The Office of Tomorrow 13769 - Essay Example

The Office of Tomorrow

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In an increasing number of companies, traditional office space is giving

way to community areas and empty chairs as employees work from home, from their

cars or from virtually anywhere. Advanced technologies and progressive HR

strategies make these alternative offices possible.

Imagine it’s 2 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. Inside the dining room

of many nationwide offices, Joe Smith, manager of HR, is downing a sandwich and

soda while wading through phone and E-mail messages. In front of him is a

computeraˆ”equipped with a fax-modemaˆ”is plugged into a special port on the dining

table. The contents of his briefcase are spread on the table. As he sifts

through a stack of paperwork and types responses into the computer, he

periodically picks up a cordless phone and places a call to a colleague or

associate. As he talks, he sometimes wanders across the room.

To be sure, this isn’t your ordinary corporate environment. Smith

doesn’t have a permanent desk or workspace, nor his own telephone. When he

enters the ad agency’s building, he checks out a portable Macintosh computer and

a cordless phone and heads off to whatever nook or cranny he chooses. It might

be the company library, or a common area under a bright window. It could even be

the dining room or Student Union, which houses punching bags, televisions and a

pool table. Wherever he goes, a network forwards mail and phone pages to him and

a computer routes calls, faxes and E-mail messages to his assigned extension. He

simply logs onto the firm’s computer system and accesses his security-protected

files.

He is not tethered to a specific work area nor forced to function in any

predefined way. Joe Smith spends mornings, and even sometimes an entire day,

connected from home via sophisticated voicemail and E-mail systems, as well as a

pager. His work is process and task-oriented. As long as he gets everything done,

that’s what counts. Ultimately, his productivity is greater and his job-

satisfaction level is higher. And for somebody trying to get in touch with him,

it’s easy. Nobody can tell that Joe might be in his car or sitting at home

reading a stack of resumes in his pajamas. The call gets forwarded to him

wherever he’s working.

You’ve just entered the vast frontier of the virtual officeaˆ”a universe

in which leading-edge technology and new concepts redefine work and job

functions by enabling employees to work from virtually anywhere. The concept

allows a growing number of companies to change their workplaces in ways never

considered just a few years ago. They’re scrapping assigned desks and

conventional office space to create a bold new world where employees telecommute,

function on a mobile basis or use satellite offices or communal work areas that

are free of assigned spaces with personal nick nacks.

IBM, AT, Travelers Corporation, Pacific Bell, Panasonic, Apple

Computer and J.C. Penney are among the firms recognizing the virtual-office

concept. But they’re just a few. The percentage of U.S. companies that have

work-at-home programs alone has more than doubled in the past five years, from

7% in 1988 to 18% today. In fact, New York-based Link Resources, which tracks

telecommuting and virtual-office trends, has found that 7.6 million Americans

now telecommuteaˆ”a figure that’s expected to swell to 25 million by the year 2000.

And if you add mobile workersaˆ”those who use their cars, client offices, hotels

and satellite work areas to get the job doneaˆ”there’s an estimated 1 million more

virtual workers.

Both companies and employees are discovering the benefits of virtual

arrangements. Businesses that successfully incorporate them are able to slash

real-estate costs and adhere to stringent air-quality regulations by curtailing

traffic and commuters. They’re also finding that by being flexible, they’re more

responsive to customers, while retaining key personnel who otherwise might be

lost to a cross-country move or a newborn baby. And employees who successfully

embrace the concept are better able to manage their work and personal lives.

Left for the most part to work on their own terms, they’re often happier, as

well as more creative and productive.

Of course, the basic idea of working away from the office is nothing new.

But today, high-speed notebook computers, lightning-fast data modems, telephone

lines that provide advanced data-transmission capabilities, portable printers

and wireless communication are starting a quiet revolution. As a society, we’re

transforming the way we work and what’s possible. It’s creating tremendous

opportunities, but it also is generating a great deal of stress and difficulty.

There are tremendous organizational changes required to make it work. As

markets have changedaˆ”as companies have downsized, streamlined and restructuredaˆ”

many have been forced to explore new ways to support the work effort. The

virtual office, or alternative office, is one of the most effective strategies

for dealing with these changes.

Of course, the effect of alternative officing on the HR function is

great. HR must change the way it hires, evaluates employees and terminates them.

It must train an existing work force to fit into a new corporate model. There

are issues involving benefits, compensation and liability. And, perhaps most

importantly, there’s the enormous challenge of holding the corporate culture

togetheraˆ”even if employees no longer spend time socializing over the watercooler

or in face-to-face meetings. When a company makes a commitment to adopt a

virtual-office environmentaˆ”whether it’s shared work-space or basic telecommutingaˆ”

it takes time for people to acclimate and adjust. If HR can’t meet the challenge,

and employees don’t buy in, then the program is destined to fail.

Virtual offices break down traditional office walls. Step inside one

and you quickly see how different an environment the concept has created. Gone

are the cubicles in which employees used to work. In their place are informal

work carrels and open areas where any employeeaˆ”whether it’s the CEO or an

administrative assistantaˆ”can set up shop. Teams may assemble and disperse at any

given spot, and meetings and conferences happen informally wherever it’s

convenient. Only a handful of maintenance workers, phone operators and food-

services personnel, whose flexibility is limited by their particular jobs,

retain any appearance of a private workspace.

Equally significant is the fact that on any given hour of any day, as

many as one-third of the salaried work force aren’t in the office. Some are

likely working at a client’s site, others at home or in a hotel room on the road.

The feeling is that the employees of Virtual Offices are self-starters. The work

environment is designed around the concept that one’s best thinking isn’t

necessarily done at a desk or in an office. Sometimes, it’s done in a conference

room with several people. Other times it’s done on a ski slope or driving to a

client’s office. Fonders of the concept wanted to eliminate the boundaries about

where people are supposed to think. They wanted to create an environment that

was stimulating and rich in resources. Employees decide on their own where they

will work each day, and are judged on work produced rather than on hours put in

at the office.

One company that has jumped headfirst into the virtual-office concept is

Armonk, New York-based International Business Machine’s Midwest division. The

regional business launched a virtual-office work model in the spring of 1993 and

expects 2,500 of its 4,000 employeesaˆ”salaried staff from sales, marketing,

technical and customer service, including managersaˆ”to be mobile by the beginning

of 1995. Its road workers, equipped with IBM Think Pad computers, fax-modems, E-

mail, cellular phones and a combination of proprietary and off-the-shelf

software, use their cars, client offices and homes as work stations. When they

do need to come into an officeaˆ”usually once or twice a weekaˆ”they log onto a

computer that automatically routes calls and faxes to the desk at which they

choose to sit.

So far, the program has allowed Big Blue’s Midwest division to reduce

real-estate space by nearly 55%, while increasing the ratio of employees to

workstations from 4-to-1 to almost 10-to-1. More importantly, it has allowed the

company to harness technology that allows employees to better serve customers

and has raised the job-satisfaction level of workers. A recent survey indicated

that 83% of the region’s mobile work force wouldn’t want to return to a

traditional office environment.

IBM maintains links with the mobile work force in a variety of ways. All

employees access their E-mail and voicemail daily; important messages and policy

updates are broadcast regularly into the mailboxes of thousands of workers. When

the need for teleconferencing arises, it can put hundreds of employees on the

line simultaneously. Typically, the organization’s mobile workers link from cars,

home offices, hotels, even airplanes.

Virtual workers are only a phone call away. To be certain, telephony

has become a powerful driver in the virtual-office boom. Satellites and high-

tech telephone systems, such as ISDN phone lines, allow companies to zap data

from one location to another at light speed. Organizations link to their work

force and hold virtual meetings using tools such as video-conferencing. Firms

grab a strategic edge in the marketplace by providing workers with powerful

tools to access information.

Consider Gemini Consulting, a Morristown, New Jersey-based firm that has

1,600 employees spread throughout the United States and beyond. A sophisticated

E-mail system allows employees anywhere to access a central bulletin board and

data base via a toll-free phone number. Using Macintosh Powerbook computers and

modems, they tap into electronic versions of The Associated Press, Reuters and

The Wall Street Journal, and obtain late-breaking news and information on

clients, key subjects, even executives within client companies. And that’s just

the beginning. Many of the firm’s consultants have Internet addresses, and HR

soon will begin training its officeless work force via CD-ROM. It will mail

disks to workers, who will learn on their own schedule using machines the firm

provides. The bottom line of this technology? Gemini can eliminate the high cost

of flying consultants into a central location for training.

Today, the technology exists to break the chains of traditional thought and

the typical way of doing things. It’s possible to process information and

knowledge in dramatically different ways than in the past. That can mean that

instead of one individual or a group handling a project from start to finish,

teams can process bits and pieces. They can assemble and disassemble quickly and

efficiently.

Some companies, such as San Francisco-based Pacific Bell, have

discovered that providing telecommuters with satellite offices can further

facilitate efficiency. The telecommunications giant currently has nearly 2,000

managers splitting time between home and any of the company’s offices spread

throughout California. Those who travel regularly or prefer not to work at home

also can drop into dozens of satellite facilities that each are equipped with a

handful of workstations. At these centers, they can access exclusive data bases,

check E-mail and make phone calls.

Other firms have pushed the telecommuting concept even further. One of

them is Great Plains Software, a Fargo, North Dakota-based company that produces

and markets PC-based accounting programs. Despite its remote location, the

company retains top talent by being flexible and innovative. Some of its high-

level managers live and work in such places as Montana and New Jersey. Even its

local employees may work at home a few days a week.

Lynne Stockstad’s situation at Great Plains demonstrates how a program

that allows for flexible work sites can benefit both employer and worker. The

competitive-research specialist had spent two years at Great Plains when her

husband decided to attend chiropractic college in Davenport, Iowa. At most firms,

that would have prompted Stockstad to resignaˆ”something that also would have cost

the company an essential employee. Instead, Stockstad and Great Plains devised a

system that would allow her to telecommute from Iowa and come to Fargo only for

meetings when absolutely necessary. Using phone, E-mail, voicemail and fax, she

and her work team soon found they were able to link together, and complete work

just as efficiently as before. Today, with her husband a recent graduate,

Stockstad has moved back to Fargo and has received a promotion.

Great Plains uses similar technology in other innovative ways to build a

competitive advantage. For example, it has developed a virtual hiring process.

Managers who are spread across the country conduct independent interviews with

candidates, and then feed their responses into the company’s computer. Later,

the hiring team holds a meeting, usually via phone or videoconferencing, to

render a verdict. Only then does the firm fly the candidate to Fargo for the

final interview.

HR must lay the foundation to support a mobile work force. Just as a

cafeteria offers a variety of foods to suit individual taste and preferences,

the workplace of the future is evolving toward a model for which alternative

work options likely will become the norm. One person may find that telecommuting

four days a week is great; another may find that he or she functions better in

the office. The common denominator for the organization is: How can we create an

environment in which people are able to produce to their maximum capabilities?

Creating such a model and making it work is no easy task, however. Such

a shift in resources requires a fundamental change in thinking. And it usually

falls squarely on HR’s shoulders to oversee the program and hold the

organization together during trying times. When a company decides to

participate in an alternative officing program, people need to adapt and adjust

to the new manners. Workers are used to doing things a certain way. Suddenly,

their world is being turned upside down.

One of the biggest problems is laying the foundation to support such a

system. Often, it’s necessary to tweak benefits and compensation, create new job

descriptions and methods of evaluation and find innovative ways to communicate.

Sometimes, because companies are liable for their workers while they’re “on the

clock,” HR must send inspectors to home offices to ensure they’re safe.

When Great Plains Software started its telecommuting program in the late

1980s, it established loose guidelines for employees who wanted to be involved

in the program. they pretty much implemented policies on an unscientific basis.

Over time, the company has evolved to a far more stringent system of determining

who qualifies and how the job is defined.

For example, as with most other companies that embrace the virtual-

office concept, Great Plains stipulates that only salaried employees can work in

virtual offices because of the lack of a structured time schedule and the

potential for working more than eight hours a day. Those employees who want to

telecommute must first express how the decision will benefit the company, the

department and themselves. Only those who can convince a hiring manager that

they meet all three criteria move on to the next stage.

Potential telecommuters then must define how they’ll be accountable and

responsible in the new working model.

Finally, once performance standards and guidelines have been created,

Great Plains presents two disclaimers to those going virtual. If their

performance falls below certain predetermined standards, management will review

the situation to determine whether it’s working. And if the position changes

significantly and it no longer makes sense to telecommute, management will have

to reevaluate.

Other companies have adopted similar checks and balances. They are

training HR advisers to make accommodations for the individual, but to not make

accommodations for the person’s job responsibilities.

IBM provides counseling from behavioral scientists and offers ongoing

assistance to those having trouble adapting to the new work model. By closely

monitoring preestablished sales and productivity benchmarks, managers quickly

can determine if there’s a problem. So far, only approximately 10% to 15% of its

mobile work force has required counseling, and only a handful of employees have

had to be reassigned.

Virtual workers need guidance from HR. Not everyone is suited to

working in a virtual-office environment. Not only must workers who go mobile or

work at home learn to use the technology effectively, but they also must adjust

their workstyle and lifestyle. The more you get connected, the harder it is to

disconnect. At some point, the boundaries between work and personal life blur.

Without a good deal of discipline, the situation can create a lot of stress.

Managers often fear that employees will not get enough work done if they

can’t see them. Most veterans of the virtual office, however, maintain that the

exact opposite is true. All too often, employees wind up fielding phone calls in

the evening or stacking an extra hour or two on top of an eight-hour day. Not

surprisingly, that can create an array of problems, including burnout, errors

and marital conflict.

IBM learned early on that it has to teach employees to remain in control

of the technology and not let it overrun their lives. One of the ways it

achieves the goal is to provide its mobile work force with two-line telephones.

That way, employees can recognize calls from work, switch the ringer off at the

end of the workday and let the voicemail system pick up calls.

Another potential problem with which virtual employees must deal is

handling all the distractions that can occur at home. As a result, many firms

provide workers with specific guidelines for handling work at home. It is

expected that those who work at home will arrange child care or elder care. And

although management recognizes there are times when a babysitter falls through

or a problem occurs, if someone’s surrounded by noisy children, it creates an

impression that the individual isn’t working or is distracted.

Still, most say that problems aren’t common. The majority of workers

adjust and become highly productive in an alternative office environment. The

most important thing for a company to do is lay out guidelines and suggestions

that help workers adapt.

At many firms, including IBM, HR now is providing booklets that cover a

range of topics, including time management and family issues. Many companies

also send out regular mailings that not only provide tips and work strategies

but also keep employees informed of company events and keep them ingrained in

the corporate culture.

This type of correspondence also helps alleviate workers’ fears of

isolation. IBM goes one step further by providing voluntary outings, such as to

the Indianapolis 500, for its mobile work force. Even without these events,

virtual workers’ isolation fears often are unproven. The level of interaction in

a virtual office actually can be heightened and intensified. Because workers

aren’t in the same place every day, they may be exposed to a wider range of

people and situations. And that can open their eyes and minds to new ideas and

concepts.

However, dismantling the traditional office structure can present other

HR challenges. One of the most serious can be dealing with issues of identity

and status. Workers who’ve toiled for years to earn a corner office suddenly can

find themselves thrown into a universal work pod. Likewise, photographs and

other personal items often must disappear as workspace is shared. But solutions

do exist. For instance, when IBM went mobile, top executives led by example.

They immediately cleared out their desks and began plugging in at common work

pods.

Not surprisingly, one of the most difficult elements in creating a

virtual office is dealing with this human side of the equation. The human factor

can send shock waves reverberating through even the most sober organization.

This challenge requires HR to become a active business partner. That

means working with other departments, such as real estate, finance and

information technology. It means creating the tools to make a virtual office

work. In some cases, that may require HR to completely rewrite a benefits

package to include a $500 or $1,000-a-month pay for those working at home. That

way, the company saves money on real-estate and relocation costs, while the

employee receives an incentive that can be used to furnish a home office.

Management also must change the way supervisors evaluate their workers.

Managers easily can fall into the trap of thinking that only face-to-face

interaction is meaningful and may pass over mobile workers for promotions. Great

Plains has gone to great lengths to ensure that its performance-evaluation

system functions in a virtual environment. The company asks its managers to

conduct informal reviews quarterly with telecommuting employees, and formal

reviews every six months. By increasing the interaction and discussion, the

company has eliminated much of the anxiety for employeesaˆ”and their managersaˆ”

while providing a better gauge of performance. In the final analysis, the system

no longer measures good citizenship and attendance, but how much work people

actually get done and how well they do it.

Still, many experts point out that too much reliance on voicemail and E-

mail can present problems. Although instantaneous messaging is convenient and

efficient, it can overload virtual workers with too much information and not

enough substance. Without some human interaction it’s impossible to build

relationships and a sense of trust within an organization. Sending workers

offsite can boost productivity, while saving costs.

Those who have embraced the virtual office say that it’s a concept that

works. At Pacific Bell, which began experimenting with telecommuting during the

1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, employees routinely have reported 100%

increases in productivity. Equally important: this fits into family and

flexibility issues and that they enjoy working for the company more than ever

before.

Although the final results aren’t yet in, IBM’s mobile work force

reports a 10% boost in morale and appears to be processing more work, more

efficiently. What’s more, its customers have so far reported highly favorable

results. People are happier and more productive because they can have breakfast

with their family before they go off to client meetings. They can go home and

watch their child’s soccer game and then do work in the evening. They no longer

are bound by a nine-to-five schedule. The only criterion is that they meet

results.

Society is on the frontier of a fundamental change in the way the

workplace is viewed and how work is handled. In the future, it will become

increasingly difficult for traditional companies to compete against those

embracing the virtual office. Companies that embrace the concept are sending

out a loud message. They’re making it clear that they’re interested in their

employees’ welfare, that they’re seeking a competitive edge, and that they

aren’t afraid to rethink their work force for changing conditions. Those are the

ingredients for future success.