The first of four articles on the working environment looks at how the drive for competitiveness is changing working practices and the way space and technology are used.
Louis Savy, the affable, mountainous, chain-smoking proprietor of computer animation company Metropolis, is struggling with a piece of software in the front room of his South London terraced house. He's working to a deadline, but he can't get the animation package to do what he wants it to do. Somewhere in the world, he says to himself, there's a simple routine that will make this work.
Savy is a computer buff, so he switches on his modem, logs on to Internet and posts a cry for help on an electronic bulletin board. Within an hour he gets an answer from another computer enthusiast at a US naval base on the west coast of America. Sure, says Savy's new pal, I had that problem, and the routine I built is in this file on my computer: help yourself. Twenty minutes later Savy is using something that he's stripped off an American computer, bounced off a satellite and caught on a computer in Plumstead. It saves him an estimated £1,200 in lost time.
This is a parable for the 21st century: data transfer on a global information highway. And, for the purposes of this piece, the point is that the transfer could not have been executed more easily if Savy and his friend had been working on different floors in the same City office block. In fact, it would probably have taken longer: because the problem was resolved at the weekend - when most offices are closed.
Savy's determination to be flexible about his place of work, his willingness to be flexible about his time of work and the intelligent use of existing technology solved the problem, improved his productivity and generated a more or less immediate cash bonus. And that's what this story is all about.
On a much larger scale, a growing number of big companies are adopting similar flexible working practices in pursuit of improved efficiency and productivity gains. One significant result is a change in the way office space is used. Some firms that would once have had to relocate have stayed put; others have actually reduced the amount of space they need, while increasing staff numbers.
Since property is a major corporate cost, this side-effect of the drive for increased competitiveness is very attractive. Companies contemplating relocation are now beginning to examine flexible working practices like desk-sharing, virtual offices and even home-working, to see if a move can be avoided. What they are looking at can be categorised as virtual relocation.
It's a seductive and potentially dangerous business. It mixes up changes in management thinking about organisations and the nature of work with developments in computing and telecommunications, and often comes to some pretty radical conclusions about places of work. The result can be literally disorientating.
In this emerging business, you will find buildings that were designed to accommodate 250 people legally coping with 650; computerniks who gleefully prophesy the imminent disappearance of office space altogether; local authorities that have scrapped their town halls and saved fortunes; and a businessman who broke his back and increased his productivity 250% while he was still receiving treatment.
It's easy, too, to assume that no corporation of any value would change even a small part of its culture to save a few pounds on its property: but you could be wrong. Property decisions in the past have been made for more whimsical reasons. And at the moment, everybody is talking about outsourcing and downsizing; the information revolution is upon us; we have entered a period of discontinuous change; and everybody is hungry for solutions. Flexible working is just part of this pattern; savings on property costs just one of the benefits we are all looking for. And a company on the verge of relocation has to consider all of the options. The argument isn't difficult to put together.
Even the property industry - which might be considered to have a fiscal interest in marginalising this particular trend - is taking it seriously. For example, the two largest property companies, Land Securities and MEPC, were among the founder sponsors of a major study into the redesign of work and offices, which has now been published as The Responsible Workplace.
In its first chapter, the report presents a remarkably concise summary of the business changes that have led to the adoption of flexible working.
'Routine assumptions about the way office organisations should be structured are being overturned, often with paradoxical results:
- tighter control can be achieved within looser structures;
- organisations want to enjoy simultaneously the benefits of being both small and large;
- economies of scale are being replaced by economies of scope;
- the simple access to information resources, characteristic of the early waves of the take up of IT, are being converted into a demand for the creative use of knowledge;
- locational freedom in the conduct of work is the obvious result of ever more excellent telecommunications;
- freedom in the use of time is seen as being a higher freedom than control of place;
- traditional patterns of work, time and location are being challenged and transformed.'
What price a nine-to-five office designed to institutional investor standards against that background? The report - inevitably produced by DEGW, the thinking man's architect, on this occasion with the Building Research Establishment - concludes that 'workplaces will have to be designed to accommodate much greater flexibility in the use of space and time ...'
The congenitally myopic in property probably have all of this filed under teleworking or, if they are especially fashion-conscious, under hot-desking (the current buzz word for desk sharing). Teleworking hasn't worked, they say, and hot-desking isn't necessarily working. No threat, no problem. But the evidence against them is mounting.
Digital Equipment Corporation, for instance, adopted flexible working techniques and saved itself £2 million a year by amalgamating three buildings into one: Mercury Communications exchanged eight buildings for two in the face of dramatic growth, and incidentally saved itself a £2.5 million refurbishment bill; and in the north of England, a local authority dumped the Grade 1 listed town hall that was costing it £10 million a year to run, and cut its full-time, on-site staff from 2,500 to just 200.
'Flexible working is more than just working from home,' says Mercury's Chris Ridgewell. 'It covers a range of new working practices, and is, in effect, a strategic tool for organisational change management.'
Ridgewell is Mercury's manager in charge of the Flexible Working Products Group; and a good man to have on your side. As a pilot he flew disaster relief missions for the UN; as a sportsman he came within sight of a place in Britain's Olympic judo team; as a businessman he is ultra-European, holding British, French and Belgian passports; and as one of the leading exponents of flexible working in Britain, he has a reputation for being hyper-organised and indomitably cheerful.
When his back was broken in a traffic accident, he responded in typical style. And he was able to tell the 1992 Teleworking conference that: 'My measured productivity has increased by almost 250% over the last year. This improvement has been achieved despite having spent over three months in a clinic ... Indeed, it was the use of very simple telecoms devices that has enabled me to continue working during the last 22 months at all.'
These days, he works at home two days a week, spends a day in head office and two or three days a week on the road. He is always contactable 'independent of time and location' and says he now has more job satisfaction and measurably reduced levels of stress. 'My staff do not feel isolated,' he explains. 'In fact, we communicate more frequently - and operate more efficiently as a team.'
He has spent the last three years working with major corporations to introduce new work practices, packages that include: home-based teleworking/telecommuting; local business telecentres/satellite offices; working on the move; office design (including team work areas); job sharing and part-time working; flexible working hours; career and maternity breaks; relocation; and peak time resourcing.
So far, he has helped 75 companies introduce practices that affect 40,000 employees. 'It's a flea bite,' he says, 'but these things take time. It's not just a case of a quick box on the wall and run.'
Mercury is clearly selling the whole idea of flexible work practices in which its current core business of telecommunications is a key element. But it is also putting its money where its mouth is. Four years ago the company employed 2,000 people, now it employs 10,000 - but the amount of property it occupies is decreasing. 'We have less now than we had a year ago,' says Ridgewell.
Quite where all this will end is anybody's guess - but there are some clues. At least three US companies are looking for telecentre sites around the M25, tele-networks are springing up all over the country and the DTI, the Henley Centre for Forecasting and the RSA are all actively involved in future work studies that touch on home-working. Evangelists like Horace Mitchell of Management Technology Associates regard the whole issue as one of the country's better kept secrets, and as one of the key issues for the end of the millennium; and the brighter firms of chartered surveyors are beginning to see flexible working practices as a legitimate alternative to physical relocation. Paradoxically, it could even make relocation simpler - by enabling companies to hang on to key staff, without the trauma of domestic relocation.