When the pager made it possible to work from home

Work life was changing for some Canadians in 1991, and it looked a lot more like home life.

In 1991 the 'floating office' was becoming more feasible

The "floating office"

32 years ago
Duration 4:23
In 1991, some workers are finding it easier to avoid the commute and do their jobs at home with a pager.

Work life was changing for some Canadians in 1991, and it looked a lot more like home life.

As the CBC's Jeffrey Kofman reported, working at home meant Bank of Montreal employee Alexandra Bell-Abrook had to make her own coffee at home instead of pouring it from a shared office pot.

But the trade-off was worth it, given that she spared herself an hour-long commute from Oakville, Ont., to downtown Toronto.

"I commute from my kitchen to my office," said Bell-Abrook. She was, Kofman said, a "tele-commuter."

The 'electronic cottage'

An ironclad rule for Bank of Montreal employees working outside the office was that they be available by pager from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (CBC at Six/CBC Archives)

Kofman said that type of working life had been "prophesied" by "the gurus of future shock" a decade earlier.

"They called it the electronic cottage," he said.

A piercing beep sounded from a device in Bell-Abrook's hand as she sat in her office at home.

"With her pager at her side and her laptop computer wired into head office, Bell-Abrook is free to work wherever she wants to," said Kofman. 

Bell-Abrook was one of "two dozen" managers at the Bank of Montreal who had "jumped" at the chance to work from home.

"I can structure my time myself, and I enjoy that flexibility," she said, noting she still had to report to her manager.

Rush hour no more

Wayne Blanchard, who travelled from his Oshawa home to work in bank offices around the city, checks his pager. (CBC at Six/CBC Archives)

Wayne Blanchard, too, worked from his home outside Toronto. He still had to come into the city for meetings at offices around town, but he could schedule them so that he avoided driving at rush hour. 

He said the company's demonstration of "faith" that he could accomplish his work outside the limitations of office hours was good for morale.

"There's only so many pay increases you can get to satisfy an individual," he said.

The "floating office," as the Bank of Montreal called it, was wherever the employee happened to be — as long as he or she could be reached on a pager during office hours.

Bell-Abrook and her colleagues still had an office to go to, but without individual desks.

"Now there's just a communal area where they can drop in to meet with colleagues or pick up mail," said Kofman.

He said there was a plus for the bank, too.

"Shrinking the midtown office will save the bank $120,000 in office rent this year."

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