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Telecommuting on the rise to meet challenges of real estate market, labour shortage

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Five months ago, Alistair Vigier launched his all-virtual law firm, with a staff of eight who telecommute from a variety of locations across the country.

While Vigier is based in Victoria, ClearWay Law’s lawyers are distributed around the Greater Toronto Area, and its admin and other staff are spread around Victoria, Vancouver and Regina.

All work from home, meeting their family law clients in their homes or at coffee shops when needed.

At a previous firm where Vigier was an investor, the company spent around $20,000 per month for office space, keeping with the industry’s tradition of projecting an image of success through big boardrooms and beautiful views.

His new firm spends around $200 a month on occasional access to meeting rooms in co-working spaces — a savings Vigier says is passed on to the client through lower fees.

And staffers value the flexibility that comes with being able to work from home, he says.

Alistair Vigier, who recently launched an all-virtual law firm, says allowing employees to work remotely meets employees’ increasing demand for work-life balance and to live in real estate markets they can afford. (Submitted by Alistair Vigier)

“A lot of our lawyers are younger, so they really want that work-life balance. We had younger lawyers at the previous firm and they were always pushing to work from home anyway.”

Given the cost of living in major centres, if ClearWay had an office in downtown Vancouver or Toronto, support staff making $4,000 to $5,000 a month wouldn’t be able to afford to work there without punishing commutes from outer suburbs, he says.

Remote workers are looking better than ever to companies contending with expensive office space and a shortage of skilled workers who may not be able to afford housing in major urban centres.

Emboldened and in demand, workers in Canada’s low-unemployment provinces are increasingly game to work for companies that will allow them to telecommute, and industries — including those not typically known to embrace remote workers — are adapting to meet that demand.

Employees are starting to expect it and [companies] need to be able to offer those kinds of things to both attract and retain quality professionals.– Tara Dragon, founder of  WorkEvolution

“From my discussions with organizations, they’re finding that employees are starting to expect it, and they need to be able to offer those kinds of things to both attract and retain quality professionals,” said Tara Dragon, founder of WorkEvolution, an Edmonton-based consultancy and job platform that helps remote workers find jobs and companies adapt to telecommuting.

“Some view it as an opportunity to save on their real estate costs, which, for knowledge organizations, can be the second-largest expense after people,” she said, noting that office space can often amount to $10,000 per year per employee.

For other companies, it’s a way to solve hiring challenges by accessing talent outside of a comfortable commuting radius.

Tara Dragon is founder of WorkEvolution, a consultancy and job platform that helps remote workers find jobs and companies adapt to telecommuting. She says companies are wise to allow employees to work from home as it no only saves on expensive office space, it helps companies retain good people. (Brock Krypton Photography)

Vancouver companies, for example, aren’t paying tech workers what they’d need to live in the city proper, which only becomes more of an issue as their lives evolve, says Dragon. 

“Not only is it expensive to buy a house, it’s expensive to raise a family there,” she said, especially once things like child care are taken into account.

The cost of turnover

The business case she makes to companies as they contemplate adding remote workers to their staff is twofold, says Dragon. Beyond lowering commercial real estate costs, there’s also the significant expense of turnover.

By some estimates, Dragon says it can cost companies up to nine months of a person’s salary when they leave.

“That’s covering salary, overtime, replacement, time spent recruiting, retraining — never mind potentially losing customers or other team members if it’s a senior leader.”

Work-from-home flexibility is a significant incentive to stay.

When Candace Beres, 30, switched jobs six months ago, one of the things she was looking for was the flexibility to telecommute from her home in Hamilton some of the time, freeing up time that would otherwise be spent making the hour-long-plus commute to and from offices in Toronto.

I find that it’s my busiest day of the week, in addition to being the happiest day.– Candace Beres , on working from home every Friday

Now a senior account manager for public relations and marketing firm The Colony Project, where all employees work from home on Fridays, Beres says her telecommuting days are her most productive.

“You need a day to do work away from people asking questions and having meeting after meeting,” she says. “It’s a good day to actually put work together rather than discuss it. I find that it’s my busiest day of the week, in addition to being the happiest day.”

There was a work-from-home component to almost every job Beres considered, and she says that more of her millennial peers are looking for the same. Many of her friends who had moved to Toronto for work have since moved back to Hamilton to raise their kids in less costly housing close to family.

Karen O’Malley and her husband moved to Petawawa, Ont., six years ago, to be near her family and to be free of the mortgage they held on their previous home in Oakville, Ont.

She works remotely full time as office manager for AgentC, a recruiting firm that specializes in hiring admin workers for the real estate industry. Like Beres, she also finds productivity is higher in her home environment. 

“I can probably do at least twice the amount of work because there aren’t the same interruptions. I find it easier to focus on larger projects and the turnaround time is a lot better.” 

The tech tools

O’Malley says she has felt isolated from her colleagues in previous work-from-home roles — but not in her current job. 

“You almost feel like they’re sitting beside you. They’re very good at keeping you involved and up to date on everything that’s going on in the company,” she said of her employers, who also work from home.

The team of four remote workers and several freelance contributors communicates using WhatsApp throughout the day. 

Sharon Bennett, a staff instructor for LinkedIn Learning, has worked from home for more than 12 years. An important key to success, she says, is good use of technology to connect remote team members to one another for easy communication. (Submitted by Shaorn Bennett)

Sharon Bennett is a staff instructor for LinkedIn Learning, now owned by Microsoft. Although the company is based in Carpinteria, Calif., she telecommutes from her home in Guelph, Ont., and her colleagues are spread around the continent.

Her department uses Microsoft’s Office 365 to collaborate, as well as its online chat platform, Teams.

“If you’re going to have a remote team, you have to have all of this in place. It’s critical,” said Bennett, a veteran work-from-home professional. If you have a question, “you can’t just go and look over the partition,” she said, so these tools allow remote colleagues to do the virtual version of that peek over the cubicle wall.

And Bennett says she loves her company’s philosophy around working hours. “It’s basically: Get stuff done. It doesn’t matter when, but get it done.

“I tend to work better in the evenings, so I’ll sit down after 6 or 7 [p.m.] and I’ll work for another 3 or 4 hours. And as long as we meet our targets, it’s not an issue. We embrace it and we enjoy that freedom. If I want to take my son to an appointment or go the gym, no one looks down on that.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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