Creativity in the Work Place
THE ALTERNATIVE WORKPLACE: Changing Where & How People Work
- MAHLON APGAR, IV
Have you ever wondered the origin of “Work from Home”?
On September 20, 1994, some 32,000 AT & T employees stayed home. They weren’t sick or on strike. They were telecommuting. Employees ranging from the CEO to phone operators were part of an experiment that involved 100,000 people. It’s purpose? To explore how far a vast organization could go in transforming the workplace by moving the work to the worker instead of the worker to work.
· What motivates managers to examine how people spend their time at the office and where else they could work? The most obvious reason is cost reduction. Since 1991, AT & T has freed up some $550 million in cash flow - a 30% improvement-by eliminating offices people don’t need, consolidating others, and reducing related overhead costs.
· Another reason is the potential to increase productivity. Employees in the alternative workplace tend to devote less time and energy to typical office routines and more to customers.
· The alternative workplace also can give companies an edge in vying for-and keeping-talented, highly motivated employees.
· Finally, AW programs are beginning to offer opportunities to capture government incentives and avoid costly sanctions. Many communities are easing zoning rules to enable more residents to establish home offices.
The potential benefits are clear. But at the same time, AW programs are not for everyone. Indeed, such programs can be difficult to adopt, even for those organizations most suited to them. Ingrained behaviors and practical hurdles are hard to overcome. And the challenges of managing both the cultural changes and the systems improvements required by an AW initiative are substantial.
A SPECTRUM OF OPTIONS
Different companies use different variations on the AW theme to tailor new work arrangement to their own needs. Establishing an alternative workplace may mean simply having some workers on different shifts or travel schedules share desks and office space.
Replacing traditional private offices with open-plan space is another option. In such arrangements, a company typically provides team rooms and workstations in open areas. Some companies have embraced the concept of “hoteling.” As in the other shared-office options, “hotel” workspaces are furnished, equipped, and supported with typical office services. Employees may have mobile cubbies, file cabinets, or lockers for personal storage; and a computer system routes phone calls and E-mail as necessary.
But “hotel” workspaces are reserved by the hour, by the day, or by the week instead of being permanently assigned. In addition, a “concierge” may provide employees with travel and logistical support.
· Satellite offices are another form of alternative work place. Such offices break up large, centralized facilities into a network of smaller workplaces that can be located close to customers or to employees’ homes. Satellites can save a company up to 50% in real estate costs, diversify the risk of over concentration in a single location, and broaden the pool of potential employees.
· Telecommuting is one of the most commonly recognized forms of alternative workplace. Telecommuting that is, performing work electronically wherever the worker chosen – generally supplements the traditional workplace rather than replacing it.
· Home offices complete the spectrum of AW options. Companies vary widely in their approaches to home offices. Some simply allow certain employees to work at home at their own discretion and at their own expense.
· Most organizations find that a mix of AW options is better than a one-size-fits-all approach. Indeed, the very concept of the alternative workplace means tailoring the program to an organization’s specific needs.
IS THE ALTERNATIVE WORKPLACE RIGHT FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION?
The first step towards determining whether any or all of the AW options I’ve outlined could work for your organization is to answer a few basic questions.
Are you committed to new ways of operating?
For example, are you prepared to overhaul performance measures as necessary to align them with the new ways in which employees work? Are you braced for a cultural tailspin as your employees learn new ways of connecting with one another from afar? Are you committed to examining your incentives and rewards policies in light of the different ways in which work may be completed?
- Is your organization informational rather than industrial?
- This distinction refers to a management philosophy and style rather than to an economic sector or customer base. Industrial in this context means that the organization’s structure, systems, and management processes are designed for intensive face-to-face interaction and that employees remain rooted to specific workplaces. In such an environment, the potential for AW arrangements is limited.
Informational organizations, by contrast, operate mainly through voice and data communications when it comes to both their employees and their customers.
Do you have an open culture and proactive managers?
A dynamic, nonhierarchical, technologically advanced organization is more likely than a highly structured, command-driven one to implement an AW program successfully. That’s why so many newer and smaller companies – particularly those that are heavily involved in the business of information or in electronic commerce – are using AW techniques with great success and with few transition pains. Yet as we’ve seen, even tradition – conscious organizations can use such techniques to eliminate fixed costs and facilitate performance improvements. The key is whether managers at all level are open to change.
Can you establish clear links between staff, functions, and time?
To analyze whether an AW program can work in your company, you must understand in detail the parameters of each job you are considering for the program.
Are you prepared for some “push back”?
Employees who are accustomed to a structured office environment may find it hard to adjust to a largely self-directed schedule, and those who are used to working within earshot of many colleagues may be lonely in a remote setting. Middle managers usually put up the strongest resistance to the alternative workplace, in large part because they feel as though the very foundations of their roles are being pulled out from under them.
Can you overcome the external barriers to an AW program?
Even if the work is suited to an AW format and managers and employees alike are amenable to change, physical and logistical barriers may exist. If space is at a premium in employees’ homes – for example, if many employees live in small apartments – then an AW initiative that calls for people to work at home may not be feasible.
Will you invest in the tools, training, and techniques that make AW initiatives work?
To improve the chances of an AW program’s success, all who are involved must be armed with a full set of tools; relevant training; and appropriate, flexible administrative support. Are you committed, for example, to providing standardized computer software for people working in all locations? Accessible qualified technical assistance? Do you have the financial resources to provide the above?
TANGIBLE AND INTANGIBLE ECONOMICS
Managers should look at the economics of a potential AW program from three perspectives – the company’s, the employee’s, and the customer’s - and weigh the tangible and intangible costs against the respective benefits. Tangible set up costs for the company include hardware, software, training, and any equipment or furniture the company provides; ongoing costs include allowances, phone charges, and technical support. Intangible costs for the company and its employees include the time spent learning new work habits and ways of communicating with colleagues and customers.
Aside from real estate savings, the organization benefits from increased employee productivity, recruiting, and retention – usually because AW employees have both more professional and more personal time.
Customer satisfaction also improves: as customers become comfortable communicating with the organization electronically, they can reach employees more quickly and receive more direct, personal attention.
Intangible benefits include closer teamwork and greater flexibility. The simple act of removing the walls that separate people in traditional private offices often fosters teamwork.
A crucial intangible benefit of an AW program is the value that employees place on increased personal time and control. Although they tend to work longer hours and may even have difficulty leaving their home offices, AW employees find the promise of flexibility attractive, so they are easier to recruit and retain.
IMPLEMENTING AN AW INITIATIVE
Start with a pilot project and don’t overcomplicate it. An AW program can be designed either for pilot testing or for full implementation. The choice will depend on many factors. If a company is hemorrhaging, then a full-scale rollout makes sense: the need for radical change to reduce costs will be clearly and universally understood. And if the company already is informational, with a large number of travelers and independent workers, then the risk of failing at full implementation is low. For most organizations, however, an AW program involves so many innovations and departures from deeply held norms that a phased, experimental approach is essential to test what’s acceptable and to change what isn’t. Because this is not “business as usual,” it will take extra management time and attention, talented staff, experienced consultants, and some expense to ensure success.
It’s a good idea to begin with obvious functions – such as personal sales, telemarketing, project engineering, and consulting in which individuals already work with their clients by phone or at the clients’ premises.
Segment the workforce you are considering for the alternative workplace, and assess the logistics of the proposed new arrangement. Whether you’re designing a pilot project or rolling out a full program, the first step is to divide the target employees into three segments that define their ties to the workplace: office bound, travel driven and independent.
Office-bound staff members spend nearly all their time in a single, fixed, assigned location, whether they are working along or as part of a team. Their workplace is typically composed of private offices, workstations or “cubes,” and meeting rooms.
Travel-driven staff members spend at least half their time visiting sites outside their assigned locations, usually for transactions and projects.
Independent employees can set up anywhere and anytime with a computer, modem, and telephone line. In contrast to the other two segments, these employees do not need to be physically present at specific locations.
Make sure that managers and employees are clear both on performance objectives and on how performance will be measured. In a traditional office, checking on employees’ day-to-day progress and altering the course of their work is a relatively straightforward process. But monitoring the performance of people you can’t see the quite different. It is all too easy for an employee to founder for some time without his or her manager’s knowledge. Setting clear goals from the outset and agreeing on a way to monitor progress and measure performance is critical to the success of any AW venture.
Managers in an AW environment, particularly one in which employees work from a distance, must also pay close attention to time management. When employees are in the office only once a week or several times a month, it is critical that there is not wasted. In a conventional office, changing the time or the day of a meeting at the last minute may be inconvenient for employees; in a virtual office, it may disrupt their work plans for the entire day, or worse.
Equally important are the peer relationships so critical to any career that flourish automatically in he conventional office but could atrophy in the alternative workplace.
One Amex unit uses a buddy system in which remote workers have on site colleagues with whom they must talk every morning. What the employees talk about is up to them. The idea is to keep the remote worker in the loop by encouraging informal chats about new customers, product ideas, job transitions, office policies the very topics that engage people around the water cooler in a conventional office.
Train for culture as well as technique. So much is new and different about the alternative workplace that managers must reeducate people about what used to be intuitive aspects of office life. In the alternative workplace, we have to learn to be in and of the organization while not being at it; at the same time, we have to differentiate our work and family lives while we’re at home.
Educate customers and other stakeholders. Just as employees need time to ramp up, so too do your outside partners. They must be given the information and the time to adjust. So before launching an AW initiative, let customers and other stakeholders know what is going on. Explain how the new way of working may affect their contact with the organization, stress the benefits they stand to gain from the change, and be patient.
Keep an eye on how participants balance their work lives with their home lives. If one of the key reasons you are implementing an AW program is to attract and retain employees who will add the most value to your organization, then you must ensure that they are capable of handling the balance between their work lives and their personal lives. Doing so requires a good deal of honesty on both sides. In large part, the solution lies in the employee’s ability to draw the line between work and home and to be confident that the line is in the right place.
Organizations today are poised on the edge of a new frontier: the alternative workplace offers a profound opportunity to benefit both the individual and the enterprise. But beyond one frontier lies another what one might call a mobility paradox.
Organizations that pursue AW initiatives particularly those with home office arrangements must be mindful of that paradox. For only those organizations that balance individual and corporate interests will realize the concept’s full potential.