The mobile workforce

Not everyone agrees on what a mobile workforce is, but what it is not is work from home, said Joel Ratekin, president of Ratekin Consulting, a Mechanicsville, Va.-based firm specializing in alternative workplace strategies.

The idea of the distributed mobile worker formally started about five to six years ago, according to Ratekin, who created the flexible work programs at both Capital One Financial Corp. and American Express Co. This isn’t teleworking or telecommuting, he pointed out.

Distributed work is the umbrella phrase for different types of work happening simultaneously across geographic locations around the world, whereas mobile workers are a subset category of people who work in different types of settings throughout the day, he explained.

One of the problems with telecommuting, and why it doesn’t work for everybody, is that the work-at-home lifestyle often leads to feelings of isolation, he said. “I get to a place of dissatisfaction because I’m not around people, so now I find myself having to go out to the coffee shop just as a way to engage with people,” said Ratekin.

But mobile workers are empowered with all sorts of choices, he said. Mobile working enables people to work wherever they want in order to accomplish a task at hand, noted Ratekin, and this includes spending a lot of time in their workplace environment. “I don’t have to go to the coffee shop anymore because the office is set up to support me,” he said.

Flexible workers

In a mobile work environment, employees aren’t tied to designated offices or cubicles. Spaces are designed to offer options, such as coffee lounges, team rooms, project areas and quiet zones. These are “places to go where I can be most productive while I’m there,” said Ratekin.

While a lot of people think they would love to work from home, they change their mind once they are actually in that environment, said Mark Lang, architect of the Flexible Work Styles program at Telus Corp. “There are really very few people who can stomach working from home on any kind of consistent basis,” he said.

A flexible worker himself, Lang doesn’t have a designated office at Telus. When he was first hired, Lang kept the company-issued Blackberry and laptop, but told Telus to keep the landline, desktop and cell phone. “Having an office would be a waste of real estate. Not having the right IT equipment to enable me would be counter to my productivity,” he said. 

Lang spends roughly 20 per cent of his time in the downtown Vancouver building for face-to-face meetings, 10 per cent in the Burnaby office, 20 per cent working from home, and the remaining half at client sites. “For me, that is what mobile working is all about. It’s about enabling work when and where it’s most effective and not making assumptions about what that looks like for any one individual,” he said.

Telus, which started the Flexible Work Styles program within its HR departments three years ago, is planning to deploy the program to all employees in every market across Canada. “We are just now getting ready to launch some buildings that have the real estate solution in place,” said Lang.

Lang has noticed boosts in productivity, faster speed to market, faster decision making, less e-mail, more instant messaging and fewer Outlook meetings. “The biggest thing I can say is as soon as you embrace truly owning your own calendar, you’ll find a degree of liberation in being a mobile worker that you’ve never experienced before,” he said.

The Telus program differs from “hoteling,” a real estate strategy that simply removes dedicated cubicles, Lang pointed out. “What we’re saying is you blow out the cube jungle and you give dedicated workstations to resident workers and you give non-dedicated workstations to mobile workers and teleworkers. That’s sharing,” he said.

There are two schools of thought on whether office workstations should follow a reservation system, but Ratekin and Lang both argue that the “first come, first served” model is the one that works. The number of people demanding a desk at one time “is always surprisingly smaller than what you would think,” said Ratekin.

The problem with reservations and scheduling is the potential for abuse, Ratekin pointed out. People start scheduling desk time months in advance and may have no idea if they are going to be around or not, while others may schedule an entire day when all they need is a place to drop off their bag or coat, he said.

Reservations only make sense for formal team rooms, according to Lang. “You’ll never hit capacity, even with no reservation system, if you do the desking right,” he said. 

Why flexible workstyles work

Flexible work environments are beneficial to several areas of the enterprise, according to Jayanth Angl, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Ltd. Employees can create a better work-life balance, while employers can decrease real estate costs and administrative overhead by reducing the number of full-time office employees, he said.

The capability for users to work remotely is also becoming part of disaster recovery and business continuity planning, as it prepares businesses to deal with situations where employees are physically unable to reach the office, said Angl.

Ratekin predicts it will be 20 years before flexible work environments move from a leading edge to standard workplace strategy, but the approach has been around long enough to prove itself. “Performance has been proven to lift sometimes 200 to 300 per cent,” he said.

It is hard to find a downside to the flexible work strategy, according to Ratekin. The invested costs required to accommodate new technology and settings for a mobile workspace are minor compared to the real estate savings opportunities, he said. Through real estate consolidation, enterprises can let go of entire buildings or floors, he pointed out.

“Desks are already empty on average more than 50 per cent of the time, and that’s when they are assigned. You introduce desk sharing on top of that, you can really increase the amount of savings you can get through real estate consolidation,” said Ratekin.

Dr. Daniel Ondrack, academic director of Executive Development Programs at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, pointed out a few areas of areas of concern. Because flexible working creates the capabilities for working 24/7, a lot of work will gravitate towards that type of schedule, he said.

Another potential problem is compensation for overtime work. Employees are being paid for a limited number of hours, but the work keeps coming in, he said. “People are legitimately claiming, ‘I want to be paid overtime if you want me to respond and deal with all these communications,’” said Ondrack.

Without direct supervision, workers also need some form of performance tracking and assessment, Ondrack noted. “You can have all the freedom you want, all the flexibility, but you must be productive for the salary,” he said. But while performance tracking is a missing element that needs to be developed, “the other side of that is Big Brother is watching you,” said Ondrack.

Angl agreed that performance management must be part of the planning, from both the employee and management’s perspective. “Those are details that need to be hammered out at the onset, not something that an organization can get to once it becomes an established practice,” he said.

Another question that must be considered is whether employees working flexibly have the same opportunities to develop and eventually be promoted as those in the office full time, said Angl.

IT roles and responsibilities change

The biggest area of change for IT is the help desk and support function, according to Angl. With more users working remotely, IT has to have the capabilities to manage their workstations and diagnose and monitor issues remotely, he said.

But the change isn’t just about location, he pointed out. Flexible work arrangements lead to flexible work hours and IT must be prepared to address extensible hours of coverage and support, he said.

The IT department’s role becomes more complex in a flexible workstyles environment, said Lang. “Suitable IT department resourcing and support is critical to the success of the program because it has a direct impact on end-user satisfaction … as well as general productivity,” he said.

“They are responsible for ensuring workforce productivity across a large range of work environments – across multiple offices, at-home, in the field, in a public location. Employee access to productivity tools must be maintained across all these environments,” said Lang.

There are a lot of pitfalls, according to Ratekin, so the first and foremost requirement for IT is good change management communication and education. “Getting people from the old environment into the new environment requires a lot of hand-holding,” he said.

Not only can the IT department itself make the transition to flexible work, but they are probably the best suited for it. “There is a strong likelihood that that they are already some of the most mobile folks in the workforce,” said Lang.

Telus encourages IT teams to become the early adopters of flexible work programs. “The strategy simply enables work to be done more effectively the way it is already being done. Productivity increases, collaboration improves and becomes more dynamic, and community and culture are actually enhanced,” said Lang.

Many see the mobile workforce as a Gen Y phenomenon, but the hunger for flexibility is just as true for Baby Boomers and Gen X, Ratekin argued. Older generations appreciate the flexibility that allows them to plug-and-play into other types of work such as volunteering and committees, he said.

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