Canadian governments and businesses have been dragging their heels on a single business initiative that could increase productivity, provide an edge in global competition, allow for better emergency planning, save corporate and government dollars and help cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

That's not to mention a slew of more content, less-stressed employees.

What is this magic bullet?

Telework.

Photo courtesy of Bob Fortier
Bob Fortier says 1.5 million Canadians telecommute, at least occasionally.

I'm not talking here about the occasional day working at home on overtime, or waiting for a repairman, caring for a sick family member or toiling in a home-based businesses. I'm talking about people with salaried positions working for companies and government formally spending at least one day weekly working from home.

I'm also talking about formal policies, training programs for workers and their supervisors, and technical support.

About 1.5 million Canadians work from home, at least occasionally, says Bob Fortier, president of the Canadian Telework Association and InnoVisions Canada in Manotick, Ont., a half hour from Ottawa.

That's a far cry from Japan's target - it wants 20 per cent of the entire national workforce to telecommute by the end of this decade.

Governments around the world recognize the economic efficiencies of telework on a grand scale - fewer roads to build and maintain, less commuter pollution, fewer buildings to construct and heat.

The U.S. is awake and smelling the coffee. About 11 per cent of employees telecommute part of the week and two per cent do so full-time. The U.S. National Technology Readiness Survey says US$3.9 billion could be saved annually on fuel alone if every worker who could telecommute did so 1.6 days per week - based on the average U.S. commute of 20 miles (32 km) each day and 2005 fuel prices.

About 100 million U.S. workers commute daily, most alone in their cars.

There are additional savings in reduced costs in buying, building or leasing office space to house employees and energy to heat that space, not to mention the green effect - less greenhouse gas and more efficient use of resources.

Bell Canada estimates its teleworkers save 8,152 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually in commuting and space heating.

In an effort to boost the number of federal civil servants who telecommute (about 100,000 of 700,000), the U.S. federal government has begun withholding US$5 million in funding from every federal agency not making telework available to all eligible employees.

But big business began seeing the benefits long ago.

"We actually started in 1986," says Susan Garms, senior consultant, telework solutions for Bell Canada.

At first, the company found itself providing equipment to remote workers. It worked so well that, by 1992, the company had a telework policy in place and today about half of Bell's 40,000 Canadian employees telecommute.

Part of management's job, she says, is to examine how to more efficiently manage resources. "The No. 2 expense in any business is real estate," she says.

Estimates on real estate cost savings range from 25 to 90 per cent, or about US$8,000 per worker, according to the Institute of Distributed Work in the U.S.

British Telecom has a workforce of more than 80,000 employees, and estimates its 9,000 teleworkers save the company £35 million (that's better than Cdn$80 million) a year, according to company research done in 2002.

As well, the company has saved recruitment costs, since attrition is less than four per cent among flex and teleworkers.

With looming labour shortages, "we're looking to be the employer of choice," says Garms, and high on employees' wish lists is work-life balance - less time driving through traffic, more time driving golf balls, driving kids to practice, having kids drive you crazy.

Offering telework is like giving an employee an extra couple of weeks of unpaid time off, because the average Canadian spends 12 full days a year getting to and from work, according to Statistics Canada's 2005 General Social Survey.

Telework has another business benefit that can prove vital in the Canadian climate. "It's good to have workers who can work out of the office in case they can't get to the office because of some natural, man-made or technical disaster," says Garms.

Businesses in eastern Ontario and Quebec have had such experiences, says Fortier. "Snowstorms, strikes, wind- storms - every time a building shuts down, the company loses," he says. "With telework, you're not putting all your eggs in one basket. I would encourage companies to practise telework once a year, so you can feel confident some of the work will continue, even if the office isn't open."

But "never mind pandemic," says Fortier. "Think of the savings in the cold and flu season.”

British Telecom noticed teleworkers take only about a quarter as much sick time as office staff.

Full-time Canadian employees took an average of 9.2 sick days in 2005, says Statistics Canada - often from illnesses contracted at work. Absenteeism accounts for nearly 100 million lost work days annually - and costs Canadian employers an estimated $16 billion yearly. Avoiding one cold a year could save a company plenty.

I'd add savings from stress reduction, too. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates about 20 per cent of a company's payroll goes to dealing with stress - absenteeism, turnover, short-term leaves, counselling, medication.

Health Canada pegs the cost of work-life conflict to Canadian business at up to $10 billion a year. Telework can reduce or eliminate a lot of that stress - and those costs.

Telework also allows employers to tap into a new pool of workers - disabled workers, retired workers who would continue working so long as they don't have to commute, workers in remote areas, says Fortier. Even workers in other countries.

So why don't more businesses embrace telework?

We'll go into that in Part II of telework in the next edition of Business Edge.

(Sharon Adams can be reached at sharon@businessedge.ca)