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Telecommuting: A BalancingAct

Adrienne Sannachan

Telecommuting is the latest buzzword for working from home. Two employees and an employer discuss the pros and cons.

Chaymie Hintz is an environmental project manager at Stantec in Edmonton. She coordinates the cleanup of oilfield spills, makes sure people have the tools and equipment necessary to do their jobs and has travelled extensively around Alberta to visit project sites and ensure proper procedures are being followed. Hintz creates reports, leasdds teams, liases with other Stantec employees across Canada nad works from home.

Say what?

When we hear of work-from-home jobs, transcription, medical billing, Tupperware or Avon are what sping to mind; but more and more corporations are embracing flexible work weeks, reduced summer hours, and the coveted telecommute for their employees.

On the surface, it looks like a good deal. Working from home affords you the chance to stay in your pajamas, skip the commute, spend more time with your family, and choose your own hours… right? As Hintz points out, telecommuting is far more involved than sipping a latte at Starbucks while you casually peck out reports on a sunny patio.

“The only way telecommuting works is if the people in the office know how to deal with the telecommuter,” Hintz pointed out as she multitasked her way through the interview. Despite it being 3 p.m on a Sunday afternoon, her Blackberry – the precious link to the office – was on the counter as she prepped dinner for her family and answered questions. “When I started [telecommuting], it was not a widely accepted practice in the company. Some people thought we [telecommuters] were just goofing off at home.” But as Hintz points out between expertly cutting up an asparagus and dismissing several emails on her phone, “there is no way to hid if you are not doing work. It requires a level of trust amount the team.”

As for those comfy pajamas, Hintz freely admits they make up a good part of her at-home wardrobe. However, elastic waistbands and flannel do not detract from her productivity or professionalism. “It’s actually easier to maintain professionalism and workflow,” she states after pausing to answer a call from Stantec regarding an 8 p.m. conference call schedule for later in the evening. “There is far less water cooler talk when you’re at home. I’ve seen my productivity increase by 20 per cent.” But there is a downside. “It’s not easy to maintain the personal relationships you develop at the office,” she cautions. “It’s harder to get to know your co=workers You can get isolated very quickly. Telecommuting is not something you want to do unless you already have a good support network of coworkers, friends and family.”

For Hintz, the importance of the work/life balance that telecommuting affords cannot be understated. “The kids like it and my husband likes it,” she confirms. “The kids  are much more active and they see me more during the day. After school we go swimming and to the playground. The kids are definitely healtierh and happier.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, ” her husband Chris agrees. “It’s nice to know if something happened with the kids, at least one of us is close to the school. Before, life just wasn’t working. She was doing 7.5 hours at work, plus two hours a day commuting. The time you spend in commuting can be spent with friends, family or doing something more productive. Besides, her lifespan as an office worker was over. This way has more flexibility for personal and medical reasons.”

Medical reasons: another reason why telecommuting  works so well for Hintz. Hintz suffers from torticollis, a muscle condition that causes pain similar to arthritis. After years of trying various treatments, she finds relief in several hours of yoga – daily. Skipping yoga sessions results in unbearable stiffness where even turning her head results in agony. Her telecommuting schedule allows her to engage in yoga while still meeting Statntec’s productivity expectations. If time off during the day to do yoga sounds unproductive, contrast that with time off during the day spent unable to work or at endless doctor appointments. Besides, “you;d look pretty funny doing you yoga at your desk, so chances are you won’t do it,” Chris points out. Being able to slip off tot he yoga studio down the street or even go from her desk chair to a yoga mat in home office has made a world of difference for Hintsz’s career.

The Blackberry goes off again and Hintz smiles when she learns her 8 p.m. conference call has been cancelled. “Technology has made it easier to telecommute but harder to achieve work/life balance,” she admits as she puts down the phone. “If you don’t set up boundaries, you will wind up working every hour of the day. It’s hard to make the distinction, especially if you have a Blackberry! Without boundaries, you don’t have a work and life separation.” She freely admits, “The work is part of your home life.”

Regardless, telecommuting works for Hintz, her medical condition, her family and Stantec. “If I wasn’t telecommuting, I’d be unemployed by now. I wouldn’t be able to manage work and my health issues.

Hint’s children, Nadia (8) and Liam (6) were happy to weigh in on the subject of their mom working from home. “I don’t like it when I don’t have stuff to do, but I like it when she gets a break and she plays with me,” said Nadia.

Liam firmly stated, “Things I don’t like is she has to work a lot. The thing I don like is when she works from home, she gets paid lots of money. That’s awesome!”

“We get food for the money and charity for the people,” Nadia solemnly agreed.

There is another aspect to telecommuting that nets “food for the money.” Our neighbors to the south, America, are struggling through a recession. Some have chosen to immigrate or change careers. Others, like Amandalyn Vanover, have chosen to stay put and telecommute across the border. Vanover is a freelance writer whose contracts include writing for a company in Edmonton. “Buying and selling American is encouraged day in and day out, but the choices are not always available,” says Vanover. “I believe more Americans are looking to telecommute because of the wide array of benefits. Many American companies are not flexible enough to offer this yet.”

Canadian companies engaged in cross-border telecommuting must follow mandates put forth by Human Resources Development Canada and other government agencies to ensure compliance with foreign worker regulations. Regardless of the paperwork, Vanover feels telecommuting is mostly a positive experience. “I think that telecommuting is the only way I can work effectively and efficiently for both my family and my business. Before telecommuting became my only way of working, I was always being pulled here and there, and falling up short in many areas. Now that I’m not wasting time and money in traffic, I am definitely more productive in life. The pros are unlimited for me personally, plus the foundation of telecommuting makes location a moot point. The cons are that I cannot jump in the car and go see the people that I work with and for. While telecommuting is awesome, a face to face visit would be a plus from time to time. ”

It is not just employees that support telecommuting. Many employers support it as well. One such company is Avalon Global. Avalon is located in Spruce Grove (Alberta) and provides creative IT solutions and social network marketing strategies for companies of all sizes. “Avalon actively promotes working remotely when it makes sense. There are times when it is far more efficient for both our company and the individual to work form home, but it depends on the person’s role in the company and their individual situation. The other side of this is that depending on their role in the company, there are times when physical proximity and face-to-face contact is important. This applies to staff and contractors,” says Jodie Stafford of the innovative company.

There is however, a downside. “In our company, we employe people that we need to have in-house and that need to be here for internal staff and client meetings, and we contract people that can effectively work remotely,” she continues. “One thing I know for sure is that it is much more difficult to build a cohesive team of people when they aren’t in physical proximity on a regular basis. In our business, our core team is in the office on a regular basis, and there is always a slight disconnect with the people who work remotely. Video conferencing is great, but there’s no replacing the need for human contact and relationships. I would say that one negative effect on the workforce will be that their advancement (within the company they work for) will be much more difficult without the availability for face-to-face contact with owners and upper management.”

Working from home is evolving form something parents do to earn extra money to something anyone can expect progressive employers in Canada to offer. While there are clear benefits to telecommuting, there are also pitfalls to avoid. In the end it comes down to the one thing we all strive to achieve: balance. thanks to advances in technology and forward thinking attitudes in the workforce, telecommuting is making that balance easier to maintain.

Article by Nerissa McNaughton. Published in Business Edmonton, April 2013 edition