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Is the Anytime and Anywhere Office Finally Here?

Dennis Anderson, Ph.D.

Guest contributors: Rogerio Panigassi, Nannette Cutliff

In the 90’s, there was a lot of promise and hype about telecommuting touting how people could work from anywhere at anytime and how it would change how we worked and lived.  Information and communication technology made it possible for more than 2.8 million, or 2.18 percent of U.S. workforce to telecommute a couple of days per week in 2008 (Kate Lister, Telework Research Network) but some other reports show more than 16 million telecommuters.  The number of telecommuting workers steadily increased every year.   

A few years ago, the global bird flu pandemic panic made all companies particularly large corporations realize their vulnerability. Many companies and governments concluded that they would be paralyzed if such a pandemic took place.  As a disaster plan, many made telecommuting a key part of their recovery contingencies but it is not just for when there is a disaster or terrorist attack.  It’s really about efficient work productivity.

There is no question about the benefits of telecommuting from cost and time saving to the businesses.  Today’s workforce has to be flexible and dynamic so it can be deployed on demand to anywhere.  Virtual project management, virtual resource management and sourcing management are good examples.  Even though the benefits (i.e., cost and time saving, green, dynamic workforce) outweigh the challenges of telecommuting (i.e., productivity measurement, efficiency, lack of discipline and structure), many businesses find it difficult to deploy functional telecommuting for the entire enterprise. 

Here are some provocative questions:  What if Microsoft went 100-percent telecommuting?   Can any company go 100% telecommuting?   This means a completely different way of managing the enterprise. 

Imagine a company that has all its business units online (HR, Finance, IT, Marketing, Sales, etc.) where everyone is working from home or someplace using  remote office tools and IP videoconferencing, and accessing all data and applications in the cloud.  Think about what can be eliminated from the current brick-and-mortar business model.  Most office spaces are underutilized and much of the resources are consumed with negative return on investment, not to mention that it is not environmentally sustainable. “After personnel costs, real estate is the second-highest expense for most organizations,” says Forbes. “Facility costs can represent more than 25% of fixed assets on balance sheets and yet many agencies underutilized office space by 50% or more. A whole range of costs, including operations and maintenance, can be reduced 5% to 20% per year” In the same Washington Post article, U.S. Government Services Administration (GSA) Administrator Martha Johnson also said that the increased use of telework options – initiatives that let employees work from home or from satellite telework centers closer to where they live – may reduce even further the need for office space and related energy costs. By reducing the commute of thousands of workers, telework contributes to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and lost productivity.

Telecommuting can be as effective as the traditional commuting model or even better.  So why isn’t any major company adopting this model including those who sell IP videoconferencing systems?  There are two primary reasons: mistrust and security.  Can you trust your employees to deliver what is expected when they are away from the office?  Can they be as productive or creative as they are at the office?  Can they work as a team?  These are all questions related to trust and traceable process results. There is an assumption that workers cannot perform if they are not in an office environment.  However, any company that relies on a remote salesforce knows that these are unwarranted concerns.  Business relies on the outcomes.  And as long as the tasks are done and outcomes are delivered, does it matter if someone is in the next cubicle or at home?

Today’s information and communication technology can easily replicate the office at home while providing management accountability using appropriate tracking processes and workflow management systems.  Is this any different from having twenty buildings on a campus (spending millions to maintain and upgrade them)?  .  If you need to have a team meeting, you can easily facilitate that via IP videoconferencing, IM, etc.  No one has to drive two hours to get to his/her office.  No one has to worry about catching the flu from a co-worker (this is a real business cost that is often underestimated).  

As everything comes from the cloud, if there is no Internet connectivity, everything stops (the same happens at your company).  This is an even larger issue for many small to midsize companies.  You assume the Internet will be available like water but it is a very dangerous assumption.  What if your local telco accidentally cuts a cable?  What if there is flood?  It is essential to have a solid business resumption process and alternate connection options to minimized downtime and maximize productivity regardless to the location.  The same concept applies to remote office/telecommuting environments.  A remote workforce enabled with multiple connectivity options, using a PC or mobile device and WIFI or wireless technology, can provide a work experience equivalent to a brick-and-mortar office.

Having your home office is as easy as pressing a button on your computer, laptop or mobile device.  The real issues for business continuity come down to connectivity and security. Now that you have the Internet connection, you have your home office, and are ready for business.  But this is just the basic setup.  What about your data?  How are you protecting your data? 

You don’t have the same level of security that you have at your office?  How then can you be sure that your corporate data are safe?  Where do you store them?  How can you make sure all corporate data are safely handled and secured from data hijacking and hacking?  How do you control your corporate data on the employee’s computer at home?   These are all crucial questions and can be addressed by security systems and proper data and information governance and management. 

Once again, such connectivity requires a stable, secure access point to ensure security and consistency in the reporting and storage of data.  Secure FTP site and VPN tunnels using secure tokens are just a couple of options that guarantee consistent communications between remote employees, clients and management.  These options alleviate the trust and security concerns that stymie workforce mobilization efforts.  Coupled with the appropriate tracking processes and workflow management systems, corporate agents are free to do business whenever and wherever business opportunities present themselves.

If you connect all transactions from employee’s home to the corporate cloud servers and wrap them around the security systems with redundancy systems, telecommuting can be the most efficient way of running a business.  This also requires a bold and confident leadership.  Until we are ready to think outside of the current corporate model, telecommuting will be an added feature.   It’s time to think outside of that box. 

About the writers:

Dennis Anderson, Ph.D. is Chairman and Professor of Management and Information Technology at St. Francis College, New York City (effective September 1, 2010). Prior to this appointment, he was a professor of information systems and associate dean at Pace University. He has also taught at NYU Courant Institute.  He received his Ph.D. and M.Phil. from Columbia University and completed Harvard University's Institute for Management and Leadership in Education Program.  More information can be found at http://www.drdennisanderson.com.

Rogerio Panigassi is a program manager at Microsoft Server and Tools Online Division, working as the TechNet site manager responsible for the website’s learning content, which is dedicated to develop IT professionals’ capabilities with Microsoft products. Having worked for ten years at the company, he experienced many different positions in services, marketing, evangelism, and engineering. He obtained his Masters in Electric Engineering title from the Polytechnic School of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil in the field of Digital Systems, after getting an Electrical Engineering degree from Maua Engineering School. A university where he returned later and taught computer sciences for four years.

Nannette Cutliff is the Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Pacific Service in Walnut Creek, California. With extensive experience in technology management and consulting, Nannette has provided leadership for system design and integration projects in the aerospace, financial services and education sectors. Cutliff has a broad background in strategic planning, risk and compliance governance, and e-Supply chain management. She holds Bachelor of Science degrees in eMarketing and Global Business Management, and additional educational studies in Psychology, Systems Management and Computer Science from UCLA, University of Phoenix and West Coast University, as well as, ISACA Governance certifications – Information Systems Management (CISM), Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT) and Risk and Information Systems Control(CRISC).