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Although estimates vary widely, some 30 million to 40 million people in the United States are now either telecommuters or home-based workers. 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. 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.
Myths About the Alternative Workplace Many executives and employees hold firm—but false—beliefs about the alternative workplace. These myths may dissuade organizations from exploring the potential benefits of AW initiatives. The alternative workplace is for everyone. Some high-tech advocates promote this notion, but it is clear that many people and functions today simply are not suited to the alternative workplace.
The United States is perhaps a generation away from the threshold of broad-based computer literacy and systems integration that will enable the majority of people to be comfortable working outside the traditional office if they choose to do so. Yet leading organizations, such as those cited in this article, have shown that the AW concept applies to a large and growing segment of the workforce.
Ironically, in this new paradigm, the youngest are the most skilled, the oldest are the most awestruck, and the middle-aged are the most resistant to the changes in mind-set and rituals that the alternative workplace requires. An AW program can spearhead the process of organizational change. Although an AW initiative can leverage reengineering and change-management efforts in the traditional workplace, it cannot launch them.
Certain basic improvements must be made first—specifically, simplifying the organization, redesigning business processes, broadening access to information, and defining corporate performance measures. Otherwise, the AW initiative will be swamped by the sheer weight of these changes.
But once the tide of change has begun to roll, AW employees can become strong advocates for extending the initiative throughout the organization. After all, they are already self-motivated, relatively autonomous, and results oriented. So they have the most to gain and the least to lose from influencing their peers to accept and adapt to AW work.
A company office is the most productive place to work. Not necessarily. What few managers realize—but the alternative workplace highlights—is that the atmosphere and norms of the conventional office can distract people from their work. In a study of one well-managed office, these distractions averaged 70 minutes in an eight-hour day. Employees in the alternative workplace are usually more productive than their traditional counterparts because they learn how to juggle priorities and minimize downtime by making phone calls, writing E-mail, clearing accounts, and performing numerous other routine tasks during the short pockets of time between other commitments throughout the day.
But AW employees also are hampered by home and office designs. Developers are just beginning to include quiet, private office space and robust electronics in new homes. AW employees can take care of themselves. Not exactly. Most people need coaching in the basic protocols of AW life. And everyone needs direct access to the systems, gadgets, and technical support that enable remote work. Informal but essential social processes that occur spontaneously in the conventional work-place, such as the brown-bag lunch and the weekly happy hour, need to be managed in the alternative workplace.
The alternative workplace undermines teamwork and organizational cohesion. In fact, it can build them—but in an unorthodox manner. Modern theories of teamwork are based on traditional, face-to-face models in which communication, information, and personal chemistry are intertwined in one location most or all of the time. In the alternative workplace, these links are unlocked. Technology empowers everyone—not just managers—wherever they are by enabling immediate communication with teammates and shared access to information.
The chemistry within teams also has different elements. Contributions are defined more by content than by cosmetics when the team works electronically: an objective, egalitarian quality that often is missing in the conventional workplace.
The alternative workplace is really about computers. The impetus for adopting an AW program is rooted in corporate strategy and renewal more than it is in technology. In a farsighted vision of its business, the U. Similarly, in other organizations, the alternative workplace is really about rethinking the basics: What is the real purpose of your workplace?
What work is performed? Who does it? How do they add value? What are their most important needs in the workplace? Where, when, and what types of facilities and systems do they require? How best can you provide them? 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. In addition, companies are meeting Clean Air Act requirements—and avoiding hefty fines—through regional workplace strategies with extensive AW components.
Finally, tax codes may change to enable more employees to deduct home office costs. 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.
How should senior managers think about AW programs? What are the criteria for determining whether the alternative workplace is right for a given organization? What are the most common pitfalls in implementation? The lessons learned by managers who have successfully launched such programs and by those who are struggling to do so suggest that the best place to start is with a clear understanding of the many forms an alternative workplace can take.
A Spectrum of Options Different companies use different variations on the AW theme to tailor new work arrangements to their own needs. To one company, for example, establishing an alternative workplace may mean simply having some workers on different shifts or travel schedules share desks and office space. The company now has 14, employees in shared-desk arrangements.
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. Free-address facilities are a variation on that format. As Jill M. And everyone can find you because your phone, pager, and PC go with you. Employees may have mobile cubbies, file cabinets, or lockers for personal storage; and a computer system routes phone calls and E-mail as necessary.
Satellite offices are another form of alternative workplace. Some are shells—sparsely furnished and equipped with only basic technology; others are fully equipped and serviced. Satellites are generally located in comparatively inexpensive cities and suburban areas.
Most often, they have simpler and less costly furnishings and fixtures than their downtown counterparts. Telecommuting is one of the most commonly recognized forms of alternative workplace. Telecommuting—that is, performing work electronically wherever the worker chooses—generally supplements the traditional workplace rather than replacing it. At IBM, however, telecommuters comprise an entire business unit. And at PeopleSoft, telecommuting is the dominant style of work throughout the entire company.
General Dennis J. Reimer, the U. Reimer travels with a laptop and routinely communicates by E-mail with general officers and garrison commanders around the world. 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. 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?
We focus a lot more on results than on effort. This distinction refers to a management philosophy and style rather than to an economic sector or customer base. 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. Informational, as used here, does not necessarily mean high-tech.
But it does mean that managers and employees are moving up the curve toward information-age literacy, which is characterized by flexibility, informality, the ability to change when necessary, respect for personal time and priorities, and a commitment to using technology for improving performance. A dynamic, nonhierarchical, technologically advanced organization is more likely than a highly structured, command-driven one to implement an AW program successfully.
The key is whether managers at all levels are open to change. We had three departments involved in our effort: HR, technology, and real estate. The individuals on the team must be enthusiastic and not unnecessarily fettered by traditional approaches.
And they must be made knowledgeable about all the key issues—from the ways in which corporate policies may be redefined to deal with various types of problems and opportunities to the different options for providing furniture or allowances to employees.
Still, I would be skeptical about whether management by fiat would work very well. AW programs assume that certain jobs either do not depend on specific locations and types of facilities or depend on them only part of the 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. Is the work performed over the phone?
In person? Via computer? All of the above? How much time does the employee need to spend in direct contact with other employees, customers, and business contacts? Is the location of the office critical to performance? Does it matter whether the job is 9 to 5? Is it important for others to be able to reach the employee immediately? Managers who assume that the alternative workplace suits only road warriors on the sales force may be in for a surprise. If a critical mass of corporate functions cannot work in an AW environment, the potential benefits may be too marginal relative to the required investment and effort.
But managers who assume intuitively that an AW initiative is limited only to road warriors on the sales force may be surprised; often, more jobs are suited to a different way of working than at first seems possible. But for many employees, the transition from conventional to alternative workplaces is not as easy. 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.
Moreover, middle managers, who lose their visual and verbal proximity to their direct reports, have to change the way in which they relate to those employees. In fact, 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.
This is a key consideration in U. Conducting employee focus groups at the exploratory and planning stages of an AW initiative can uncover such concerns effectively. His idea: a shared office that staff members who spend much of their time with customers outside the office would use as needed, without having assigned workstations. The objective: creating an environment in which teamwork would flourish while reducing real estate costs.
Savastano, Jr. The team rejected several scenarios. Shared Office Metrics in Morristown The total group included 58 salespeople, technical specialists, and 66 management and support staff. Miller knew that the staff would need full-time space in the new facility. At the time, the GS organization was beginning to transform its technical specialists into virtual resources; that is, rather than dedicating individuals to specific customers, these individuals would float from one account to another as needed.
That change, Miller reflects, eased the transition from a conventional to an alternative workplace. The new shared office works as follows: Through their laptops, employees log onto a system to reserve a workstation either before they arrive at the building or when they enter the lobby. Once there, they retrieve their own mobile file cabinet and wheel it to their reserved space. The workstations are six feet square and are arranged in pairs with a C-shaped work surface so that two people can work apart privately or slide around to work side by side.
Two large chalkboards allow people to leave messages for others; this feature also reduces the paper flow within the office. But the investment was well worth the effort, as the accompanying table shows. In addition, individual space was halved, and team-meeting space doubled. Finally, the project has produced closer teamwork, better customer service, and greater employee satisfaction.
Will you invest in the tools, training, and techniques that make AW initiatives work? 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? Too many AW programs are undertaken with only partial support from the organization. Confusion and frustration inevitably ensue, not to mention drops in productivity. These programs are only marginally successful and might ultimately fail.
Because employees are mobile, the tools they use are their lifeline. The next step is to drill down into the economics of AW initiatives. Tangible and Intangible Economics As I suggested earlier, the main reason for AW programs is to reduce current costs and avoid future ones. For established organizations that are pressed for cash, the savings from relinquishing space and making better use of what remains can dwarf the necessary investment in equipment and training.
For young organizations, an AW program can give managers a viable alternative to expensive, long-term lease commitments. But for the typical enterprise, the economics of the alternative workplace are more complex, and the decision to adopt an AW program rests as much—or more—on intangibles as it does on simple financials.
Jerome T. That might cut real estate costs tremendously. But there would be other critical issues to address. For example, would the company provide cafeteria and health club facilities or instead provide allowances to help people pay for their own? And how does one coordinate HR activities across a dispersed group?
Tangible setup 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. In home offices, employees provide their own space and some, if not all, of the furnishings and equipment. 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. Employees in home offices and other remote locations also can be more efficient during the workday because they have fewer distractions and less down-time. 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. Stephen M. The act of removing the walls that separate people in traditional offices can foster teamwork. The U. In turn, I receive feedback from the field army as quickly as I would from my staff at the Pentagon.
This empowers our leadership team, and it allows the army to speak and act with one voice on rapidly changing situations. Splitting large goals into several smaller, clear goals will keep you on track. Setting achievable goals is a way to be kind to yourself while doing what you can.
No one wants you to burn out. Avoid multitasking Multitasking can feel efficient, but in reality, switching between tasks reduces your efficiency. Instead of juggling tasks, pick one thing to work on and stick to it. Improve your time management It's time to sharpen your time management skills. Plan your time ahead of time. If you know a task is due in a couple of weeks, work backward from that date and portion out your time accordingly. One hour of focused work per week is more effective than three hours of work at the last minute.
In fact, studies have shown that procrastination is associated with high stress, increased risk of depression, anxiety, and fatigue. It even leads to lower life and work satisfaction. Do important tasks first Prioritizing urgent tasks is an effective way to organize your to-do list. Use tactics like the Pomodoro Technique to improve both the quantity and quality of your work throughout the day. Look for opportunities to delegate some work tasks.
Break projects into chunks and give clear instructions to team members. They can help you get everything done. Clear your workspace A cluttered desk can be a distraction. Keep what you need for the task at hand and clear the rest. Decluttering your computer can also do wonders for mental clarity. Stay healthy Exercise and healthy food are known for keeping your brain happy.
Get your workday off to a good start each morning. A good breakfast and a walk outside can boost your focus, energy, and motivation. Effective communication leads to great teamwork, which improves your collective performance. If your attention drifts while you work, that could be your body telling you to take a break.
Instead of working through it, take a break. Better yet: schedule downtime. Carve out time each day to take a short walk, do some stretches, or grab a beverage at a nearby cafe. Prioritize self-improvement We should evolve with the world around us. Work on new skill sets, read books, watch videos, and listen to podcasts that expand your mind.
You might find useful information that you can bring with you to work. Maintain work-life balance We all have a personal life. It's important to disconnect at the end of the day. If you take care of yourself, you can be at your best while working. Be mindful of how much time you spend conversing with your colleagues.
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