Making It Work: How Telus mastered working from home long before the pandemic

Like a lot of British Columbians these past few months, Alessia Yaworsky has been working from home—in her case, an apartment she shares with her partner in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood. But whereas for most this was a recent and jarring shift, for Yaworsky it's no big deal. She's been doing...

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Most of Telus’s 25,000 employees work at home or in a service vehicle most of the time

The telecom’s Work Styles program, in place since 2006, enables three-quarters of employees to work remotely

Like a lot of British Columbians these past few months, Alessia Yaworsky has been working from home—in her case, an apartment she shares with her partner in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood. But whereas for most this was a recent and jarring shift, for Yaworsky it’s no big deal. She’s been doing it for nine years, virtually her whole career.

“The difference is I’m now working from home 100 percent of the time,” says Yaworsky, 30, senior project manager, corporate citizenship and communications, at Telus Corp. She’s just one of the 73 percent of the telecom’s 25,000 employees deemed mobile workers, meaning they don’t have a permanent workstation in a corporate office, but rather spend most of their work week at home or in a service vehicle.

On the one to three days a week that Yaworsky chose to come into the company’s head office—pre-COVID—she would book a desk using an app, set up there for the day, attend meetings, get face time with her colleagues, maybe go for lunch with them and take a 15-minute walk home. But in a pinch, she can fulfill all her duties from home.

The pandemic has prompted many employers to consider permanently decentralizing their workforces, causing office landlords and leasing agents to shudder. In May, the CEO of Ottawa-based Shopify, which had earlier announced plans for a 1,000-person, 70,000-square-foot office in Vancouver’s Four Bentall Centre, declared that “office centricity is over”—the e-commerce software provider’s employees would continue to work from home even after the pandemic wanes. Before employers make that leap, though, they’d do well to learn from Telus’s experience.

It was back in 2006 when the firm first piloted what it calls Work Styles. The arrival of broadband Internet, cloud storage and other technologies was making it possible for teams to collaborate online. At the same time, employees were asking for more flexibility around where and when they worked; a work-from-home option, the HR team realized, could differentiate Telus in the competition for talent. For its own part, the Vancouver-headquartered company saw an opportunity to reduce its cost of leasing and owning office space.

To begin with, participation in Work Styles was deemed a privilege, offered only to employees with good track records and cohesive teams, says Sandy McIntosh, Telus’s executive vice-president, People & Culture, and chief human resources officer, who joined in the midst of the transition in 2007. This was key to getting buy-in from a largely unionized workforce, she says; as long as workers saw it as voluntary and advantageous to participants—especially those with long commutes—it was hard to contest.

“As we all got more comfortable that we were not sacrificing productivity or engagement, then we opened it up,” McIntosh says, to all employees whose positions lent themselves to a remote setup. “Eventually we flipped the question around, to who has to come into the office?” By 2011, the company reached its goal of approximately three-quarters of its workforce being mobile. Having reduced the real estate footprint of its primary administrative buildings by more than 60 percent since 2009, Telus estimates it saves $50 million a year.

A mobile worker will still have an office or service shop they drop into from time to time, but none of these workplaces could accommodate all the employees attached to them at once. (For example, 250 staff are expected to call the planned Telus Ocean building in Victoria their “office” once it’s completed in 2024, but there won’t be that many workstations on the premises.)

Telus doesn’t pay workers for use of space in their homes, but it does supply laptop computers and other hardware and software tools as needed. It subsidizes workers’ high-speed Internet up to $35 a month (on top of the employee discount for Telus’s own services) and offers a $50 annual stipend for office supplies. Further, employees can take advantage of corporate discounts with suppliers such as Staples and Steelcase.

The biggest challenge in implementing Work Styles, McIntosh says, wasn’t around logistics but management. “We had to take a real leap of faith, asking our team leaders to employ some trust, holding people accountable in terms of how they serve their customer,” she explains. “Just those everyday leadership training and behaviours that you would require in the office, we’ve really had to double down on that because we’re not getting to physically see everyone down the hall. We’ve shifted the focus to outcomes over time at desk.”

Once the company went all-in on Work Styles, the opposite problem emerged. “Leaders didn’t know how to tell workers when to come back in periodically” for performance reviews, strategy sessions and other collaborative events, McIntosh says. Now it felt like an imposition on team members to summon them to the office. Supervisors had to learn to rein in their team members’ autonomy when it wasn’t working, MacIntosh adds. “There is a balance to strike.”

There are rules around the home office, too: it has to be in a designated quiet space, where other family members aren’t traipsing through and confidential conversations can be held. Sensitive information can’t be left out on desks or onscreen for others to see (employees may even have spouses who work for the competition, remember). Staff with small children must have child care, though this stricture was relaxed during the disruption of COVID-19.

Of course, Work Styles proved an invaluable asset for Telus when the pandemic hit. Company operations didn’t so much as miss a beat when offices closed. A staff survey in May revealed a sense of gratitude that their health and safety were protected, McIntosh notes. Telus claims other benefits from the program, too, from greenhouse-gas reductions to improved employee engagement.

McIntosh advises other employers considering a move away from a centralized office format to take advantage of the COVID lockdown to get feedback from employees and managers, gather insight and line up a strategy behind a specific end goal. “Right now you have a living lab pilot,” she points out. Set up a team to manage the transition, make choices around the technology, HR, governance and so on. And keep communicating with the team throughout.

Adopting a program like Work Styles is easier said than done; Telus rival Rogers Communications launched a planned five-year rollout of its Sharespace program in 2015, only to quietly scale it back a couple of years later.

From the employee’s perspective, Yaworsky stresses the importance of maintaining a personal connection with her coworkers, even if it’s over a video call. Some sessions are less work meetings than virtual social gatherings, she says. With most of her five-member core team, which manages corporate giving and volunteer programs, based in Toronto, she’s gone years in some cases knowing colleagues only from text exchanges, phone calls and video meetings.

“Height is always a big surprise when you finally meet someone in person,” she says with a laugh.