Telecommuting: Yes or No

An Economists Perspective

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Telecommuting: Yes or No
Kerr Street Cafe
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About the Author

Linda Nazareth

Linda Nazareth

An economist, author and broadcaster, Linda is also the Senior Fellow for Economics and Population Change at think tank The Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Linda lives in Oakville with her husband and daughter. She campaigned in the 2014 Municipal Election for Ward 5.

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Given the choice, would you want to telecommute? And if you are a manager, is telecommuting a good idea? Amazingly, although we have the technology to let many people work from anywhere, the jury is still out if it is best idea for companies and for the economy in general. The final verdict will have great impact – including the future of Oakville.

Telecommuting fascinates me. On one side are CEOs like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer who disrupted a long held practice and ordered all employees back to the office, all day, everyday. On the other, we have Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson who called her actions ‘Old School Thinking’ Pre-global recession. There was a bit of a shift towards Sir Richard’s view, but in the scarred post-recession world the balance is shifting back.

Many Oakville residents would welcome the ability to work from home, at least on occasion. According to Statistics Canada’s National Household Survey as of 2011, less than 9 percent of Oakville workers worked from home, while everyone else commuted. I was surprised to find that the median commuting time from Oakville to work was a modest 26 minutes. More telling, however, is that 1 in 5 commuters leaves home between 5 and 7 am in the morning.

So here is why the final verdict matters for towns like ours. If as a society, we ultimately decide that people can telecommute, then Oakville will be the place to be, for many reasons. The town, if you only need to brave the Gardiner Expressway every week or so, is a reasonable distance from Toronto, as well as from Hamilton and the technology triangle of Kitchener Waterloo. There is a major airport close by. It is the right market to attract new, highly-skilled workers – and we still have room to build more to house them.

If the consensus is ultimately that everyone does have to work in the office, living in Oakville and points further west will be less attractive. The discussion that comes up every time gas prices rise will surface again, and people will be talking about moving ‘back to the city’. That is going to weigh on housing prices particularly hard in a decade or so, when the mass of baby boomers hit their 60s and start to rethink where they live anyway.

As Oakville residents we need to be aware of the larger issues, and make sure we have a voice in their resolution. That might mean encouraging more research on the subject, and highlighting the benefits to firms and the environment of having workers off site. The future of work is a big issue, one that some might consider beyond the scope of municipal politics. I would disagree. We are in the midst of big changes, and Oakville residents deserve no less than to understand them and to have a voice in their resolution.

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