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Working-from-home's image problem

January 11, 2012 | Hogan Keyser

When it comes to using technology to change how his employees work, Sheldon Dyck has led by example. In 2007, as part of its effort to foster more flexible working conditions, his company, Edmonton-based ATB Financial, made a major investment in high-definition video-conferencing equipment.

January 11, 2012 by Nick Rockel via
-- The $26.5-billion Crown corporation began by enabling video-conferencing in boardrooms and executives' offices. Then Mr. Dyck, president of ATB's investor services division, installed it at his properties in Kelowna, B.C., and Scottsdale, Ariz.

He also outfitted his Calgary home office so he could avoid rush hour by video-commuting to meetings early and late in the day. "A few other folks within the executive team and the management team started doing the same," Mr. Dyck recalls. "And we then had kind of a critical mass, so that for the people I was interacting with, 60 or 70 per cent of the time we were all doing that on a regular basis."

ATB was an early adopter of consumer technology for so-called telework, which can boost productivity and make workers feel more engaged. But other Canadian businesses remain skeptical of such tools, partly because the consumerization of IT means they must give up some control.

Thanks to the advent of cheaper and more portable installations, about two-thirds of the 350 employees in the three ATB wealth-management companies that Mr. Dyck leads now use video-conferencing. In addition, staff also have mobile devices, mostly iPhones and iPads. ATB has also embraced social media by using LinkedIn to communicate within the business and create specialty groups, Mr. Dyck says.

These technologies are just one element of ATB's Workplace 2.0 program, which aims to attract and retain talent by letting employees tailor work arrangements to their strengths and preferences.

ATB has partnered with the U.S. creators of the Results-Only Work Environment human resources strategy, says Sherri Wright-Schwietz, head of talent for investor services. It also joined forces with Calgary-based software provider Teletrips Inc. to assess, train, survey and track employees.

For example, Ms. Wright-Schwietz is classified as a flexible worker, meaning that she sometimes works from home or another remote locations. The Teletrips system keeps tabs on where she works and whether she has met or exceeded productivity targets.

Workplace 2.0 has shown results. On average, participants use ATB office space just one day a week - a change that will reduce real estate costs. The program is also having the desired effect on employees, Ms. Wright-Schwietz says. "Based on all of the interim surveys that we've done, productivity has increased and engagement has increased."

As employers compete for young talent, they can't afford to ignore the opportunity presented by telework. A 2011 survey of some 3,000 students and young professionals by San Francisco-based computer networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. reveals why. Two out of five respondents said they would take a lower-paying job if it gave them more leeway with respect to mobility, choice of devices and social media access.

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