06/26/2013 08:31 EDT | Updated 08/26/2013 05:12 EDT

A panacea for some, working from home still a tough sell for some employers

TORONTO - In the time it takes most people to get out the door to begin their morning commute, Ana Aresta is already at work — all she has to do is walk downstairs.

Each day, Aresta — a telephone agent from Delta, B.C. — settles into her shift at Telus Corp. from the comfort of her home office, a far cry from the three hours she used to spend each day travelling to and from the telecom giant's office in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.

The result, she said, has been a dramatic improvement in the quality of both her personal and professional life.

"I missed out on my kids' sports because I couldn't get there on time or I had to make other arrangements," Aresta said by phone from her office.

"The ability to be there, I feel much more engaged with each of my family members on a total different level. I'm now contributing more to take off the stress load from my husband."

Work gets done in a productive environment free from distractions, while her break time, spent sipping coffee on her own back deck, is far more revitalizing and useful than the fitful moments she used to snatch to break away from her old office cubicle.

Aresta said she takes personal satisfaction from reducing her carbon footprint by keeping her car off the road. Even her bank account is comparatively flush, since eliminating travel costs shaved $650 from her monthly budget.

She's just one of the 1.1 million people in Canada who work from their homes most of the time, according to the latest batch of numbers from Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey, the voluntary replacement for the defunct mandatory long-form census.

Even so, it's but a tiny fraction of the roughly 15.4 million people captured by the survey who still brave a morning commute in order to get to the office — an indication that despite the popularity of the concept, it's not as easy to put into practice as it might seem.

Some companies, like Telus, have embraced the idea of allowing staff more control over their working hours and locales. Equipping Aresta's home office was just part of a broader corporate strategy to have 70 per cent of the Telus workforce working on a mobile basis by 2016, an approach the company said it expects will save $50 million in real estate costs.

Still, despite the fact that telecommuting, or telework, has become a well-established part of Canada's work-life lexicon, not all Canadian businesses have embraced the concept, experts say.

Robyn Bews, director of Calgary-based mobile work consultant Workshift, said official numbers may not reflect the nuances of the modern-day workplace. Telecommuters run the gamut from people like Aresta to harried workers reading emails while sitting in gridlocked traffic.

"Telework really conjures up images of bunny slippers and people working at home full-time, whereas ... you could be in an airport, you could be at a partner site, you could be in a coffee shop closer to home," Bews said.

"It could be one or two days a week, maybe it's when it snows. It's really about embracing technology to achieve productivity."

Canada's private sector has been faster to recognize the benefits of making the workplace more flexible, said Bews, but companies have been slower to implement formal policies that reflect modern working conditions, she added.

A stigma still exists around telecommuting, Bews said: some employers equate it with slacking off, while others simply don't appreciate the extent to which technology has made the idea of working offsite much more manageable.

A recent high-profile decision by U.S.-based Internet titan Yahoo Inc. also dealt the telework movement a body blow: earlier this year, chief executive Marissa Mayer ordered all remote staff back to the office, saying all hands needed to be on deck for maximum productivity.

Linda Russell, managing partner with Telecommuting Consultants International, decried the move as a backwards strategy that will eat away at the concept of trust in the workplace.

Russell said she sees mobile working arrangements as a successful part of any corporate strategy, adding both remote and face-to-face interactions have their place in today's offices.

"Telework is not something you do five days a week; telework is integrated," she said. "You work wherever you need to work to get the job done. It's not a place, it's one of your tools."

Unfortunately, Russell said, Canada's legal system has raised hurdles that prevent many from modernizing their practices.

While the United States government has adopted legislation requiring public sector employers to make mobile working arrangements available to their staff, no such provisions exist in Canada.

Worse, said McCarthy Tetrault labour law specialist Earl Phillips, national employment standards don't account for telecommuters at all. Current laws are based on a typical nine-to-five work day. Employers who embrace working from home wind up in violation of employment standards and vulnerable to excessive overtime claims, he said.

"I don't think any employer today can be in full compliance with employment standards legislation," Phillips said. "No matter how good an employer they are, you cannot fully comply and meet the requirements, requests and desires of your employees."

Phillips said the "outdated and outmoded" legislation will eventually have to evolve as companies increasingly conduct business in the ways that work best for them.

Canada's employers are doing just that, Bews said.

"In Canada, we have a war for talent that's fairly unique and pretty acute right now," she said.

"The companies and leaders I'm working with right now are saying, 'We know that in order to attract the best and brightest talent, we have to reconsider how we're asking people to work.'"