Thursday, 17 November 2011

Workplace 2.0 in the Media: @SheldonDyck talks shop

Job on a Wire

Telecommuting is becoming increasingly popular, but do you have what it takes to be productive in your pyjamas?

By Steve Macleod
Sheldon Dyck hasn’t had an office in three and a half years.

The president of ATB Investor Services spends a couple of days a week working from home; a day or two traveling or working from a satellite location; and the balance of his work week is spent in a downtown hotel room, a meeting room, or a shared facility with a boardroom.

Even with the sporadic workplace arrangement – and a staff spread across Alberta – Dyck still manages to gather with his team for lunch. But instead of making reservations at a restaurant, Dyck makes sure pretty much everyone on his team has hi-definition video conferencing capability on their computers.

If their laptops are equipped with a good enough camera, employees can join the video conference from a restaurant, a park bench or their kitchen table. Pyjamas hardly ever show up.

“People carry their persona to whatever location they are going to, whether it’s digitally or physically,” he says. “There probably are fewer suits and ties, but people dress for the nature of the meeting.”

For a handful of people, working from their sofa without worrying about getting dressed is the ideal way to spend a workday. However, Dyck says, many ATB employees partaking in a virtual work arrangement do not have either the space or distraction-free setting conducive to being productive at home. For these staff members, being part of “workplace 2.0” is about having the commute time cut to five minutes and having their work judged on being productive and not being present.

Dyck says that as technology emerges from the “old days of laptops and cell phones,” cloud computing has played an important role in helping remote workers stay engaged, but HD video conferencing has been a major shift.

“We’re trying to create as close to an across-the-table situation as possible and body language plays a big part in that,” Dyck says.

As the quality of video conference technology improves, Dyck says the results ATB is getting from its virtual workplace project are substantial. While increased productivity is nice for the Edmonton-based financial institution, Dyck says for some employees, cutting out the daily commute gives back time and money equal to a 20 per cent raise.

How employees manage the extra time is up to them.


When global real estate firm Colliers International released its 11th Annual Parking Survey, Calgarians had proof they live in a world-class city. In this case, the proof came by being the priciest downtown core in Canada to park. The monthly unreserved parking rate in Cowtown now sits at $472.50, which is $140 more than second place Toronto and more than double the national average of $235.76.

The only other city in North America where residents have to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for downtown parking is New York City. Unlike public transit in the city that never sleeps, Calgary does not offer 24-hour service throughout the year. Combine that with the area taken up by the sprawling city, and many residents of Calgary see owning a vehicle as essential.

While the buses and trains leading to the city’s core are packed full of commuters during morning rush hour, a good chunk of the workforce drives as part of their daily commuting ritual. According to Statistics Canada, the driving time is getting longer. In 1992, commuters in Canada spent an average of 54 minutes making the round trip drive between work and home. By 1998, commute times across the country increased to 59 minutes and were pegged at 63 minutes in 2006. That’s 275 hours per year or 34 work days.

Calgary Economic Development launched WORKshift in 2009 to help reverse the trend.

“It is the first program like this in North America,” says Robyn Bews, project manager of WORKshift. “The objective is to take a regional approach to promote, educate and accelerate the adoption of virtual work.”
Since its launch, WORKshift has been involved with more than 20 organizations, assisting employers and employees transition to a virtual work strategy. Bews says most companies are slowly integrating the practice with a pilot program and offering employees an opportunity to work out of the office a few days a week.

Perhaps not surprisingly, IT companies were early adopters of allowing employees to work remotely, but Bews says other professions are starting to catch on, such as lawyers, interior designers, geologists and engineers.

“It’s about how you apply the process,” she adds. “You can’t do the same thing for every person and we don’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Extroverts Can Thrive

As it turns out, Bews says, people who are extroverts can have an easier time adjusting. By nature, they are the type of people who like to communicate what they are doing and when doing this remotely, it provides comfort to managers and colleagues that work is getting done away from the office.

“And colleagues say it’s nice to have them out of the office,” she adds.

In order to make a virtual work arrangement succeed, Bews says that communication plays a big part. Technology has integrated instant communication into our daily lives and Bews says we already have all the tools needed to communicate virtually.

“Some companies offer training critical to getting people prepared and recalibrating communications expectations,” says Bews. “You have to focus on communication with peers and managers regularly. That will avoid pitfalls.”

Virtual work arrangements, Bews says, aren’t human resource gimmicks designed to attract junior workers, mothers or senior executives. She says the average demographic of virtual workers is university-educated males in their 40s.

“It’s for the mainstream group,” Bews says. “People want the ability to manage their lives. They decided they want to work when and where they’re most efficient.”

A move from work-life balance to work-life integration might mean scheduling a dentist appointment at 2 p.m. on a Monday and going to see an elementary school Easter pageant at 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday. It will also include working from a home office at 10 p.m. or while sitting in an airport for three hours.

In order to make the most of the experience, Bews says, it’s important to set up an appropriate work space that is separate from personal space. Also, set specific times to be focused on work, but also set specific times to be focused on personal life – and take lunch breaks. But in the end, it comes back to communication.

“Be clear about your availability. Just because I’m not at my desk, doesn’t mean I’m not available,” Bews says. “Here’s my contact information and here’s how to reach me.”

Prior to joining the banking sector, Dyck was an entrepreneur, so he never really had a structured workplace arrangement. After seeing employee and customer satisfaction rise three years into ATB Financial’s virtual work project, he says he wouldn’t work for a company that valued an employee’s physical presence over their ability to be productive.

“We had an adviser working for us in Edmonton who was expecting the birth of his first child,” says Dyck. “He was working really hard with one client, but also wanted to be close to the hospital. So, he took a laptop with an HD camera for video conferencing to the hospital and got hooked up with his client in Grande Prairie.”

The ATB representative closed the deal and was present during the birth of his first child. The employee and the client both got everything they wanted, a timely deal and no disruption of anybody’s personal life.

“In the old days he would have had to delay the client and possibly not get the deal or miss the birth of his first child and regret it for his entire life,” says Dyck. “It’s a tug of war we’ve been in for years of feeling like we’re not succeeding in some aspect of our lives.”

With the right structure and a wardrobe more extensive than pyjamas it’s possible that that tug of war could be virtually eliminated.

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