Across Maryland, technology transforming how offices work -- Gazette.Net


Related story: State’s work-share costs could drop by $36M per year

Even as technology and other innovations are transforming the modern office — with more open office models and individual work spaces shrinking — more employees simply are leaving the office entirely.

For example, 3.7 percent of respondents to a Montgomery County survey last year said they telework, almost double the 2 percent recorded in 2009.

For Samantha Post, a senior account executive at Rockville health communications and recruitment firm Matthews Media Group, teleworking one day per week provides benefits, including reduced commuting time and expense, plus greater productivity.

“I can concentrate better at home if I have a task that needs more focus, such as certain written projects,” Post said.

The average space per office worker in North America declined from 225 square feet in 2010 to 176 square feet this year, according to a survey by CoreNet Global, an association of corporate real estate and workplace professionals. That is expected to continue to decrease to about 151 square feet by 2017.

The space reduction trend mostly is driven by containing costs for desks, equipment and other needs amid continuing economic uncertainty, said Richard Kadzis, CoreNet Global’s vice president of strategic communications. Telecommunications giant AT&T saves $25 million per year in real estate costs alone due to telecommuting, according to a report from nonprofit Telework Advisory Group for WorldatWork.

“We can minimize the office space we have to have,” said Celeste Ingram, a manager with beverage giant Coca-Cola, which last year bought Bethesda beverage company Honest Tea. She was among the speakers in a telework webinar Thursday organized by Montgomery County Commuter Services.

But there are other factors at work, including the rising use of technology and younger workers who desire a more mobile, flexible work environment, Kadzis said.

“More companies are adopting open-floor plans in which employees do not have any permanently designated space at all; rather, they use unassigned space when they are in the office, settings that often change daily,” Kadzis said.

That is the case at Seattle investment company Russell Investments, where some employees work at “parked desks” that are shared, said Jenny Proctor, senior talent development partner and a participant in the Montgomery County webinar. “We don’t have enough space for all of our employees to have desks full-time,” she said.

At renewable energy business Clean Currents, which this week was moving its headquarters from Rockville to Silver Spring, each of the roughly 20 employees teleworks one day per week on average, said President Gary Skulnik. That means fewer vehicles on area roads, he said.

“I don't think we've seen significant savings in office costs,” Skulnik said. “We do the telework plan because it reduces our carbon footprint.”

<>A better balance<>

Social & Scientific Systems, a Silver Spring provider of technical, research and program management public health services, has had a telework program in place for more than a decade. It has grown to include about 26 percent of its roughly 500 employees, said Arnetta Haines, human resources specialist for employee relations.

“The program helps retain employees tremendously,” Haines said. “We’re a company that is known for being a good place to work, and this is one more program that helps us provide a better balance between employees’ work life and home life.”

Social & Scientific Systems really hasn’t seen a reduction in office space due to its telework program yet, but is looking into using shared work spaces, she said.

Surveys show that most companies with telework programs report improved production and employee morale. At Coca-Cola, some workers spend more than two hours per day in traffic — two hours that can be redirected into work or personal time when they work at home, Ingram said.

“We find they are more courteous to customers at home,” she said.

The rise in productivity correlates to having fewer interruptions. In offices, workers lose a significant amount of time to unnecessary interruptions and the time it takes to refocus on work after each interruption, said Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at economic research firm Basex. He estimates the costs of such regular interruptions to the U.S. economy in the billions of dollars.

Teleworkers “don’t have the distractions of someone coming by their desks,” Ingram said.

But not every position can be suitable for telework. Most managers have to be in the office. Some professions such as health care and retailing need employees in the hospitals and stores to serve customers. And some individuals find they aren’t more productive at home.

“It is a preference,” Post said. “Some like it, and some don’t.”

An Internet connection can be slower when working remotely, Post said, though that was not a major drawback.

“I don’t have the luxury of walking to someone’s desk and asking them something about work,” she said. “But that’s something that you can work around.”

<>Honor system<>Although some companies monitor teleworkers through computer programs, Social Scientific maintains more of an honor system, Haines said.

Employees provide supervisors with a two-week log of what they are working on. The company also offers compressed work weeks when employees can work a longer day and get a day off every two weeks or even every week.

Other Maryland companies with telework programs include Marriott International, Calvert Investments and U.S. Pharmacopeia. Montgomery County provides a tax credit for employers to establish an offsite employee workstation.

Coca-Cola supplies employees with laptops and other equipment. Teleworkers must obtain high-speed Internet access and take training, Ingram said.

At Russell Investments, employees and managers go through training together to help the communication process, Proctor said. Many formal telework programs require employees to have worked for the company for at least three months.

Managers’ concerns about whether employees are goofing off at home can be addressed through teleworkers’ results, Proctor said.

“How do you know they’re working [in the office]?” Proctor asked. “Managers don’t monitor employees all the time in the office.”

<>Some buck the trend<>

Business intelligence software company SAS Institute, which regularly makes Fortune Magazine’s top 10 annual “Best Companies to Work For” list, is going the other way from reducing office space. The North Carolina company has about 80 employees in a Rockville office.

Most employees are provided with individual offices, with most the same size regardless of title, said Allison Lane, a company spokeswoman. Some employees work remotely.

“This is based on a longstanding belief that employees do their best work when they control their own environment,” Lane said.

There may be something to that theory, for as employees work in more confined spaces, they are more prone to get on each other’s nerves, says James F. Thompson, author of “The Cubicle Survival Guide: Keeping Your Cool in the Least Hospitable Environment on Earth.”

The results can range from minor annoyances about the smell of food to more serious confrontations, he said.

“I haven’t heard of any lawsuits related to co-workers citing cramped office space as the reason behind their poor productivity,” Thompson said. “I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if that changes.”

Headphones once were frowned on or forbidden in the workplace because managers suspected employees weren’t giving work their full attention, he said.

“Today, however, they are widely accepted, as managers know listening to music on headphones is a means of blocking out distractions,” Thompson said.

At Matthews Media Group, most employees have cubicles, while senior executives maintain offices, Post said. There are ways of minimizing the interruptions at work, she said.

“If I am working on something pressing and don’t have time to talk, I just ask them if they can come back in half an hour,” Post said.