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Distance Working - The Corporate Perspective
The following paper was delivered to the European Distance Working Conference, Robinson College, Cambridge (April 1993).
Many large organisations have been slow to adopt distance working as an accepted way of operating. However, the combination of networking technologies, global competition, market and socio-demographic factors means that the adoption of practices such as teleworking and geographically distributed teams is both practical and can give a strategic advantage. This paper describes the experiences of the UK subsidiary of Digital Equipment Corporation, who have adopted distance working as a key part of their organisational strategy. It also suggests ways to bridge the gap between policy making for rural development and employing organisations.
There is a considerable ongoing interest in teleworking and other forms of distance working. Part of this interest arises from the fact that advances in technology, such as telecommunications, portable PCs and computer networks, make such practices ever more cost effective. Other concerns, such as those of those of the environment and of lifestyle have also influenced individual interest. Policy makers involved with regional development also see the employment opportunities that these new ways of working can bring to less prosperous regions.
None of these factors, by themselves, is sufficient to cause large corporate organisations to take up such working practices in any significant way. There are, however, a number of changes in the broader business environment that make adoption of distance working a viable strategic option for such organisations. Further, when implemented in an appropriate manner, there are considerable business benefits to be obtained.
This paper therefore gives a perspective on distance working from the corporate viewpoint. It draws heavily on my experience as the Strategic Planning Manager of the UK subsidiary of Digital Equipment Corporation in the late 1980s, and my subsequent ongoing involvement in its flexible work practices programme.
From these experiences I then offer some personal observations on the challenges facing those who want to bridge the rural employment - employer gaps that is a key theme of this conference.
Today's environment is one of continual change and uncertainty. Every enterprise, whether commercial or public sector is facing a number of challenges. They vary from industry to industry, and from organisation to organisation, but a typical list will include:
It was an investigation of such business drivers as part of the strategic planning process that led Digital UK into deeper consideration of how to link human and organisational strategy more closely with business strategy. As a result, Digital's UK Director of Strategy and Marketing, and UK Director of Human Resources jointly sponsored the 'People for the 90s' programme in 1988.
One of it's early conclusions was that if Digital was to successfully address the business challenges of the 1990s, much more attention would need to be given to the future nature of business activities and work, and what accompanying changes would be needed in human resource strategies. In turn this led to an extensive review of flexible work practices of many types.
The review of flexible work practices followed detailed analysis of several dependencies linking business strategy-human resources:
The project on labour supply rapidly came to the conclusion that we needed to look beyond traditional recruiting and training methods in order to access the people and skills needed for the future. Part of the solution was tapping into resources not normally considered, such as women returners. The main focus, though, was on the question "how can we get work done more effectively".
Many standard organisation practices today, including employing people full-time and working in offices are relics of the needs of earlier eras. Some of the characteristics of work in the future are:
Add to these considerations advances in telecommunications and facilities such as groupware, that permit working across time and geographic boundaries, then the different possibilities for organising work are enormous. Work can be contracted out or outsourced; it can take place around the clock and in different locations.
At Digital we identified 22 different types of flexible working, involving different employment practices (such as job sharing and contracting out) and different work locations (home, office, customer sites etc.).
The work practices that were particularly attractive to us were the ones that reflected our organisational values and that were enhanced by information technology, namely:
Over the period 1989-91, several pilot projects were implemented under controlled research conditions. These pilots were with groups of from 13-130 people. This allowed us to measure the business benefits and to derive lessons for successful implementation that we could carry forward on a wider scale.
One of the key lessons that we learnt is that none of the practices must exist in isolation. They benefit from coexistence with each other, and all must derive from the nature of the work and the people involved rather than the technology. In other words, a project to introduce distance working is unlikely to succeed if viewed simply as that - a distance working project. It must be part of some wider work and organisational review. Let me now turn to a specific example that illustrates this and other lessons learnt.
The original Crescent in Basingstoke was one of Digital's newest offices. One morning in March 1990, it burnt down displacing 450 people from their work-place. Yet within two working days, all business systems had been fully restored and within a week most occupants had found alternative work-places, either at other Digital facilities or at home. The ease with which this happened raised questions as to the need for a replacement office.
Prior to this calamitous event, there had already been top management discussions about reducing costs and developing a more flexible work-force. Thus, when the decision was taken to rebuild a new Crescent office, part of the decision was that it should be built to embrace Flexible Working Practice principles.
Earlier pilot projects in the Flexible Working Practices programme had shown that utilisation of people's personal space in an office was typically 40% or less during normal office hours. By adopting more flexible layouts and practices there was potentially a huge saving to be made in real estate costs. One of the principles therefore adopted was that the more time a person spent in the office the more claim they had on personal work space. In practice, this means that secretaries are more likely to have their own desk than managers (none of whom has an enclosed office).
The office was also rebuilt as an 'intelligent building'. Today it hosts 700 people instead of the original 450. Those people live in many communities - both rural and urban. Many look after customers who span the globe, so the notion of an office in a particular community as a 'best location' for work starts to seem outdated.
Communications for people 'located' at The Crescent are managed through computer integrated telephony that routes phone calls around the building, to mobile phones or to homes, controlled from screen menus on the ALL-IN-1 office computer system. Many facilities (e.g. printers) are shared. More use is now
made of FAX cards in computers than separate FAX machines. Many people work part of the time from home and there is increasing use of portable PCs.
Advanced telecommunications removes the constraints of time and space and offers improved communications and information access. However, this alone does not account for success of this project. Most important is the careful management of a wide variety of different factors:
Digital has learnt, and is continuing to learn, many lessons from The Crescent experience, in particular how to address a wide range of factors in an integrated way. This experience is now offered to Digital customers as part of a Flexible Work Practices consultancy service.
In the many pilots and experiments that Digital has now run, a number of benefits are consistently achieved, for both the organisation and the individual.
For the Business:
In every case, there have been significant bottom line savings for the group concerned. The typical benefits to the organisation have been found to be
Achieving the benefits does not come without hard work - by individuals, their managers and top management. There are certain inhibitors that have to be overcome. Some of those commonly encountered are:
The Digital experiences have shown that it is the social and organisational factors that, in general, are the biggest obstacles to successful flexible work practices. These have to be addressed head-on as part of an effective change management process that draws on the expertise of organisational behaviour and development specialists with facilitation skills.
In order to learn more about how these social and organisational factors can be overcome, Digital has become a participating sponsor on the EC PATRA (Psychological Aspects of Teleworking in Rural Areas) research project.
Once organisations start looking seriously at the effectiveness of their work operations and working arrangements in a global context, distance working becomes an alluring proposition. Information and communications technology can bring work to the workers, rather than workers to a corporate work-place. It means that corporate needs can be linked to sources of labour and skills.
There are already several well publicised examples of corporate organisations managing work remotely e.g.:
This trend for remotely locating routine operations will accelerate. In addition, for more creative knowledge activities, much co-operative work already takes place across the world using networks such as Internet, and groupware such as computer conferencing. For example, Digital uses its internal network to operate projects on a global basis, and also to provide gateways to collaborating external partners. Some specific examples include:
All of these examples suggest that global enterprises are ideally positioned to benefit from location independent work. To them it should matter not where the work gets done, as long as it does get done.
Their challenge is one of organisation and management. For many it means having to learn new ways of designing and managing work, workers and workplaces. Those that already have cultures that empower individuals, reward achievement rather than status, and operate in a loose federal structure and a organic networking style are generally better equipped. For example, Digital had an effective human network long before it introduced IT networks. Hence, distance working and teleworking were widely practised well in advance of them becoming more formally endorsed as part of company policy.
So far in this paper I have made little reference to the rural environment. It is, after all, not a topic on the strategic agenda for most corporate enterprises. What is on their agenda, though, as I hope I have illustrated, are human resource and facility strategies that support business needs. It is in the consideration of these through the vehicles of flexible working and 'virtual offices' that there are implications for rural development. Therefore, let me suggest some implications that I think can be drawn from both my Digital experience and that of a Digital 'networker' running a private company from my home.
The first is that many of the lessons learnt during the change of working practices in large corporations are also appropriate for policy change in rural areas. Thus several factors must be considered in combination. For example, the technology infrastructure available to individuals in a rural community should be comparable to those available in a large corporation. Similarly there should be shareable physical resources within reasonable distance. Issues of human and social needs also need to be addressed.
Second, it is important that distance working is seen not as an end in itself, but as part of some wider strategy. Let me suggest some aspects of rural strategy that warrant further attention
What follows are some personal observation on these aspects.
This paper has highlighted the benefits of flexible work practices, of which distance working an important ingredient. The benefits, however, have to be earned. They come only with proper understanding of change management processes individual and group needs, the business environment and technology possibilities.
So many distance working initiatives have failed to meet expectations because they were just that - distance working initiatives. For corporations, they need to be part of a larger integrated programme of business-IT-human and organisational strategy management. For policy makers, they need to be part of a wider strategies of rural development, employment and information market management. In combination they offer opportunities for partnership that will further common interests. However, appropriate mechanisms for these partnerships must be found.
Today's event is one such mechanism, and I have been pleased to be part of it. Perhaps tomorrow, it will be telematics, that having made distance working viable, that will also prove suitable mechanisms for distance partnerships!
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