GIBBONS: Work at home may mean extra homework for civic planners

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Be careful what you hope for because it could end up being bad business for Ottawa.

Just about everybody’s cheering Shopify’s ground breaking decision to transition its workforce into a permanent work-from-home business. Why not? Who doesn’t want to work from home? Just be careful what you hope for because it could end up being bad business for Ottawa, especially if the federal government falls head over heels with the idea.

Government remains this region’s biggest employer with about 120,000 federal public servants in the national capital Region. Over time, many of those jobs could become ripe for a new kind of decentralization if it no longer mattered where government employees hung their hats on a given work day.

After all, a kitchen table in a remote area of Newfoundland could become just as productive as a home-based work station in Ottawa if the whole notion of big central offices becomes redundant.

Look at it this way: If I’m a small-town mayor in a region of high unemployment or even a federal politician looking to score a few points on the home front in an election year, I’m lobbying hard for my share of those home-based federal jobs in my community. Why should Ottawa-Gatineau continue to enjoy a de facto monopoly on many of them when it no longer matters where workers report on a workday?

Decentralization of federal government jobs, especially to areas of high unemployment, has been around for decades. But, for the most part, it has involved moving entire departments, like the relocation of the federal public service Phoenix pay system to Miramichi, N.B., a few years back. (How did that go?) But a tectonic shift to a home-based work model for government employees serves to open the door to a micro-decentralization of government jobs, of which previous generations of politicians could only dream. Maybe I’m exaggerating the risk here, but, given the way politics works in this country, I don’t think so.

Shopify kick-started the debate over a more permanent work-from-home business model last week by announcing its Ottawa work force would trade in office desks on Elgin Street for home-based work spaces. That’s great news for many of its employees, I’m sure, but potentially much less so for Ottawa if the company no longer feels constrained to house the majority of its workforce in a central office in the nation’s capital.

After all, work from home really means work from just about anywhere.

Shopify has emerged as the crown jewel of the region’s burgeoning tech sector and it would be a shame if its local footprint as an employer eroded as the company opted for a more regionally or even globally-based workforce.

That’s not to say I’m against the work-from-home revolution. It’s overdue. Let’s just recognize there are potential downsides from a community perspective if it places at risk some of the well-paying jobs currently located in our region.

The COVID-19 pandemic took the work-from-home concept and rammed it into high gear as workers across the region transformed kitchen tables into ready-for-work spaces. It has been a tough adjustment for some, especially parents with kids who are being kept home from school. Many government workers have also found there are huge technical limitations blocking their full access to computer systems that are vital to their daily jobs.

But, overall, these are glitches that can be overcome and the advantages of working from home are now just too great to ignore for employees and employers alike.

Think about it: Work from home means less commuter travel and less spent on roads to get workers to their jobs downtown. It could have a huge impact on the environment as a consequence.

It also means greater choice for residents in deciding where to live.

The advantage for some employers is even greater: no more office towers to maintain and extortionate property taxes to pay, higher satisfaction levels for employees, less stress and quite possible much higher productivity.

And what about all that Class-A commercial office space that could become concrete symbols of a bygone era? Some of it could transition to more inner-city living spaces. The point is that it’s the kind of radical transformation that needs to find space in the debate over the city’s future.

It’s even possible the coming home-based work revolution may have greater impact on the way our city grows and evolves than the recent city council deliberations regarding a new official plan. We can only hope that civic leaders are at least taking the implications of a possible radical shift in the workplace landscape into consideration as they envision the future of our city.

Rick Gibbons is a veteran journalist/broadcaster and former chief executive of the Ottawa Sun.

Email: rick.gibbons@outlook.com




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