Strategy Session: The Remote Future

Strategy Session October 2014

This month, John Piercy, Group Vice-President at Business with Shaw Communications, rejoins the Strategy Session (Alberta Venture) for another conversation about the future of work. We both agree you’re old and you’ve got some habits you’ve got to break. So wrap an afghan around your legs. Let me pour you a cup of coffee—or maybe just some hot water with a lemon? Yeah? Feel comfortable? Now let’s get you to think about the future and present of work, instead of still doing things the way they used to be done…

Full edited text at Alberta Venture: The Remote Future: More and more people are working from where they want to and when they want to

Unedited text below:

STRATEGY SESSION: Remote workforce

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at, @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at

By Marzena Czarnecka

“…here’s a deceptively simple action item to put on your agenda for business growth, working families and a green future: Make it the norm for everyone to work at home at least one day a week. That single step could raise productivity, save energy, decrease pollution, reduce traffic congestion, cut household expenses, increase quality of family life, and keep educated women in the workforce.”

– Roseabeth Moss Kanter

Roseabeth Moss Kanter, Earnest L. Arbuckle Professor at the Harvard Business School, is one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in the World” (according to The Times of London, anyway), and she wants you to set your employees free. One day a week. That’s it. Give them one day a week to work from home…or wherever the heck else they want to work, and see what happens. She predicts a spike in their (and your) productivity and increased employee retention—and that’s just the benefits to you.

Kanter’s assertion is backed by decades and decades of research, which neigh-unanimously states that letting people work from where they want to work and when they want to work—as opposed to in your office, Monday to Friday, nine-to-five (in Calgary, seven-to-six)—is, simply, better. Better for the individuals, better for their companies, better for their cities—better for the planet.

And yet. There we are. All on Deerfoot or Calgary Trail at 6:45 in the morning, cramming into the downtown, jamming into the elevators, getting our bums in the seats of our un-ergonomic office chairs… Why?

The answer’s going to hurt. Are you ready? Here, sweetie, sit down. Wrap an afghan around your legs. Let me pour you a cup of coffee—or maybe just some hot water with a lemon? Yeah? Feel comfortable? Ready for some bad news?

It’s because we’re old.

And when I say we, I mean you. But it’s not your fault. We’re all products of our environments, our experiences—our habits. And you—the person making the top-to-bottom decisions on how your people work—grew up in a time of landlines, desks, physical conferences, and hand-delivered, if not hand-written, memos.

You’re having a hard time letting go. It’s natural.

I’m not calling you a Luddite, baby, because you’re not. You yourself are perfectly wired: there’s your Crackberry, and there’s your tablet. You’ve got your home office set up for video conferencing; you can partake in any critical meeting when you’re on vacation. You’ve even got this funky little portable scanner that lets you sign documents on the go. You work out of your base office in Calgary a lot, but you’re in Vancouver, Toronto, Houston, Cushing a few days each month. And when you’re sunning your tush out in Palm Springs, Florida or Barbados—you’re fully wired, reachable and ready to act if there’s a business emergency. You have to be: that’s today’s business reality.

But when Jane, your up-and-coming-star-gonna-be-a-VP-before-she’s-40 asks you if she can work from home two days a week, you don’t even think about it; you reflexively say no.

So, sweetums—how’s that afghan? Comfy? Refil of hot water? All good?—you’ve got to get over that. And say yes.

Don’t listen to me. Listen to John Piercy, Group Vice-President at Business with Shaw Communications.

“We still have this dominant management mindset that if our people are not tethered to a desk, they’re not working,” Piercy says. “Well, I would argue most people tethered to a desk are not working.” Hear, hear. Piercy’s team—the people who report to him—are spread throughout Shaw offices in several Canadian cities. Even though they are working in an office, as far as Piercy’s concerned, they’re his remote workforce. There aren’t very many desks he can swing by to see if their seats are occupied by a tethered bum. “I don’t know if they are their desk or not, I just know that if I call their cell phone or set up a meeting I can get in touch with them. Whether they do the work at noon or midnight doesn’t matter,” Piercy says. “Frankly, I’ve gotten myself to this place where if I swing by the desks of those of my people who work in Calgary, and they’re at their desks, I start to wonder if they’re really working.”

You’re twitching. Stop. Here’s the thing: resistance is futile. The shift toward the work-that-can-be-done-anywhere-anytime actually happening that way is happening, and 10 years from now, it will be the dominant paradigm. (Yes, not all work qualifies. You are, sweetheart, allowed to insist that your receptionist sit in the office Monday to Friday, nine to five, and greet clients, and yes, your cleaners actually have to come into your space during certain hours, and your barrista does not get to indulge in this freedom either, the poor guy—stay in school, kids.)

“The evolution of technology is driving this phenomenon, and the brightest minds coming out of universities right now don’t see why they should work at a desk,” Piercy says. “And if you want to attract them and keep them, you have to address it.” But don’t sweat it too much. If you don’t—someone else will. Like, the people you’ve already hired. “When the generation that graduated five years ago works its way up to middle management this will not be an issue, this will be an expectation,” Piercy promises. “In 10 years, work-when-you-want-from-where-you-want will be the norm.”

Now, there’s a way to do remote work well and there are a hundred ways to do it badly. Calgary-based not-for-profit WORKshift is focused on giving organizations, employers and employees a code of the best practices needed to make remote work really work. Robyn Bews, director of the initiative, which is a partnership between Calgary Economic Development, GoToMeeting, KPMG, and Shaw, is an ardent advocate for the creation of workplaces in which employees work when, where and how they are most effective and efficient—because it makes sense for everyone involved.

But it’s important to do it right—right? And doing it right starts with solid human resources practices. That is, hiring talented people you trust to do the work—from anywhere. As Piercy puts it, “This only works if the manager trusts her people.” Working on a beach, a ski hill, from a hockey rink, around diaper-changes? The only thing that should matter is that the work that you need done gets done.

Next—you’ve got to train and equip these people you trust. They need the right tools—technological and other—to do the job. So yes, computer, smart phone—a secure and reliable Internet connection—and also the ability to troubleshoot technical problems, on their own, or with your (outsourced and also remote?) tech support. But, even more importantly: some training and support in how to be effective remote workers. There are best practices that apply to individuals as well as corporations; WORKshift and other organizations (links below) are on hand to help you help them develop those.

Finally, you need to plan for face time. Not just with your “official” remote workforce—as Piercy has noted before, more and more of your local workforce is off-site much of the time, and the days of dropping by someone’s office or cubicle for a quick debrief are disappearing. Plan regular “in-the-flesh” meetings; create “everyone’s in the office on Tuesdays!” schedules.

Other than that, let them work when they want, from where they want.

Because… your younger workers in particular? They’re going to do that anyway. You might as well look as though you’re leading the way, right?

(Plus, did I mention? One person telecommuting one day a week reduces your organization’s CO2 footprint by over one metric ton per year. So go tell Jane she gets her two flex days. No, not when you get back to Calgary. Right now. They have Internet in Nigeria. Call her right now. What? You’d rather email her or send her a text? Even better. That’s how she prefers to communicate too.)

Learn More:

WORKshift—a not-for-profit dedicated workplace transformation initiative dedicated to promoting, educating and accelerating the adoption of flexible work programs that allow companies across Canada to finally accept and embrace our changed world
Check out this series of WORKshift: Think Outside the Office videos, featuring, among others, Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, Shaw VP John Piercy (interviewed in article above), and ATB’s Karen Bayerle.

Mobile Work Exchange—research studies, ROI calculators, a telework and mobile IT resource centre, and all sorts of other goodies (US source)

e-Work—courses, management tools, and consulting services (US source)

London & Zurich’s Guide to Flexible Working


The Internet and social media. Wondrous things, and essential tools for your marketing and communications people. And an absolutely awesome source of procrastination for everyone on a crucial deadline. You know that one of the things that will ensure you meet the deadline, nail the project, and thrill the boss is staying off Facebook and Twitter. “But I have no self-control!” Don’t worry. There’s an app for that.

No, really. At least a self-control crutch. Developers 80pct Solutions have two apps—Anti-Social, which will block your social apps for you, and Freedom, which will boot you off the Internet entirely for specified work periods.

You’re welcome.

Something extra…

I write about the challenges of working from home–with young children underfoot–frequently at Nothing By The Book. Interested? Start here: The naked truth about working from home, the real post and maybe pop over here The naked truth about working from home, the teaser. And, if you’re having one of those “Wow, you’re so amazing! I could never do that!” moments in reaction, here’s the antidote: How I broke my children.