City of Ottawa endorses worker mobility

$20-million project being rolled out after pilot sees impressive results
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/21/2011

As part of a four-year initiative, the City of Ottawa is planning to spend $20 million to improve the mobility — and, as a result, efficiencies and service — of several hundred employees. While technology improvements and additions are a big part of the move, major changes to culture and performance management are also required.

“Part of what we were finding in the way the work was organized or the way that our systems were built, for some people, it meant you had to be at a specific PC or desk or you needed access to paper files to get your work done. So we’re trying to move more to a model that says, ‘I don’t have to be bound by that physical location to get my work completed,’” said Catherine Frederick, director of human resources at the City of Ottawa.

The project will implement mobile network security, mobile devices, teleconferencing-enabled boardrooms, soft phones on laptops supported by Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) deployment, electronic records, document-sharing tools, increased WiFi and wireless access, internal team message networks and electronic presence awareness.

“We want to encourage telework, but we are very much a desktop-oriented workplace,” said Sandra Garnett, manager of mobile workforce solutions and enterprise project management at the City of Ottawa. “Even the distribution of laptops has not been done in an enterprise way — it’s been piecemeal as needs arrive. So we’re looking at deploying rugged tablets or mobile devices for field staff and for office staff. Once they’re provided that, then the whole way that you do your business can evolve.”

When surveyed in 2009, managers at the organization suggested about 300 office workers might participate in some form of remote work, either from alternate locations or from home. By 2010, that number increased to 900 possible remote work opportunities, found the city.

“There is a little renaissance happening and a lot of it’s because things as simple as laptops are becoming less costly,” said Garnett. “As we move towards a more knowledge-based workplace, the bricks and mortar are less important — and bricks and mortar are very expensive.”

The recent decision came after a year-and-a-half pilot project with 60 bylaw officers. Results included reduced absenteeism (42 per cent), decreased fuel consumption (20 per cent) and decreased real estate costs (28 per cent). Productivity also increased, as the average number of zoning complaints handled by each bylaw officer was 828, compared to an average of 345 in other Ontario municipalities. Officers were also able to handle increased service requests, equivalent to the workload of five additional full-time officers, at a cost savings of $475,000 per year.

“So it’s also helping to allow them to better do their work and remain out in the field as well,” said Frederick. “There’s the obvious piece around being more efficient and driving some costs out of the operation. It also makes for a more satisfying work experience.”

Going forward, the project will roll out to about 1,100 field workers and 800 office workers at the 15,000-employee organization (excluding the police), depending on their job responsibilities.

“It is the tip of the iceberg, but it’s to do it in a way that is monitored, measured, logical,” said Garnett. “It really becomes a change in our culture.”

From mid-2011 to 2014, desktops will be replaced with laptops or other remote devices for a target population of office-based workers who meet with clients at alternate locations and are required to return to their designated work station to complete reports, return paper files and complete the day’s work. Temporary workstations, known as “hotelling” stations, will also be created for employees who work two or three days away from a headquarters location.

“To us, it’s a fundamental way of thinking differently about how we deliver services and not being boxed in to think we all have to be at a concrete spot,” said Frederick. “We’re very much looking at this being a business transformation.”

But this also creates challenges around work-life balance, as greater flexibility of work hours can lead to people putting in more hours. So the city will look at the policies of other ­organizations that have experience in that area, said Frederick.

“Obviously, it becomes more difficult to identify start time and end time,” she said, which also raises concerns around overtime.

Instant messaging will be another way the city will both encourage collaboration and ensure steady contact with mobile workers, said Frederick.

“That mimics, in a virtual way, walking around everybody’s cubicle and asking a question, so we want to replicate as many of those opportunities for sharing of information and assisting one another, even if you’re at arm’s length,” said Garnett.

In addition, HR is developing guidelines to assist managers with the development and support of remote office workers and teleworkers. Standard work profiles will be categorized to confirm which work types may or may not be recommended for telework. Guidelines will also help managers and supervisors tailor individual telework agreements with their employees to ensure they remain aligned with the work team and engaged with the workplace.

The telework program requires a slightly different approach from managers and supervisors, said Frederick, so the city has been doing more around performance management and measuring. That means applying the same types of management thinking and monitoring but in a different environment.

As part of that, the organization will be moving to a different type of measurement and asking, “What’s your definition of success?” she said.

Instead of measuring face time at the office or activity levels, it’s about focusing more on what is achieved, the outcomes.

“The work will continue to be measurable and quantifiable and quality will still be regarded as an important part of the workplace,” said Garnett. “None of that should be sacrificed by the location you’re working in. That’s part of the change management piece.”

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