Planning for a Mobile Workforce

Planning for a Mobile Workforce

Originally published in Building Operating Management. By Joe Flynn

December 2, 2016 – Part 1: Technology Changes and Younger Workforce Mean Mobile Options Are a Must
Thirty years ago, it was somewhat of a fantasy that businesses would one day migrate toward a “paperless office.” Much has changed since then. Technology has evolved in ways that have completely altered the manner in which people work today. With the introduction of networking, the Internet, mobile phones, SMS text messaging, and Wi-Fi, the ways — and more importantly the places — that people work are seemingly unlimited.

Technological changes have advanced how we work so rapidly that it has been nearly impossible to adapt our work environments to keep up with the changes. Today, business leaders are closely examining how to best leverage all this technology to maximize the productivity of their employees.

As the Baby Boom generation begins to exit the workforce, those workers are being replaced by younger, more technology-savvy employees who have been raised to effectively communicate in a highly mobile way. They are accustomed to managing tasks and functions wherever they are, and they are comfortable navigating even the most complicated activities through their phones or tablets. This simple reality has motivated many businesses, which were previously reluctant or resistant to considering a mobile work policy, to instead embrace the concept.

Technology informs planning
The biggest challenge most companies face in getting ready for a mobile work strategy lies in figuring out how the workplace is currently utilized. A growing number of businesses provide tracking technologies that enable facility managers to more accurately document how their work environments are occupied throughout the work day. By developing a clear understanding of the vacancy rate of individual work spaces, and the demand on meeting areas, facility managers can create a more accurate snapshot of workplace utilization. That snapshot shows what percent of staff is already working in environments that are not traditional workstations or offices.

Today, numerous computer-aided facility management (CAFM) and data tracking companies offer sensor-based software systems for monitoring the time and duration that spaces are occupied. These systems can help form a critical baseline of information, but they have limitations. Other suppliers have taken an even deeper dive on utilization by developing software that not only tracks workplace usage, but also leverages real time user-supplied data to document the quality and functionality of a particular room. This information helps facility managers understand which types of spaces are in greatest demand — and more importantly, why.

A careful study of how the current work environment is utilized can show how ready a business is for deploying a mobile work environment. Monitoring both the frequency and quality of space use helps to determine the ratio of workspaces to employees that should be planned for a mobile work environment. Identifying how many unassigned seats should be shared is the ultimate goal. A conservative mobile work ratio would be 1 to 2 — one workspace for every two employees. A more aggressive goal for mobility, where 70 to 90 percent of staff are mobile, would lean toward a 1 to 4 or 1 to 5 ratio.

For example, many cloud-based technology companies are carefully studying their utilization rates and drawing the conclusion that a formal mobile work strategy is not only logical, but in sync with their missions and corporate philosophies. Given that so much of their work product is stored remotely, they view their mobile work strategy as one that enables them to optimize their real estate portfolio, expand talent recruitment, and align with their growth trajectory.

The two most common business drivers for considering a mobile work program are real estate and human resources. On the real estate end, if business operations can be achieved efficiently and productively in a smaller footprint, the cost savings is an obvious inducement. From the HR perspective, companies that are committed to a work environment that supports and promotes a higher degree of work-life balance are very appealing to job candidates.

As more work functions and activities become “mobile friendly,” it is easier to appreciate why both management and staff alike would embrace a remote work arrangement. On the business level, it expands their ability to recruit and retain top talent that may not be geographically within commuting distance. On the employee level, especially those working within global corporations with locations in various time zones, it enables them to work productively the hours that are most effective for their functions.

Rethinking the workplace
Most office environments today are not as ready for a mobile work strategy as the younger tech-sophisticated talent they are recruiting. Many companies still maintain a workplace design that is now a 50-year-old paradigm of cubes and private offices. This layout, though functional, does not support a more agile and collaborative way of working. For a workplace to support a mobile workforce, it must reflect a certain innovative vitality. The environment should foster and encourage a fresh way of thinking, and provide a variety of space options that cater to employees’ different work styles.

The degree of change to the work environment relates directly, however, to the corporate commitment to mobility. A business that is willing to launch a company-wide mobile work policy has a very different challenge than a company that has defined only a small percentage of the workforce as eligible for remote work.

Part 2: FMs Should Consider Two Common Mobile Workplace Methodologies
There are two common workplace methodologies for designing a mobile workplace: immersive and connected. While there are similarities, each concept is distinctly different.

The “immersive approach” is designed to support a business model where space is defined within every department to accommodate remote workers. These spaces are designed to be similar to the company’s standard work setting but are scaled down in size to reflect a shorter stay requirement. The idea behind an immersive plan is to place visiting remote staff where they can socially connect with peers when they are in the office, promoting a higher degree of communication and collaboration among teams. Boston-based Iron Mountain, a provider of storage and information management solutions, adopted this approach to enable its mobile workforce to feel integrated with colleagues when in the office. Businesses whose mobile work strategy is driven by unexpected staff growth often deploy this planning model as it is simpler and less expensive to achieve.

When a company introduces a “connected work” program, it is often a response to having a much higher percentage of remote workers. This approach typically reflects an activity-based design model and does not assign traditional work settings for remote workers. The anticipation is that remote workers, when at the workplace, will identify their own space needs based upon the work that they will be accomplishing during their time in the office. For example, if an employee is in the workplace specifically to meet with co-workers, for training, or to work on a special equipment-oriented task, that person may not necessarily need or want a traditional office or workstation to accomplish those tasks.

Philips North America, a health and well-being company focused on healthcare, consumer lifestyle, and lighting, chose the connected work approach when it introduced its workplace innovation model in its Andover, Mass., office. In adopting a completely address-free design strategy, the company empowered employees to decide what type of space was most efficient and desirable for their specific needs. In most cases, a connected work strategy is supported by base staff and technology that enables the reservation of space ahead of time.

Companies with a workforce that is geographically disconnected often develop leasing relationships with shared, co-working spaces such as WeWork, Workbar, and Regus. These facilities provide functionally versatile work environments for remote workers who, when necessary, require more advanced business tools or meeting space than they have in their homes. As the percentage of mobile workers increases, the demand for these types of satellite support spaces has grown exponentially. WeWork alone has 23,000 customers and more than 32 separate locations occupying more than five million square feet. These co-working spaces often engage in a sublease profit-sharing agreement with landlords, which increases their desirability as a tenant.

For the company that chooses to adapt its own work environment to accommodate a mobile workforce, there are several key factors to consider:

1. Preservation of culture. Every business has a certain ethos that is unique to who it is and what makes it succeed. It is critically important that any change to a work environment supports the company’s brand and philosophy. Change of any kind is difficult, and environmental change can be disruptive — or transformative. A well thought out design execution for mobile work space should integrate elements of the business culture through careful consideration of location, branding, and adjacencies to common social spaces.
2. Technology. For a mobile work space to succeed, it must support the way people work, and technology plays a critical role in this effort. At a minimum, a work environment should provide a strong Wi-Fi signal that allows all workers to access the business network wherever they are within the office. Additionally, a successful design should ensure that each workspace be equipped with an easy-to-use digital display. The proper placement of accessible computers and AV-ready conferencing technology will enable both individual and collaborative activity. Not to be neglected is the importance of digital security. Companies with expanded ease of digital access must find the appropriate balance between protection of intellectual property and convenience of use for its employees.
3. Meeting space. Mobile workers, who are not regularly connected to their colleagues, will inevitably want to spend a larger portion of their in-office time reconnecting face-to-face with their peers. To accommodate that, a workspace should support a larger percentage of various sized meeting spaces. While enclosure is optimal for most meetings, it should be noted that not all meetings are of a highly confidential nature. Common spaces, huddle areas, lounges, and dining areas can also serve this function handily if meeting technology is readily accessible.
4. Quiet space. Working in a space that reflects a high degree of interaction or collaboration may support a team-based work style, but it will not provide the necessary environment for task-intensive, concentrative work. A work environment should serve a variety of tasks and work style needs, so small work rooms or “library” spaces should be designated for quiet, heads-down work.
5. Power and connectivity. Mobile workers will enter the work environment with a host of devices such as laptops, tablets, and phones. These tools are essential to the way they perform their work. Unfortunately, most offices are not designed to support charging all these battery-powered devices at once. In order for the space to become truly functional, careful thought should be given to providing multiple charging stations at convenient locations throughout the office.
Mobile work environments, whether designed initially or adapted after the fact, can be highly productive space as long as they are specifically planned to accommodate the unique needs of the staff who will use them. Thoughtful advance utilization analysis and design execution will yield a successful result.

Part 3: Mobile Workforce Raises HR Questions
The obstacles to establishing and implementing mobile work policy often fall under the HR umbrella. Deciding who should and should not be identified for mobile work can often open a Pandora’s box of subjective measurements. According to Diane Stegmeier, CEO of Stegmeier Consulting Group, “determining which or how many staff can work effectively from a remote location, participate in on-campus mobility, or enroll in flexible work arrangements must take into account three primary factors: personal competencies, job role, and social needs.” These factors are universal to almost every vertical market and should be considered in the decision making of an employee’s eligibility for mobile work.

From a work process perspective, companies need to formally change their practice of monitoring an employee based upon day-to-day work habits, and begin to evaluate employees on their work product instead. By shifting the focus from observed to achieved performance, as well as establishing expectations and productivity goals, management is better positioned to evaluate an employee’s mobile effectiveness. This change in thinking is often foreign to most managers, and a certain degree of change management must take place in order to help transition them from more traditional ways of employee evaluation.

Joe Flynn, CFM, LEED AP, is a senior associate and workplace strategist at Margulies Perruzzi Architects. He can be reached at The firm services the healthcare, corporate, professional services, research and development, and real estate communities.