‘Honey, I’m home!’

By Crystal Kingwell

Your eyes snap open to the shrill beeping of your alarm clock. You crawl out of bed, shower, dress, and grab a piece of toast on your way out the door. You hope for a quick commute, but construction downtown has traffic backed up. You curse and wish you’d never had to leave the house.

If this is you, take heart: the office of the future may be your own living room.

That’s already the case for Andrew Metcalfe, a 23-year-old Internet consultant who works from his home a couple days a week. He uses his personal computer to access everything he needs at his desk in the Computing Services office at Carleton University.

“I enjoy being able to lounge around in my housecoat all morning, not even having to shower,” he says. “I can just roll out of bed, have a cup of coffee and start working.”

Metcalfe is one of a growing number of Canadians who take advantage of technology to work from home. Statistics Canada counts one million “teleworkers” in Canada, up from 600,000 in 1993. It expects the figure to jump to 1.5 million by 2001.

The trend is becoming so common that StatsCan is trying to design questions for the next census on place of work so it can get more data on this phenomenon.

While most people still work in a traditional workplace, all signs indicate a trend toward home-based offices. In a recent survey by Ekos Research Associates, 48 per cent of Canadians polled said they work from home at least some of the time. Sixty-three per cent said they expect to work more from their homes in the future.

Telework offers obvious benefits: for employers, it saves on office space and often makes for a more contented staff; for employees, it means fewer interruptions, more flexible hours, and less travel time.

“I meet a lot of people who spend two hours a day commuting,” says Bob Fortier of the Canadian Telework Association, which was formed eight months ago. “That comes out to 12 work weeks a year. Here’s a concept that can help people adjust more comfortably so they can work faster and better.”

But that flexibility can be a liability because it blurs the line between home and work, says Michael Rosenberg of the Coalition Against Technological Unemployment in Toronto. “It’s not so great for workers because they end up essentially at their jobs 24 hours a day because they’re always expected to be available.”

But that doesn’t bother everyone. Craig McKie, a sociology professor at Carleton University who teleworks from his home in B.C., says he relishes the freedom that comes with working at home.

“I tend to turn on my machine at nine in the morning and I turn it off somewhere around 10 at night,” he says. “So my work is extended over 13, 14 hours a day, but I feel much better, because I can stop and go outside and do what I want.”

Telework does, however, mean the end of chats around the water cooler, and that can be a drawback.
“I like to say ‘good morning’ to the secretary as I walk in in the morning. And I would like my boss to know that I’m there and that I’m working,” says Metcalfe. “When I work at home, I get disconnected from the people around me.”

Telework also presents problems for people who are unfamiliar with the technology. McKie says younger workers tend to be more technology-literate, which gives them an advantage.

“Older workers have to acquire some new skills at a time in life when they’re expecting not to have to do that,” says McKie. “And they will be under pressure to use these skills in ways that have become second nature to younger workers but will always be somewhat foreign to older people.”

The trend will change not only the way people work, but also the way they live, he adds. For instance, bus systems are designed to take people to the downtown core in the morning and take them back to the suburbs in the evening. With fewer people working downtown, this design would become irrelevant.

“I see electronic technology as having a dramatic impact of the order of the original Industrial Revolution,” says McKie. “I really think it’s a fundamental change and it will end up changing a number of other social arrangements which were built around another arrangement of work.”

Fortier agrees technology is changing the nature of work, but he insists it’s a change for the better.
“Maybe there will be some negative impacts, but I think by and large the impacts will be overwhelmingly positive,” he says.

For Metcalfe, it comes down to convenience.

“It’s usually a Monday morning when I say screw it, I’m not coming in to work today,” he says with a smile.