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Office hotelling
The workplace of tomorrow is here today

Ken Montgomery is a Canadian living in Calgary, Alberta who has spent twenty-five years in the power, oil and gas and international pipeline industry. He now specializes in knowledge management and has worked with Deloitte Consulting. Recently Ken joined Tecskor Software Inc. that provides collaboration and knowledge management software, and the associated change management and implementation consulting.

The rapid development of the Internet and web-based technologies is having a major impact on many companies' business model and corporate structure. These new business realities have caused management to reassess how they are deploying their assets bricks and mortar, IT assets, and their human resources. The end result is some radical changes in how and where work is done. 

New strategies are emerging for the knowledge workplace which address the competitive cost pressures of office space, the need for real-time collaboration and decision making, and the IT infrastructure to support the growing segment of knowledge workers. Recent studies of knowledge workers, particularly salespeople, customer representatives, and consultants, indicate they spend only 30% of their time in the office. So why have an office? In calculating the total cost of providing office space in central urban areas, plus the cost of the IT assets, firms are considering alternative strategies which are now viable due to the explosive use of the Internet. 

For example administrative workers, such as order entry, graphics and records retention, are being moved to decentralized, low rent areas and connected via telephone and the Internet to other groups in the company. Call centers have already been centralized and located in less-expensive real estate. A major computer company applied this thinking to their sales and services group, who were mainly mobile, and cut their total cost of office space and IT infrastructure from 5.3% to 2.2% of revenue over a 5-year period. The majority of the savings came from reduced office costs. 

Cost pressures have lead to companies adopting some radical ways to optimize the use of their high cost office space. New office layouts such as open plan and moveable office furniture systems have helped  and the concept of office "hotelling" is becoming more common (no this does involve staying in the office overnight!). Having lived through this experience while working for one of the "Big 5" consultant companies perhaps I can describe how this concept works. 

As with most consultant firms, the bulk of the work was done outside of our company quarters, usually in client offices in the same city, or more often in another city.  As a "road warrior" I used my laptop as my personal portal to the world — preparing client deliverables, accessing the company knowledge base, and maintaining connection with home office via e-mail. In order to maintain some measure of balance between work and having a life, I would  typically leave Monday and return home Thursday, and go to the office on Friday. Early in the week a voicemail would go out asking if we needed a "reservation" for the coming Friday. One administrative person in the office acted as the concierge and assigned the workspaces, programmed the telephones, and stocked the workspaces with the normal office supplies. Except for the partners and administration, no other staff had an "assigned" workspace. 

This "hotelling" concept added an element of excitement as you entered the office on Friday and checked the office plan to see where you would be located. Once settled into "your space", where the telephone had been pre-programmed to your location, the next step was to find your two-drawer file cabinet on wheels, affectionately known as a "ped". The "ped", plus one lateral drawer in a bank of files, was the extent of my personal storage space so it created a sense of self-discipline in dealing with "hard copy" and practicality made digital the medium of choice. Although it required some adjustment from the creature comforts offered in a traditional office environment, the "hotelling" concept worked just fine and was very cost-effective. 

The key challenge for employees and management as we move to the virtual corporation, with occasional visits to home base, is to maintain a sense of social connectedness. The "Friday update", which was a one to five minute voicemail sent out by the regional director each week, proved very effective in keeping up with the latest developments. While video conferencing can help put a face to a name, regular social events become critical to maintaining an esprit-de-corps in a company. The consulting firm I worked with did an excellent job of planning "fly-back Fridays" at least every quarter, that brought everyone together for some business discussions followed by a social event or an "adventure experience" in which the entire staff from all levels could participate. One of the memorable outings was to Calgary's Olympic bobsled run there's nothing like hurtling down the track in a "tourist sled" with three of your fellow workers to create an experiential bond! 

So as we move from bricks and mortar to bytes and modems there will be some major discontinuities in our work environments and work styles. Adaptability and agility will be a key skill for the new mobile knowledge worker. The trick will be to find the right balance between the virtual work style and social worlds so that we don't self-destruct. Hopefully this glimpse of what might be coming will help in the transition.

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