Communications technology has made it increasingly less necessary for certain employees to set foot in companies’ offices.
At first, it was just sales staff whose offices were on the road, and they could correspond with managers through their Blackberries. Today, though, whole departments and whole companies can — and do — work remotely. Some employees have certain times in which they work outside the office, and some employees don’t even have company offices to go to in the first place.
All of these developments present interesting opportunities and challenges for companies, and those companies’ facilities managers. At first blush, it sounds simple enough: Lower occupancy equals less facility management, right?
Not quite. Remote work, concepts such as hotelling and variable rates of occupancy create nuanced conditions for facilities managers. What’s more, with the rapid pace of innovation in IT and communications technology, present realities change quickly.
Thus, facilities managers need to constantly stay ahead of these curves so that they built spaces they manage can respond to whatever developments arise.
Below are a few issues related to remote work that facilities managers should always keep in mind.
Remote Work Saves Companies Money on Overhead Costs
Cost savings are the No. 1 reason some companies are quick to adopt remote-work arrangements. American Express and health care company Aetna are two of the most visible such examples in the United States.
In fact, workplace consultant Jeanne Meister wrote in Forbes in 2013 that Aetna saves 2.9 million square foot in office space through flex work, and that alone contributes $78 million per year to the company’s bottom line.
In 2009, furniture manufacturer Steelcase was on top of this trend, just as the recession was beginning to impact American companies and austere measures were being adopted in boardrooms across the country. Steelcase, however, was also quick to point out that any type of “slash-and-burn approach” to cost savings could be dangerous.
“A single focus on cost management risks impairing the company’s ability to remain effective, and certainly hurts its ability to respond when the economy turns around,” Steelcase’s researchers wrote.
“Enter alternative work strategies. The concept, which some forward-thinking organizations have used for over a decade, has now gone mainstream.”
By most measures, America has since pulled out of its recession, but the cost-consciousness so prevalent a few years ago has translated to real value creation.
John Anderson, former CEO of workforce management software company PeopleCub, told Realtor.com in 2013 that commercial real estate brokers were in a position to help building owners retain tenants via a little creative thinking.
“By helping clients track and analyze their space utilization, and leverage that information to make recommendations on how to repurpose space, the value of the agent to the client increases greatly and leads to accelerated lease renewals.”
This means we aren’t likely to see companies fleeing commercial space so much as all stakeholders re-imaging how we are going to approach the utilizations of these existing commercial spaces.
Even the IMFA has gotten in on this trend, dispensing with some of its square footage needs when it opened its new Service Center of Excellence in early 2013.
“In addition to increased convenience for the employee, remote workers benefit the environment and save money by requiring less space and reducing the daily commute,” IMFA said in a statement.
“Notably, IFMA’s support for external mobility — in combination with the multiuse functionality of internal mobility — means the Service Center of Excellence can operate with nearly half the useable square footage compared to the previous location.”
These Work Arrangements Have Forced People to Re-Evaluate Office Layouts
Michelle Ervin, writing in November 2014 for Canadian Facility Management & Design, noted that both flex work and time, as well as the broader sharing of information internally, has turned open office layouts on their heads.
“The open office plan was supposed to be the answer to the cubicle … and provide an environment conducive to collaboration and free exchange of ideas as well as cost savings and improved environmental performance,” she reported, citing AgilQuest senior product managers Wes Bryan. “But the noisiness and lack of privacy for heads-down work generated backlash. The response has been to adopt a mix of spaces for different types of work and giving employees the ability to choose.”
Furniture company Knoll quantified this change by examining in 2011 how square footage targets per person had steadily declined in offices over the previous decade, from 227 sq. ft. / person to 135 sq. ft. / person.
This leads to smaller desks, smaller allotments of space per person, and more collaborative workspaces. In fact, the collaborative use concept has ushered in a wider adoption of hotelling, or assigning office space to occupants for the hours when they are on premises. During different times of the day/night, another employee would use that same space.
Occupancy and Optimization
All of this begs the question of how building owners, tenants and facilities managers can measure office space usage and then optimize that space. Then, of course, are the utilities that serve those space.
Fortunately, the technology exists to do just that, and facilities managers are poised to help drive that optimization.
“With a control and automation system you can dynamically adjust an HVAC system to accommodate how many people are there and reassign them to common areas to minimize the amount of space that needs to be climate-controlled,” Let’sGoGreen.ie wrote in 2013.
“Conference rooms can be made more efficient with scheduling functions so A/V systems start up automatically and shut down equipment when security occupancy sensors detect no one is in the room. This saves energy and saves employees from wasting valuable time waiting for systems to boot up.”
IBM published a white paper in October 2012 called “The Impact of a Changing Workforce on Facilities Management,” and it also highlighted the important role facilities managers will play as companies around the world optimize their built spaces for change realities.
“Managers need advanced capabilities to identify under-utilized and poor-performing facilities, assets, processes and resources, and to help improve return on facility assets,” the white paper reads.
“Real-time information can enable users to identify operational demands and opportunities for new efficiencies. This data can help organization to plan and enable the optimal use of offices and common areas. It can help identify opportunities for savings in areas such as energy consumption, and in turn, greenhouse gas emissions.”
All of that said, there are real business concerns companies must consider before it can move out of its big offices and tell everyone to work from their kitchen tables. While smart building technology can inform space optimization, there are a couple of operational concerns facilities managers should take into account.
Companies Still Want to Capture Certain Benefits of Having an Office
“[S]avings, no matter how great, are not a substitute for strategy,” Angela Maas wrote for FacilitiesNet back in 2002. “Companies looking for real return on their facilities decisions are implementing programs that address not only occupancy cost but other critical issues, including quality of life concerns that affect recruiting and retention, environmental impacts and community perceptions.”
Water Cooler Chatter
To the strictest of micromanagers, break room conversations might seem like a waste of time, but it’s in these unstructured exchanges of thoughts that great ideas are often born. And company executives don’t want to let go of such a precious resource.
“On the simplest level, telecommuting makes it harder for people to have the kinds of informal interaction that are crucial to the way knowledge moves through an organization,” James Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker Magazine, “The role that hallway chat plays in driving new ideas has become a cliché of business writing, but that doesn’t make it less true.
“John Seely Brown, an organizational guru who was the director of the Xerox PARCresearch center for a decade, told me, ‘Those chance encounters that become evocative turn out to be incredibly important. They allow people to get out of their ruts and think about things that they might otherwise have missed.’”
That’s not to say distributed, virtual teams lack a hub for water cooler chatter, as web development education company Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson notes on his personal blog. His team of then 40 people used a chat program called Campfire for both collaboration and banter.
For those building occupants who spend parts or all of their week in the office, collaborative spaces can start to feel cramped and uncomfortable, like trying to work from an internet cafe. So, again, before companies can start liquidating lesser-used square footage, it would be worth it to investigate how much employees value being able to simply get away from everyone else in the office while remaining on the premises.
“Although there is no single ‘formula’ for the right balance of privacy and collaboration that can be universally applied, it’s become very clear that the fast-growing trends of collaborative work and open plan have made privacy a too-scarce commodity in many of today’s workplaces,” Chris Congdon from corporate real estate company CoreNet Global wrote on FM Link.
“At the same time, technology advances and the proliferation of data are raising new concerns about privacy. Meanwhile, demands for faster, better innovation continue to accelerate and globalization is adding new layers of complexity to almost every work process. These shifting trends are creating tremendous pressures for organizations, with significant implications for their employees and their workplaces.”