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Who moved the workplace?

It was bound to happen. In a country that invented take out food, that is in love with automobiles and cruising down the highway and that is perpetually in motion, it was inevitable that work and indeed the workplace itself would become mobile as well. Over the past ten years, the place where knowledge work happens has shifted from primarily office type facilities to literally anywhere - on your back deck, in a subway car, walking down the street or of course, hanging out at a coffee bar.

Many people, especially the technology-savvy among us (exclude me), take this fact for granted. Sure people have been working at home or on trains and planes for decades. But until recently most work outside the traditional office setting involved activities that were peripheral or certainly not critical - mostly people catching up on calls, e-mail or administrative tasks. Today however, because of advances in information technology and communications, all manner of high value work can be performed routinely almost anywhere. This means that people don't really have to `go to the office' unless there is a good reason. With the high price of fuel, hassles of commuting and general desire for more balanced work and personal lives, pressure is building to accommodate work that takes place wherever workers happen or want to be.

A recent survey released by the International Telework Advisory Council (ITAC) http://www.workingfromanywhere.org/ and The Dieringer Research Group demonstrates the extent to which flexible and mobile working is now happening. They conducted a national survey this past summer of U.S. workers to find out where people work.

Respondents were asked to indicate up to 13 locations where they conducted work during July. The survey found that among the estimated 45.1 million Americans working from home—known as telecommuters—26.1 million do so at least once a month and 22.2 million at least once a week.

Other results from ITAC's survey show that respondents worked at an average of 3.4 locations outside their employer's offices. These included:
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• 24.3 million working at a client's or customer's place of business. That's a lot of people working onsite with customers. Relationships are the grease that keeps the wheels of business spinning and there is nothing like face-time to build good relationships with customers. I wonder however, how many of these people prefer working on their client's premises to their own offices because they are better places to work. Or how many clients would prefer their vendors/suppliers worked somewhere else, instead of taking up expensive space in their own facilities.

• 20.6 million working in their car. One shudders to think how many of these people are working in MOVING cars while DRIVING. The hazards of talking on cell phones behind the wheel are well known. The thought of people using computers or PDAs as they barrel down some highway on their way to wherever is scary!

• 16.3 million working while on vacation. What a sad commentary on the state of American workers. It's bad enough that we take the least amount of vacation of any country in the developed world - must we continue working while we're on holiday as well? Although given how many hours people seem to be putting in these days, it's surprising there were so many people on vacation in the first place.

• 15.1 million working at a park or outdoor location. It should be noted that the survey was administered in summer time (July 2005), so this may be an inflated number. Still, I wonder how many managers would be comfortable with their staffs working under a tree somewhere or at the beach.

• 7.8 million working on a train or plane. This figure seems a bit low to me. But given the dismal and tortuous experience of business travel today, perhaps many workers are opting for a little entertainment and relaxation to reduce the inevitable stress and hassles instead of working while in transit. Indeed, some people might even argue that traveling on business IS working.

The ITAG's survey findings suggest that tens of millions of Americans are now routinely working everywhere and anywhere but the traditional office. In the future, companies and people will be driven by strong cost and productivity pressures to adopt even more flexible and mobile working. Real estate is expensive and there are substantial savings to be had from reducing its use. Sun Microsystems for example saved over $70 million in facilities and infrastructure costs last year by providing workers with an array of home and mobile working options. Not exactly chump change. And with the costs and hassles of commuting rising due to skyrocketing fuel prices and roads under perpetual construction in many parts of the country, more workers will no doubt demand alternatives to the 5-day commuting grind.

The economic and social consequences of work happening everywhere are only now emerging and are still largely not understood. Perhaps most challenging is the task of management when work can be performed anywhere. Many managers are still comfortable only with daily face-to-face encounters with staff and are loathe to allow their charges too much time out of their sights. But continued advances in technology, unrelenting cost pressures and strong demand for more work-life balance will ultimately force the hand of corporations to allow more flexible and mobile working.

Smart managers however see these trends as an opportunity to redefine the workplace for the better. Work happening anywhere, anytime is no longer the exception. In some cases this will be because the business requires it, in others, because people want it. Regardless, isn't it about time more organizations changed their policies and practices to allow workers to decide when and where they work in ways that strike a more productive balance between their professional and personal commitments? Instead of asking who moved the workplace - now's the time to take advantage of it.

How much time do you spend working outside of a traditional office setting? Is it productive? Would you like to spend more or less time working in other places? Please e-mail Tony at tdiromualdo@yahoo.com to share your thoughts and experiences.

Tony DiRomualdo is a business researcher, author and consultant. His work focuses on how changes in global business dynamics, talent management practices and information technology-enabled tools and capabilities are transforming the workplace. He helps individual leaders and teams to create Next Generation Workplaces. He can be reached at td@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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