Leaving the Office Time-Space Continuum Behind at Warp Speed

Working 9 to 5: it’s a movie, it’s a song, but could it soon be a thing of the past? What a few years ago might have seemed unfathomable is now being actively explored, as employers consider whether to discard regular work schedules and fixed office locations in favor of more creative solutions. While it may be a while before showing up at the same office at the same time every day is a complete anomaly, it’s also more than just science fiction at this point, which is probably a positive development for American workers.

Telecommuting doesn’t even begin to describe what some companies these days are experimenting with. Corporations used to spending copious amounts of company cash on office space are starting to consider whether many workers need permanent space at all. For example, Deloitte & Touche is rolling out the “hoteling” concept in its offices worldwide, where mobile employees call up an office concierge and reserve space as needed, rather than having fixed offices sitting idle most of the time. Procter & Gamble recently revamped one of its Cincinnati offices to resemble a bar, for its product packagers most used to doing business in international hotels. (See Business Week article.)

Looking for the ultimate in infrastructure-free offices? Look at what Coghead is doing in Mountain View, California. Coghead leases its office space and uses mostly web-based applications. The company’s CEO and founder says that if an earthquake or Avian flu outbreak occurred, the company could up and move anywhere within a day. (See Business Week article.) As a telecommuter for over four years now, I can personally attest that telecommuting works for me and for Workplace Fairness. (See Baltimore Sun article.) It is possible to work with and even supervise employees from remote distances, and still maintain strong communication and productivity. So I’m not surprised that more companies are thinking about mobile office solutions, and reducing the amount of fixed office space for employees.

There are some kinks to be worked out, certainly. Companies have to think about security when employees take home sensitive information — a lesson the Veterans Administration recently learned here in my Maryland home base. (See Reuters article.) (Although as this article points out, the VA employee whose data was stolen wasn’t even a telecommuter, just an employee who took work home, as many non-telecommuters now do.) Some employees are not yet ready to be productive telecommuters, which appears to have been a factor in Hewlett-Packard’s recent decision to bring some of its employees back in-house to help with teamwork and productivity. (See Mercury-News article.) (I can say that I’ve never been on a tractor during conference calls — not even when taking them from my parents’ farm. Okay, what was that employee thinking?)

And just as it may not be necessary to have a fixed office, it also may not be necessary to have a fixed schedule, either. At the recent Take Back America conference, presenters Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson talked about a new innovation they spearheaded at the Best Buy corporate offices, called ROWE: a Results-Only Work Environment. Under ROWE, there are no schedules or set times that employees must be in the office. Workers who want to take time to attend their kid’s school play or golf on a particular afternoon are free to do so, as they are evaluated solely on their results. Ressler and Thompson claim that after ROWE was implemented at Best Buy, the ROWE teams had an average 3.2% lower voluntary turnover, average 5.03% higher internal customer satisfaction, and an average 35% increase in productivity. Not bad, certainly, if the results can be replicated in other office environments

The director of design for Steelcase, Inc, James Ludwig, says: “If my people aren’t in the design studio, I’m not sweating it. All things are becoming output-oriented, rather than location- or time-oriented.” (See Business Week article.) This trend certainly has implications for Steelcase, who makes, you guessed it: office furniture. But it has implications for the rest of us as well. It’s a solution for working parents who, no matter how long and hard they work, never seem to have enough time to spend with their children. It’s a solution for Generations X and Y looking for work-life balance (see Ithaca News article) and for Baby Boomers looking to stave off retirement a little longer, or who are juggling parental care responsibilities. (See Associated Press article.)

And if businesses start to realize that increased productivity, more employee satisfaction, less turnover, and lower real estate costs are all good for them as well, we might even have a solution that works for everyone. Seems like it’s an experiment worth trying, doesn’t it?

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.