When you can't work from home

During a recent flight, I overheard two passengers talking about telework.

One said, "I tried working from home a couple of days a week, but that didn't last. I just had to get back into the office. Too many distractions."

The other replied, "Yeah, I know what you mean. But you have to make it work. What if your office goes virtual?"

Sometimes we get so focused on sending workers home that we forget you can't always make it work. Even with a suitable office and proper motivation, some distractions are just too much.

One teleworker with a basement office and an infant son told me, "The baby always manages to play just above my head. How does he do that?" Another was forced out by his 100-pound Labrador retriever. "Every time I got on the phone he started barking. I tried everything, but there was just nothing I could do," he says.

But alternatives to at-home telework are still pretty limited. You've got Starbucks, airport lounges and the like for ad hoc work, a smattering of government-subsidized or community-sponsored telework centers, and traditional executive business centers.

Although executive centers offer full offices or workstations, tech tools and support, they're not built for teleworkers. They're located in downtown areas or near airports -- not the direction you want to be heading -- and can be pricey. Traditional telework centers are better situated, but don't provide the technology and services professionals need.

Ontario start-up SuiteWorks hopes to build a business by combining the best of both with executive telework centers strategically located in cities such as Barrie, Ontario. An hour north of Toronto, Barrie has fiber connectivity, and 30% of its 115,000 residents commute to Toronto daily, all along a single artery.

"The commute typically takes an hour and a half, four hours on a bad day," SuiteWorks president John Cameron says. There's a high level of absenteeism because Barrie gets more snow than Toronto. The citizens have been clamoring for years for alternatives; even the new mayor said his No. 1 priority is to bring new businesses to Barrie to reduce the commuting population and create more jobs, Cameron says.

Modeled after Nortel Network's headquarters in Brampton, Ontario, the Barrie facility will be a loft-like 22,000 square feet with capacity for 120 workers. Workspace offerings range from fully enclosed offices to workstations to casual work areas.

All services are included in the offerring -- computers; high-speed connections; VPN access; video and audio conferencing; unlimited long-distance calls to Toronto; virtual LANs; electronic whiteboards; printing; paper and paperclips - you name it. IT support is handled by a five-person team.

Security plans -- network and physical -- are well thought out. Entrance to the building will be via smartcard and turnstile. Workers must wear nametags that display the companies they work for. There will be six private phone rooms and four private meeting rooms, and all workstations will time out after 1 minute of inactivity. There will be two business centers, one public and one private, the latter staffed by SuiteWorks. Fifty percent of the offices will have locking doors.

Bolstered by $2 million in funding, SuiteWorks plans to open the Barrie center by September, then roll out similar facilities in major U.S. markets. The company is targeting major companies but will also market heavily to commuters. "We know where to find them. On the road every morning at 8:30 a.m.," Cameron says.

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