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Workplace flexiblity outside of Silicon Valley

The recently publicized news regarding the ban of telecommuting at Yahoo has ensued in a debate about the benefits of flexible work from home versus the requirement to come into work. However the first thought to cross my mind was that this flexible work arrangement only applies to a very small and privileged sector of employees. For example, working in healthcare, I am very aware of the fact that this debate doesn’t apply to nurses or personal support workers.

A quick list of other employees to whom this debate is irrelevant:

  • Food Service Workers
  • Retail Workers
  • Service Workers
  • Hospitality workers
  • Health care workers
  • Manufacturing
  • Construction
  • General labour
  • Skilled trades
  • Teaching
  • Community workers
  • Self-employed workers (it may or may not be a choice to have a home office)

Most of us don’t live or work in Silicon Valley

While Ottawa and Waterloo may vie for the title of “Silicon Valley North” the reality of employment in Ontario is that organizations don’t have a huge percentage of positions where it is viable for employees to work from home as a permanent part of their employment strategy.

In Ontario, it is jobs in the Services Sector that are growing the fastest. From October to November 2012, employment increased by 32,000 with all of the growth coming from the services-producing sector (+34,300).

In 2013 in Ontario, the sector comparison of professional/scientific/technical to the service production sector is 5,430,700 employed to 551,500 employed.

These figures show that over 70 percent of jobs in Ontario exist in the services sector. For example, in 2007 the percentage of employment in the services sector as a percentage of total employment was 76 percent while the percentage of employment in the manufacturing sector was 14.4 percent. Yes some of these jobs may include knowledge workers, managers or roles that could ostensibly spend all or part of their time telecommuting, but the vast majority of the workers are needed to complete work in a specific time and place.

The Reality of flexible work

For many employees when they hear the term flexible work – it is usually is in referral to themselves having to be flexible to meet the scheduling demands of the employer, to answer calls or emails after regular working hours or accommodating client requests. You want flexible? Ask any wait staff in any medium to high end restaurant about meeting the dietary, seating or service preferences of their clientele!

So if you don’t live in Silicon Valley and work for an employer who allows you to telecommute, what are some of the options employers can use to provide flexibility to employees? Do flexible work arrangements even exist in continuous care facilities, manufacturing or retail?

Flexibility options

Real flexibility in an organization is more complex than telecommuting it may encompass one or two options or a whole array. Some flexibility options to consider:

  • A compressed or shorter workweek using 12 hour shifts or some variation
  • Allowing employees to switch shifts without manager approval
  • Allowing employees to bank extra hours worked and take time off instead
  • Allowing the use of sick days for personal reasons such as appointments
  • Personal days
  • Computerized shift scheduling that gives employees the opportunity to bid on the shifts they want to work
  • Job sharing

Flexibility and contingency

Flexibility in staffing may not always be to the benefit of the employee. Consider for example healthcare in Ontario. In the past, employment in hospitals, in particular in acute care, was stable with a high ratio of full-time to part-time staff. But in recent years, employers have increasingly moved towards a model of a flexible and part-time workforce with a much higher ratio of part-time workers. This increased flexibility is really increased flexibility mainly for the benefit of the employer and often increases job insecurity for nurses.

This trend is also occurring in other industries as evidenced by the growth in part-time jobs, in particular the employment options for those aged 15-24 just starting out in the workforce.

Flexibility and employer obligations

What obligations do employers have to allow flexibility for full-time employees? Even if an employer does not have a flexible policy for everyday working hours, there are many circumstances where the employer is obligated to give the employee job protected time off work (unpaid) with no interruption of payments into benefits plans or seniority. In Ontario these include Pregnancy Leave (17 weeks), Parental Leave (35 weeks), Personal Emergency Leave (10 days) and Family Medical Leave (8 weeks).

Flexibility and family status

Employers also have one more area where they are obligated by law to be flexible with employees. A recent court decision reinforced the obligation of employers to accommodate employees to the point of undue hardship based on the grounds of family status needs (not just preferences) such as caregiving for children or perhaps caring for elderly parents. Requests for flexibility and accommodation on the basis of family status must be treated seriously by employers (read Simon Heath’s blog post).  


Whether or not your organization allows telecommuting or not, there are many options for flexibility in Ontario workplaces, including some that are protected under the Employment Standards Act and under Human Rights. As an organization, being reasonable, flexible and fair with employees as needed, will go a long way with employees rather than a one size fits all policy.

Full-time employees and certain industries seem to have more options for flexibility and realize more benefits from flexibility than others. Some industries and organizations deal with both worker’s needs or demands for increased flexibility and their own organizational scheduling demands with an increase in part-time employees over full-time employees. Howard Levitt, Employment Lawyer states that this increased employer obligation to accommodate will also result in increased discrimination against those applicants for jobs who might require flexibility because of family status.

What trends do you see happening in your organization? Flexibility works best when it is balanced between meeting the needs of both the employer and the employee.

Marcia Scheffler
M.A., CHRP Candidate

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Marcia Scheffler

Human Resources Generalist at Wawel Villa
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate is a Human Resources Generalist with M.A. working full-time as a Senior HR Officer. She is interested in the intersection of human resources theory and current best practices in HR. Read more
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