Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Workplace of the Future: Technology-Enhanced Mobility

I was interested to hear last week, from the Regional HR Director at Dupont, that for many companies the virtual office is now the norm and that companies are turning their attention to helping employees maintain connectivity, not only of the technical kind but also of the interpersonal kind.

This may be the case for the private sector, but as far as I can tell it is still in an experimental stage for the not-for-profit sector. My organization for example, has a few people (only women I believe) who are working less than 100%, that gives them some flexibility, but no one (but me I think) is working part of my time from home as a rule. Experimenting with mobility has been interesting in an institutional culture which is very immediate and in some cases inpromptu. My observation is that dividing your time between a physical office and a home office demands a level of organization that is not always necessary if you routinely go into an office every day (for about 10 hours). You need to define and set some boundaries, and then keep both yourself and your colleagues mindful of them.

The Dupont spokesperson said that the golden rule of mobile working, especially if you are doing it for work/life balance reasons, was to set limits, but still focus on a) flexibility and b) the customer. To make this work, particularly if you are a part of an office-based team, is to identify your customer (your immediate colleagues, your line manager, the top boss but probably not everybody) and keep your customers happy. It also seems that if you are in a results-based environment, it is easier to show that this distributed team system can work and be productive (perhaps even more productive than a traditional office-based team).

It is also, ultimately, a perk. As the best people have more choice (HR is quickly becoming known as Talent Management in some industries), stay in the workforce longer (so salaries can reach their cap long before retirement), and the technology exists, I guess we will be seeing more people becoming mobile workers even in the non-profit sector. Institutions can also see that non-financial benefits work for employee retention and overall staff satisfaction. Still, there is a little fear about the empty institution; that social connections will be replaced by internet connections. So how can we make sure that the time people do spend together at work is really quality time, and not just coming in those big doors and going into a small office for the rest of the day (sending email to each other)? A workplace revolution needs to be accompanied by a workspace revolution....(and perhaps a small shift in institutional culture?)