Virtual offices, Public Transit can save jobs and environment

The financial health of General Motors has been in decline for some time.

In 2007 the auto giant posted a $38 billion loss and the pattern is continuing with losses in the first fiscal quarter of this year as well. No wonder GMC announced it will stop production at one truck plant in Oshawa, ON and at three other North American facilities.

Add to this our steadily escalating worldwide oil prices and it’s no wonder Canada will be facing higher unemployment, higher overall prices for all basic necessities and consumer goods, plus slower economic growth.

In fact, Ontario alone has lost 39,000 manufacturing jobs during the past year and some 200,000 since 2001.

With such serious problems in the manufacturing sector you’d think that both our federal and provincial governments might have developed some innovative solutions by now. But no, not at all! Governments have even become part of the problem, with the federal Conservatives cutting corporate taxes, while the Ontario Liberals give manufacturers direct cash handouts.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Shouldn’t both levels of government be using our tax dollars to promote real and lasting solutions? And shouldn’t they be acting sooner rather than later?

Two major solution-based strategies are right under our noses; neither is new, yet extensive research has shown that both may save jobs and the environment.

The first is to encourage the widespread use of "virtual" offices and the second is to move the industrial complex into manufacturing high-speed mass transportation systems, rather than millions of wasteful private cars.

Although the telecommunications and IT industries have exploded over the past 30 years, this massive upsurge in cheap and efficient technology failed to produce the predicted vast paradigm shift in the way we do office work.

Long commutes between home and office are still sadly and wastefully necessary among office-workers.

Worse still, those same road-weary workers then must spend their employment hours in claustrophobic cubicles, breathing unhealthy, recycled, chemical-laden air. Once they arrive at their offices, many spend exorbitant amounts of time e-mailing one another, even colleagues at the next cubicle over.

In most cases, physical meetings among office workers are no longer necessary; teleconferencing can provide a closer level of interaction when needed. For the most part, however, office workers can do their jobs from home-based work stations far more efficiently, thus saving the time, money and health that are all wasted on commuting several hours per day. Some workers are living better lives right now by adopting this lower-stress form of employment: but just imagine the wonderful economic and environmental impact on our country if the majority of those able to work this way actually made it happen!

What we need for this ideal situation to become reality is a higher level of trust and respect between employer and employee, as well as better ways to manage and reward employees’ achievements and productivity. Governments could be of great benefit in this context, by offering initiatives and award programs to encourage the new system’s success.

The "virtual office" concept gives new opportunities to office workers and small entrepreneurs to create the kind of personal lives they want. This is not science fiction (though SF writers were among the first to conceptualize it), but is truly the way to a future we can begin building now. What we need are leaders with the talent to implement and adapt this system right across the country.

Near-future employees, entrepreneurs, or freelancers will operate out of home offices, backyard laptops, mobile phones, handheld computing/communications devices, etc. Start-up companies will follow today’s leaders in making legitimate virtual businesses more popular, and easier to launch.

With such opportunities available, it will not be far-fetched to envision numerous office workers quitting traditional "cubicle farm" jobs –” with their increasing burden of stress, expense, commuting time, and wasted resources – in favour of employment that creates both income and quality time for themselves and their families.

Now for the second part of the solution.

In Canada it is an inexcusable crime against the environment and humanity that those who live within 200 kms of any major Canadian airport (which includes more than 80 per cent of our entire population) are forced to make long car trips just to board an airplane. There is no train service from Toronto to Pearson International Airport, or to any other place. This sad story is the same for all of Canada’s larger airports. Such inefficiency and inconvenience make me wonder how government ministers can justify their six-figure salaries. What is keeping them busy 40 hours a week?

For years, Canadian environmentalists pointed to mass public transportation as the best solution for reducing oil consumption and dependency. It is shameful that in 2008 we still do not have a frequent fast train service between Windsor and Quebec City; in Europe, life would be unthinkable without efficient inter-urban rail service. At the same time, any driver will attest to the deteriorating condition of the highway system connecting these two Canadian cities, and the major corridor centres in-between.

Recently, the premiers Ontario and Quebec, as well as a full quorum of their ministers, met to discuss co-operative environmental issues; they got to speak to the press cameras and then everyone went home. Both Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest called their meeting "historic," but what was really accomplished?

Can governments work to make Canada the world’s top manufacturer of efficient rapid mass transit systems, thus creating more jobs and saving the environment? Sure they can!

Pro-automobile lobby groups will not be happy; they will want guarantees about how long it might take for public transit to replace even 50 per cent of those driving cars. But that doesn’t matter; getting started on a new social-economic paradigm is an urgent necessity, even if change seems slow at first.

We are at a major crossroads, and if we don’t choose in favour of a healthy and sustainable future, the next generation of Canadians will judge us severely for abdicating our collective responsibilities.

The time to act is now.