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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Response to Venezia and Allee's article
Now that many companies are formally recognizing mobility in the workplace, there is an important business imperative to understand its implications. Facilities staff, HR professionals, and those who design and manage technology platforms and connectivity strategy, all want to know whether this “mobility thing” is real and whether it is likely to be around for a while. Clearly, the implications are significant.
Taking the pulse of the mobile community
The Knoll study lead by Camille Venezia is therefore timely and targeted at the right issues. While the sample size of the study is too small to develop any definitive conclusions there are nonetheless some very striking and interesting inferences which emerge:
The “office as we know it” is not viewed as a very productive place (only 24 percent viewed it as the “most productive location”).
Most mobile workers are very enthusiastic about their work and often work long hours. Mobility sounds like a good idea.
The design of the workplace is still largely based upon old paradigms as to how work best gets done (individuals toiling away in isolation).
A new spirit of invention is required which pushes collaboration to the forefront in an effort to better position and focus individual work. It also needs to dovetail the contributions of mobile workers to each other and to those who maintain a dedicated workspace in a company office. The workplace design implications are broad, interesting and profound.
Implications for the workplace and the workforce
To be provocative, one might argue that what we are seeing is nothing less than a splitting of the workforce into two camps:
Those who are mobile, have become comfortable with mobility, and leverage all it has to offer in terms of work-style, work patterns, balancing work-life issues and deciding where and when their work is best done. The survey conveys a general sense of well-being and confidence among this group (its subject audience). They are also very capable of interacting successfully with others through a range of virtual technologies and practices.
Those who are “glued” to a desk either by choice or circumstance. The desk-dwellers are the status quo. They have probably lived their entire business lives attached to a dedicated desk which, in many cases, has grown to symbolize their value and standing with the company. It is the work-life they are used to, and comfortable with.
Global competition is however shaking up the status quo. No longer can we afford the amounts of personal space which articulated status, were able to house a career's collection of reference material, or which allowed us to meet, greet, work and play all within our own “personal” space. Personal space is becoming focused and generally driven towards meeting the lowest common denominator in terms of functionality, contrasting with a rather more generous set of provisions in the past.
So personal space is getting smaller for most ... but something else is also happening; increasing numbers of office workers are becoming more mobile, mostly the result of a natural process involving the enabling qualities and convenience of today's technology platforms (the work, anywhere, any time credo) and an individual's self exploration of work and lifestyle patterns that work best for them. For the most part, the natural human inclination of a desk-dweller is to savor this mobility but also to cling to personal office space as the natural jumping off point for all business activity. Such attitudes, reinforced in many cases by management dictates, yield underutilized offices. DEGW, and others, have been measuring utilization for years and shock many with the data they provide. We had not realized just how mobile most of us have become! The result: workplaces that are underutilized, they lack buzz or energy evolving instead into oases of peace and tranquility which have become the expected norm. Mobility has crept up on us but is still denied by many.
We can see the collision coming!
Finance managers want to get rid of those empty cubes and make the ones that remain smaller.
Employees are extremely concerned about losing their dedicated space, even though they may not be there very much.
Those that are present full time resent any increase in noise, energy, interaction and interruption.
A mismatch occurs
The mobile employees (growing in numbers in most companies) however come into the office primarily for the interaction, interruption and engagement with others. These are diametrically opposed aspirations for the workplace. Mobile workers tend to develop skills which lead to simplification: filing, equipment, connectivity, calendars, etc. They can move, with grace, in and out of the office but also around the office. This may be an essential attribute of all future office workers.
If we accept the premise that successful collaboration is of high value (arguably the highest value and the biggest differentiator in some companies): then it follows that frequent interchanges between individuals, high visibility, regular interruption are also logical consequences. For many this sounds like a truly un-productive environment, especially to those who believe their best work is done away from everyone else in peaceful isolation.
Arguably the mobile worker is able to deal with the division of collaboration time and quiet contemplative “heads-down” work better through mobility-based solutions, working at home, in non-core hours, or in separate work areas (in the office) prescribed for quiet concentration or where interruption is not expected. He or she does not mind getting up and moving to accomplish a task that best takes place in a separate location: being away from paper filing, specialized equipment or reference material is not an issue.
Dedicated desk-based workers, on the other hand, seem to be less adept at reconciling the fact that high energy collaboration and heads-down concentration cannot possibly co-exist successfully in the same open space. They struggle with the reality that what is collaboration with another for them, is an interruption to someone else and so the average office disappoints them greatly. They complain of noise and interruption. They want higher partitions around their workstations, but at the same time they want greater access to daylight and talk openly about collaboration.
Personal productivity or organizational productivity?
At stake is no less than a reinvention of the workplace: one in which the office's primary purpose is to cause and to enable interaction between individuals, but also provides, either virtually or separately, quiet areas for heads-down work. There is a school of thought emerging that a new balance is required: that most people view productivity solely in terms of personal productivity and suggest that there is insufficient emphasis on organizational and collective productivity. Too many employees, the thought goes, are working too hard and long on the wrong things. Their individual pursuit of productivity has caused them to opt out of the constant check-in and dialogue necessary for team or organizational success and explains their preference for quiet, interruption-free work space. Under this new scenario open work station space and their immediate surrounds would, paradoxically, become the prime collaboration space and the enclosed spaces would become the quiet spaces to support heads-down work: a one hundred and eighty degree shift! The survey answers clearly reinforce the view that today's major focus is on individual work.
The mobile workers surveyed indicated that approximately 65 percent of them accomplished 20 percent or more of their work away from the traditional office. The question for business managers is whether this is sufficient face-to-face connection for the work to be fully aligned and is the time they spend in the office of the highest value.
In summary, the report indicates that mobile working is alive and well. Mobile workers appear motivated, like their work, and work hard, but their connection with their primary office space is typically not well conceived. The expectation is that they will come into the office and sit down like all those with dedicated work space in quiet solitude. That's not why they come into the office! There is a mismatch.
What if we converted the open landscape into an environment of unbounded collaboration and leave the heads-down work to peripheral spaces to which all could migrate when required? It is, if you like, the equivalent of the TV newsroom, where against tight deadlines, complex work is achieved every day, in a wild, busy, constantly shifting environment. It is also, for many companies, a complete reversal of the way they conceive and implement infrastructure today. Many would argue that this would be unproductive, and from a personal standpoint it might be so compared to the quiet sedate, lightly used offices of today. It would certainly require desk-bound workers to develop new intra-office mobility skills and expectations. From a big-picture standpoint however, it may well lead to better directed, more-focused individual work and more valuable contributions to the organization.
Camille and her team should be applauded for their efforts to understand the implications of mobility as seen through the eyes of those who live it. We should all be ready to challenge the status quo in determining how we can best leverage its virtues for organizational success.
Chris HoodThe HP Workplace, Hewlett Packard, Hertford, North Carolina, USA