Satellite offices an option when the commute drives staff away

No matter how much they love working for you, the commuting grind gets even the most loyal employees dreaming about better work-life balance
By Bob Fortier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/13/2004


very year, the average employee spends the equivalent of six to 12 work weeks simply commuting to and from work.

Imagine what these workers could do with that time?

With each passing day stuck in traffic, you better believe your employees are imagining things — like working closer to home.

Now, imagine a way to retain top employees while making recruiting new employees even easier. Think telework, and the next generation of the concept, satellite offices.

No matter how much they love working for you, the commuting grind gets even the most loyal employees dreaming about a better work-life balance, less stress, more time with family, more time for themselves, more time for productive work.

And with many worn-out commuters, this leads to two possible scenarios. Quit and find work closer to home, possibly with a competitor, or telework in the current job, a practice that allows employees to work away from the normal place of employment.

At present, almost all — about 95 per cent — of the 20 to 30 million North Americans teleworking at least two days a week do it from home.

This could change significantly if the concept of telework “satellite centres” takes hold. It’s still telework, but instead of working in the isolation of home, workers go to nearby professional offices hooked up with the most advanced technologies to make teleworking more efficient, more secure. Since the centres are in bedroom communities, far from the downtown cores, workers are relieved of the commute and the stress attached to it.

Study after study over the past decade shows employees are receptive to telework. Many will forgo a raise for the opportunity to telework. Some will not even entertain working for a company that doesn’t offer a telework option.

Advantages of satellite centres over both home offices and “the” office include:

•many employees require a professional office setting and cannot work productively in the isolation of home; or find distractions, like household chores and children, getting in the way of work;

•satellite offices provide greater bandwidth and advanced technological services when compared to the average home;

•employers have control over occupational safety and health issues;

•satellite offices provide employers with emergency or contingency locations (think back to last year’s SARS outbreak in Toronto and other centres to put this in perspective); and

•away from the high-rent downtown core, real estate costs can be 50 per cent lower at satellite offices.

Three different models are possible for satellite centres:

Employer-controlled telework centres

This is almost like opening a district office. All the space is allocated to employees of the same company.

This moves jobs and employees out of traffic-congested cities and improves retention possibilities because staff now commute minutes, not hours, from work.

IBM Canada, a pioneer in telecommuting initiatives, began its mobile worker programs in 1996 and now operates 13 “mobility centres” in cities across the country. These centres cater to the needs of IBM’s mobile workers, including temporary work spaces with network connectivity, meeting rooms, storage lockers, faxes and photocopiers.

There are, however, limitations to this model.

One: the employer must have enough employees close enough to the centre to make it work. This is no problem for the big banks or IBM Canada with 20,000 employees, but smaller companies would have challenges.

Two: the employer must bear all recurring administration and operating costs, including maintaining ongoing IT support. These costs can be significant in both time and money.

Three: the employer is making business decisions based on where employees live today. There are no guarantees employees won’t move or quit and the employer may have trouble filling seats at the satellite office. Another way to look at it is that owning and running the space restricts the company’s flexibility as its workforce expands or contracts.

Government-subsidized telework centres

In the United States, the federal government’s General Services Administration operates 16 centres around Washington, D.C., that it uses for bureaucrats or companies wishing to lease space.

They were created to reduce gridlock in the D.C. area, and to improve the environment by taking cars off the road. Both goals are laudable, so why is the program struggling at only 60 per cent capacity and losing money?

A recent report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, the equivalent of Canada’s Auditor General, found that the various layers of government involvement means the centres are not running as efficiently as they should. And, by extension, customers’ needs are not being met as well as they could.

The report recommends better government co-ordination. Once problems are straightened out, these centres have the potential to be successful and become a part of the overall telework revolution in North America.

Privately owned telework centres designed for several employers

This is the newest satellite office model. It offers the most benefits when it comes to retention and recruitment, and other key areas like data security.

Essentially, a private company owns and operates the telework centre and leases workstations and offices out to various employers. The costs of bandwidth, IT support, receptionist, office security and more are borne by the centre’s owner and included in the cost of leasing. This is outsourcing at its best.

And, unlike temporary executive office space, often located downtown or near airports, these centres are located near where commuters live.

The first telework centre like this in Canada is being built in Barrie, Ont., about 100 kilometres north of Toronto, by SuiteWorks Inc.

“We offer value to the employer and we quantify that value,” said John Cameron, president of SuiteWorks. “Our suite of communications tools is state-of-the-art from brand new desktop computers to video-conferencing and electronic whiteboards to data encryption and security. We know corporations have confidential information and we’ve designed the offices and workstations for privacy and security.”

What sets SuiteWorks apart is a heightened focus on not just the employer, but also the employee. That’s so important because for any corporate telework program to work, it must work for both sides. (Find out more about SuiteWorks at

Satellite offices are part of the telework phenomenon, but not the total solution. This new concept will help grow telework overall because these offices are an effective alternative for employers and employees who want the remote work benefits, without the isolation and security issues of working from home.

Creating telework programs is good for stressed-out employees, as well as for well-managed and progressive companies looking to retain gifted employees and add to recruitment enticements. It’s also good for the environment by helping reduce auto emissions, and good for taxpayers by reducing the need to build new roads and repair existing ones.

Bob Fortier, president of InnoVisions Canada, a telework consulting firm, and president of the Canadian Telework Association. Visit both Web sites at

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