Finding a job far from home without moving house: Don Pittis

Remote working technology means more employees are in the café, working on their computers.

Tech is changing how people work — and location is no longer the deciding factor

Allie Turow moved to Belleville, Ont., to be with her husband, a Hercules pilot at nearby CFB Trenton. Then she found the perfect job, which can be performed from the comfort of her own home. Bailey the chocolate lab is 'the best remote working companion,' Turow says. (submitted by Allie Turow)

When Allie Turow's partner got transferred from Saskatchewan's 15 Wing Moose Jaw to a job flying giant Hercules transport aircraft at CFB Trenton on the shores of Lake Ontario, she faced a modern dilemma.

After settling into nearby Belleville, Ont., the 25-year-old university graduate had to go out and find a new job.

"I was looking at the job market in Belleville and there wasn't what I wanted," she said. 

She wasn't yet thinking that she would become part of a global wave of employees whose physical location is unconnected to the place they work.

When Canadian jobs numbers come out tomorrow, they will include thousands of people like Turow, who live and work in one city or country, but whose employer is based far away.

Tech leads the way

Led by the tech industry and served by high-speed internet and digital tools, location of employment has begun to fade in importance as employees interact in a virtual space instead. 

Thanks to upstart firms like co-working office space group WeWork and remote communication software provider Slack, the trend is becoming increasingly apparent.

The person on the computer at the next café table to you may be working for a company in New York.

The exact size of the phenomenon is hard to track; Statistics Canada doesn't currently collect data on how many Canadians work remotely.

The person at the next café table may be working for a company far away. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Working from home is by no means new. For authors, artists and freelance journalists, it has often been the rule rather than the exception. Even before the computer age, some people with special skills found ways of using the telephone, fax and Fedex to do their job from a home office.

But more and more, jobs on employment aggregators require familiarity with project management software, such as Basecamp or Slack — created to allow remote teams working on software projects to share ideas on virtual whiteboards or to collaborate in chat rooms categorized by project or shared task.

The technique is ideal for teams building software, where steps must be created and physically documented by individual engineers working alone during periods of intense concentration before being vetted and tested by a larger group. Even in companies where everyone gets a desk, software engineers usually keep in touch through a system like Slack.

The practice has become so widespread that GitLab, a tech company that provides software-sharing repositories for NASA, IBM and many others, boasts it is 100 per cent remote

'Remote Manifesto'

GitLab has created what it calls the "Remote Manifesto," which, among other things, calls for no central location for the company, flexible working hours for everyone, "asynchronous communication" and compensation measured by results rather than hours worked.

"The future of work is remote," declares Carol Teskey, a member of the company's "people team" in a video posted to the company's website.

Turow's employer, Page Zero Media, does have a physical office in Toronto. But company founder Andrew Goodman points out that he has clients around the world, so why can't the same be true of his employees. His second and third in command live in Vancouver and St. Louis, Mo., part of a team of 16 people, mostly scattered across Canada.

From the beginning, Goodman says he was "tolerant" of remote workers. But then his partner got a tenure track job at the University of New Brunswick, so he went remote himself.

"It worked out very nicely," recalled Goodman, whose company specializes in helping advertisers get the best results in the complex world of online ad placement. "We sold our house in Toronto. We got a cheaper and nicer house in Fredericton."

A shot of numerous skyscrapers along False Creek in Vancouver.
In pricey cities like Vancouver and San Francisco, relatively high salaries can disappear in expensive rents or mortgages. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Now he spends one week a month in Toronto, where he keeps a flat, working out of the company's newly acquired office space.

"The rest of the time I'm pretty much at my home office, with the big screen, talking on the phone, collaborating with both staff and clients — and everyone's getting more and more used to that," said Goodman.

Clearly not every job and every person is suited to remote working. Loneliness can be a factor for some; will power to get up and get to work is essential. But for those who can make it work, there are advantages for both employees and employers.

One advantage for Goodman, he says, is getting top quality staff without paying the six-figure salaries often needed to compete for workers in a high-cost city.

Financially better off

For Turow, who says she has spoken frankly with Toronto friends in similar jobs who are not paid as well, her comfortable, modern house would be unaffordable in Canada's largest city.

"I already end up financially better off," she said. And trips twice a month into the city for "office days" gives her a chance to catch up with friends.

But just as Goodman looked outside Toronto for talent, U.S. tech giants are discovering the advantages of remote workers in Canada. Some American media reports have pointed to cities like San Francisco as examples of places that are becoming less attractive to work, when sky-high salaries are swallowed up by the price of housing.

A similar consideration prompted Steph Simpson to ask her Vancouver employer, Lorax Environmental Services, if she could work remotely from Calgary instead.

"My husband wasn't loving his job at the time," she said. And unlike Vancouver, Calgary was a place they felt they could afford to raise kids.

The company approved the plan and nine years later, Simpson is still with the same employer, saying the scheme has worked well.

The main advantages and disadvantages? For her, they are one and the same.

"I'm home for my kids and I'm able to flex around my husband, who's a shift worker," said Simpson. "But that's also a disadvantage because I'm the one who's always flexing."

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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