Distributed work is all the buzz these days, but what exactly is it? According to the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), ‘distributed work is a catchall phrase for work that is spread among distributed teams, in variable locations and which occurs at varying times’. This includes working in the office (in an assigned seat or an unassigned seat/hotel space); group spaces in the office (such as touchdown spaces, war/project rooms, huddle rooms); and working from home, a café, the beach, or a client site.
IFMA recently issued a distributed work research report, which takes an objective look at on- and off-site distributed work trends, combining the results of a survey of nearly 10,000 IFMA members with 10 case studies. Although the companies reside outside the architectural profession, the results are illuminating and transferrable to our own industry.
The findings: nearly every company is participating in distributed work in some form or another, although larger companies have the highest current usage level of off-site workplace options (telecommuting, virtual office, and remote telecentres).
Why is distributed work so popular? The answer is threefold: financial benefit, facility-related efficiency, and business culture.
The financial aspect is pretty obvious: reducing the number and/or size of facilities or accommodating more people within an existing footprint can save a business a bundle in rent and utilities, making it a pretty compelling reason to change the way you work.
Facilities themselves can become more efficient and adaptable depending on the way distributed work is implemented. Additionally, they can be made much more environmentally-friendly (less space equals less stuff, lower water and energy use, etc; fewer people coming to the office every day leads to fewer carbon emissions).
Businesses are discovering that distributed work leads to greater speed, innovation,
and productivity, driven in large part by increased collaboration and improved interaction. Distributed work can also improve employee satisfaction – driving critical HR measures: attraction of new talent and retention of existing top talent. The IFMA study shows that, when considering on-site distributed work options, 69 percent of respondents thought meeting cultural/generational expectations was important; similarly, 65 percent thought meeting cultural/generational expectations was important when considering off-site distributed work options.
In order to successfully implement distributed work, firms need to consider whether or not they can provide the critical elements: robust technology, supportive human resources (policies, procedures, and training), and change management. Change management is critical in working through the typical challenges of management resistance and cultural change.
Determining whether a distributed work program is successful or not depends largely on the goals of the company, and also the preferred method of measurement. Some businesses use the Balanced Scorecard methodology pioneered at Harvard Business School. Others take a more academic approach, while the rest look purely at financial successes.
It’s no surprise that distributed work appeals most to the young folks. IFMA’s report indicated that distributed work strongly appeals to 71 percent of those under 30; only 6 percent of those under 30 responded that distributed work does not appeal to them at all. As a point of comparison, distributed work appeals to only 15 percent of those 50 and up, and does not appeal at all to 41 percent of this demographic.
But why does it appeal to the younger demographic? Today’s rising stars have grown up in a time where advances in technology grew exponentially in months, not decades and became much more affordable. The computer (and now PDAs, laptops, iPods, cellphones) has been integrated into their education and lifestyle from an early age, serving as a knowledge source, communication tool, and window to the world. And, with the onset of the internet, technology quickly made their world borderless. Young talent expects to be able to email, Facebook, Twitter, text, learn, and work not just anywhere, but from everywhere. They are not reliant upon a desk or work station to trigger innovative thoughts, and in many cases, feel their most creative elsewhere.
A distributed workplace doesn’t just appeal to junior employees from a professional perspective, but from a personal one as well. As they couple and/or marry, the majority of this generation plans for each partner to remain in the workforce, even after having children. If employers expect to retain top talent once they start families,
they must offer flexible work hours and locations that allow them to share the responsibilities at home.
Technology has not just changed the workplace, but it has made the world smaller…more accessible. Regardless of size or specialty, most firms now have an international client portfolio. In the interest of client satisfaction, the distributed workplace allows employers to serve their international clients seamlessly. While working with a client on the other side of the globe, it’s much more appealing to take a conference call at 10pm from the sofa with a laptop and cell phone, rather than shuffling into the office!
Embracing a more flexible, distributed workplace can be a challenge for senior leaders. But they typically start accepting and embracing it once they realise just how mobile their workforce already is – and increasingly expects to be.
It's also hard to argue with the bottom-line reality that a distributed work strategy can enable a growth-oriented firm to become more sustainable, more attractive and more profitable – without adding any additional space.
Megan Holder is an Associate with the HOK Planning Group based in Atlanta, who specialises in large-scale master planning projects for colleges and universities, with extensive experience in the Middle East and Asia.
As a Senior Associate in the Washington, DC, HOK Advance Strategies practice, Jodi Williams focuses on predesign services such as workplace strategies, programming, and sustainable consulting, taking advantage of her background in sociology and urban planning.
In addition to their ‘real’ work, both Megan and Jodi can be found sharing their thoughts on HOK’s social network through theLife@HOK and Work+Place blogs.
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Editorial , London
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