Telecommuting, the practice of employees working from their homes or remote locations, has evolved from a cutting-edge trend to where it is today: an everyday business practice. One facility manager recently said his company designs for no more than 60 percent of employees to be in the office at any one time.
Advances in communications and inexpensive virtual networks now enable many people to work from almost any location in the same way they would in an office. Of course, telecommuting is a viable solution only for those employees whose work is portable and can be performed using computers, the Internet, and mobile communication devices. Although telecommuting has become a generally accepted form of working, there are millions more employees who could telecommute but don’t because their organizations do not support it.
The reasons for telecommuting’s popularity are compelling.
- Cost reductions: Approximately 200 square feet of space is required to accommodate the average employee. This figure includes an employee’s workstation and ancillary spaces such as lunchrooms, hallways, restrooms, and other common areas. The attendant costs to light, heat, ventilate, air condition, and maintain the space add up to a sizable amount of money.
- Pay incentives: Many employees who can work from home are willing to accept lower wages in return for what they perceive as a major quality of life benefit. Single parents find that the arrangement allows them to spend more time with their children. Many employees say they are more productive without the distractions of an office environment. And many employees cite the significant financial and timesaving benefits of not having to commute to work.
- Government support: Because telecommuting reduces air pollution and traffic congestion, the U.S. government has shown its support by launching initiatives of its own and encouraging businesses to participate.
Some organizations have become so progressive in their approaches to flexible working arrangements that they have completely abandoned housing and managing employees in the traditional way. Consumer electronics giant Best Buy has instituted ROWE, “Results-Only Work Environment,” at its corporate office. Employees are not measured by the amount of time they spend in the office. Rather, they are evaluated on the results they achieve. Many employees work fewer hours and work from home or other locations for significant parts of their working time. The practice has paid huge dividends. Productivity has risen 35 percent, and turnover has been reduced by over 3 percent, saving millions of dollars per year.
While this may mean that fewer employees are physically in an office building, the challenges for the facility manager are not necessarily reduced. Telecommuters and ROWE workers present the facility manager with the challenges of communications, hoteling, and scheduling issues.
Telecommuting can complicate computer and telephone connectivity issues and the routing of information. It is much easier to call a staff meeting for an announcement when all employees are physically in the same location than when they are scattered across the country.
In many cases, employees cannot speak face to face with coworkers in real life; they must interact with the electronic version of their colleagues. Skype, WebEx, and similar tools have made teleconferencing and videoconferencing simpler, helping to bring a geographically diverse group together. But even the most user-friendly tools present a new technological challenge for facilities. Some FMs may want to enlist outsourced help in arranging for the hardware and software necessary for teleconferencing and videoconferencing.
Two important questions to be addressed when employees telecommute are:
- What equipment is the employee supposed to provide?
- What will the company provide?
Some telecommuters are completely equipped in their home offices, while others may not have the same equipment. No matter what the decision on this issue, all employees must be treated identically.
Many of the traditional laws, practices, and concepts regarding workers and their relationship to the organizations they work for are being challenged by new work paradigms. The once clear relationship of employer and employee is blurring as a result of telecommuting.
For example, a dispute recently arose between OSHA and organizations using teleworkers over whether or not the organizations were responsible for OSHA compliance at the employees’ home offices. OSHA’s position was that these offices were branch offices and, therefore, were subject to OSHA regulation and inspection. The organizations asserted that an employee’s home office was not their responsibility. After months of debate, OSHA decided that home offices used by telecommuters are not actually branch offices and, as such, were not subject to OSHA regulations and inspections. OSHA’s official policy regarding home offices includes three key points:
- OSHA will not conduct inspections of employees’ home offices.
- OSHA will not hold employers liable for employees’ home offices, and does not expect employers to inspect the home offices of their employees.
- If OSHA receives a complaint about a home office, the complainant will be advised of OSHA’s policy. If an employee makes a specific request, OSHA may informally let employers know of complaints about home office conditions, but will not follow up with the employer or employee.
Although working at home offers considerable advantages, the main disadvantage is that teleworkers can become psychologically disconnected from the organization. In order to preserve morale and keep unity in the company, most organizations schedule some time when telecommuting employees can interact in person with their peers. Social events and periodic company or department meetings can be useful for this purpose.
Hoteling is the practice of housing employees in office areas that are used by multiple employees at various times. This means that when an employee reports to work in an office building, he or she takes whatever space happens to be available at that time. Because of telecommuting and ROWE, the space that one employee occupied 40 hours per week may now be occupied by multiple employees in those same hours. This saves on the square footage required for each employee, but it also represents a more complex management challenge for the facility manager.
Like telecommuting, hoteling is driven by a need to reduce real estate costs by optimizing resources. Today’s workforce is increasingly mobile; numerous employees work from home or remote offices for part of their schedule. Those who travel frequently do not require a dedicated office and are thus prime candidates for hoteling. Organizations are finding that, with some coordination, hoteling can drastically reduce their overall office space costs.
The facility manager is often in charge of managing the hoteling operation. Consequently, he or she is directly responsible for scheduling and infrastructure requirements.
Allocating spaces for a mobile staff can be quite a challenge; today’s mobile workforces and fast-paced business schedules are demanding. Many organizations have employees travel between multiple offices, requiring access to network connections and basic office systems, such as printers, while at a given location. These mobile workers do not usually travel on a set schedule; their schedules change frequently and unexpectedly. This fluid schedule requires a high degree of competence on the part of the facility manager in order to ensure that the necessary resources are available for every employee. Scheduling software can make this job much easier. Most CAFM systems have scheduling capabilities for individual offices, as well as conference rooms and other more traditional scheduling requirements. The best of these programs allow the facility manager to schedule resources and space, and to publish schedules so that mobile workers can access the schedule and add to it or request changes through the Internet while they are on the road.
This article is excerpted from the BOMI International course Technologies for Facilities Management, part of the FMA® designation program. More information regarding this course and BOMI International’s education programs is available by calling 1-800-235-2664. Visit BOMI International’s website, www.bomi.org.