it. She’s confident that working from home won’t prove a passing fad that will ebb when pandemic fears fade.

“Once people have a tool, have a skill, have an opportunity,” she said, “they use it whether there’s a crisis or not.”

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