Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Home Sweet Office - the changing workspace

Wired Magazine have run an interesting feature reminding us that with a functioning networked society the old assumptions of physically working alongside each other are rightly being challenged. But its interesting how slowly the notion of teleworking/telecommuting has moved into the mainstream.

Though a third of the more than 150 million working Americans telecommute at least occasionally, most do so just a few days each month. Only 40 percent of companies permit any sort of work-at-home arrangement, which means most insist on full-time attendance.

Engagement isn't the issue. As this study points out:

Last year, researchers from Penn State analyzed 46 studies of telecommuting conducted over two decades and covering almost 13,000 employees. Their sweeping inquiry concluded that working from home has "favorable effects on perceived autonomy, work-family conflict, job satisfaction, performance, turnover intent, and stress." The only demonstrable drawback is a slight fraying of the relationships between telecommuters and their colleagues back at headquarters — largely because of jealousy on the part of the latter group.

In comparison the traditional office environment can be counter productive:

According to Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at UC Irvine, the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes — hardly enough time to accomplish anything of substance.

Aside from the productivity and environmental benefits, working remotely places more emphasis on mediated communication skills and active learning. Clearly different disciplines apply, but they appear to be less of a barrier to effective performance than the traditional head office cubicle model in the long term.

Changing the office environment

But some organisations are recognising the need for change and have radically challenged the preconceptions of an office space. Interpolis - a Dutch insurance company - has transformed their HQ into an environment that encourages effective communication and focuses on results, rather than activity. In doing so they have freed up 51 percent of their working areas, cut 33 percent of construction and equipment costs, and reduced office usage expenses by 21 percent. Employees have no separate desks, work virtually paperlessly.

Nooteboom - who was responsible for the transformation project commented:

One should attend the Interpolice office - depending on the function - at least two to three days in office due to social cohesion. In contrast to the past, work is not measured on the presence, but output; The performance of the staff expected by the company. This is a fundamental change that requires time and training - amongst workers, but even more in the administration. What are the new tasks of the management ? No longer to check whether someone is there, but to define the output and control it. It takes months to incorporate this culture into a company.

As I wander the corporate corridors of various organisations here in the UK, there is some evidence of attempts to free workers and provide more conducive work spaces. But there is a long way to go before the fundamental culture shift described by Nooteboom is achieved.

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