Kramberger: Suburbs should adapt services for people who work remotely

A dog run? Noon-hour yoga class? Outdoor public workspaces? Telecommuting isn’t going away, so towns should consider what citizens need.

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With a shift toward telecommuting post COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, can West Island and off-island suburbs adapt services or programs to meet the needs of their residents working from home, whether full-time or hybrid?

St-Lazare Mayor Geneviève Lachance, spurred on by news reports of high vacancy rates in office buildings in major urban centres, recently asked residents via her Facebook page what remote workers want from their municipality. She noted that around 31 per cent of working St-Lazare residents who are 15 and older declared in the 2021 Canadian census that they telecommute.

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Some people in the town of 23,000 suggested a dog run to take their pet out during lunch, or infrastructure to help them unwind, such as mountain bike trails or a BMX park.

Offering a yoga class during the weekday lunch hour could appeal to remote workers who might feel isolated outside an office setting. Another option is setting up outdoor public workspaces equipped with tables, Wi-Fi, electrical outlets and USB ports, like those set up by Vaudreuil-Dorion in 2022 so people could “enjoy some fresh air while teleworking.” Officials in the off-island city of 43,000 stated the idea of setting up outdoor workspaces emerged during the pandemic, as teleworking became the new way of doing things and as the hybrid working method appeared here to stay for many companies.

“What can we do, knowing that so many people work from home? We will probably see more with time,” Lachance said. “How can we take advantage of this situation to give better services?

“Once in a while you might need a break and to get out of the house from the 9-to-5 at home,” she said, adding it’s just the beginning of a discussion to improve services. “I’m also looking at the future. We can’t just do the same things we are doing all the time. We need to adjust to the reality of today.”

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Several residents asked for a more reliable Hydro-Québec network and internet services provided by telecommunication firms, domains not in the jurisdiction of a municipality. Town officials can advocate for the Crown utility to improve network efficiency by trimming trees, updating equipment or burying power lines. However, Lachance said by now homeowners in the heavily forested town should realize they need to be more self-sufficient and invest in a generator as a backup to avoid disruptions, particularly if working remotely.

“Having a generator is a must here in St-Lazare,” she said. “People have to find ways to just be independent, not to rely on this power (supply) that we know will go out with climate change, extreme weather, with wind, snow and ice storms.”

Lachance believes remote work will remain popular in her town because St-Lazare has a demographic with a high percentage of white-collar residents.

St-Lazare is about 20 kilometres west of the much-maligned Île-aux-Tourtes bridge, which connects to the West Island along Highway 40. Lane reductions and traffic woes could drive more residents in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region to consider working from home.

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Meanwhile, some suburbs are offering certain city hall employees hybrid telecommuting options. St-Lazare allows some civic staff to work remotely twice a week.

Beaconsfield Mayor Georges Bourelle said his city management has a policy to determine which employees qualify to work from home, although they are required to work from city hall at least once a week.

In terms of services to accommodate residents working from home, the library is open during the day and the city runs activities aimed at adults, but Beaconsfield can’t offer more, Bourelle said.

Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue Mayor Paola Hawa, doesn’t believe having civic staff working hybrid or remotely is ideal, based on experiences during the height of the pandemic. She said remote work might be fine for larger, downtown companies, but it would lead to less efficient service in her small town of around 5,000 residents.

While it may not be a good fit across the board, telecommuting is likely to become increasingly prevalent. Municipalities should at least consider services to accommodate them.

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