Workplace Mobility Trends

A panel of corporate real estate leaders met to discuss how to initiate a workplace mobility program and take on the inevitable push backs at the CoreNet Global Summit in Orlando last week.

Michael Ratliff, Associate Editor

Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons user MikeCogh

The ability to work remotely should not just be viewed as an employee amenity. The practice also helps corporations operate a leaner portfolio and can even boost worker productivity. But mobility is often met with hesitance from seasoned employees and straight up resistance from middle management. Last week at the CoreNet Global Summit in Orlando, a panel of corporate real estate leaders met to discuss how to take these push-backs head on and succeed.

Shawn Rush, associate principal at international architecture firm Callison, spoke on two case studies involving two different mobility programs. The first client that Rush discussed was a Software company based in San Jose that had some employees that were just a bit too mobile.

“What do you do when you have a highly sought after digital workforce demographic that is so mobile that you struggle bringing them back into the office,” Rush said, describing the assignment that called for a renovation of space that housed both executive and software teams.

His solution was to provide a transparent look into the work process. The software teams worked in what Rush described as a ‘swarm pattern,’ where groups of six to eight people assembled to simultaneously work on a project. The executives wanted this practice to be visible to building visitors as potential and active investors walked through. The space that housed the software ‘swarms’ was completely malleable on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, depending on the given needs of a particular project.

The second mobile case study that Rush discussed was that for a global food services company in Dallas. His particular assignment involved getting the marketing/sales teams and general administration into the building with the domestic president and his staff (who were not mobile at all). Rush pointed out that the real task of a mobility program is to figure out how to best align corporate real estate, information technology and human resources departments.

“One thing that we did learn was that remote team players often rated their managers high than those that sat within 10 to 20 feet,” he added.

One of the most prevalent hindrances to a mobility program is fear, said Tony Gill, strategic project lead, corporate real estate at Canadian Tire (a well-known national brand described as a hybrid between Home Depot and Wal-Mart).

“Prepare for push backs because they are coming,” Gill said. “Managers have the tendency to think that they need to have employees within line of site at any time or else the company is going to collapse.”

Gill, who has also worked on mobility programs on the banking/financial institution side of commercial real estate, maintains that executive sponsorship is absolutely imperative for a program to overcome resistance.

“Once you get things moving at the top, the initiative has a tendency of flowing down from there,” Gill added.

Gill stated that programs like mobility, whether they are being launched in a pharmaceutical company with a large mobile workforce, or within banking where operations are repetitive, are usually owned by corporate real estate departments.  Though corporate real estate plays a significant role in the process, it is also largely supported alongside IT and HR.  Together, those components serve as the basis of a three-legged mobility stool.  Push back from participants seems inevitable  but any program manager charged with deploying the program should be aware that face to face interaction is a key tool in countering opposition

“It is important to be connected to the people on the ground,” he said. “We regularly walk the floors and speak with the employees. Lunch and learn, if you will. We put our faces right out there—win over the managers and appoint program representatives.”

Sharon Loveland, facilities development manager at Starbucks Coffee Co., was the next panelist to receive the floor. Loveland discussed the mobility effort at the company’s Seattle headquarters, a 1 million-square-foot office home to 4,000 people that is currently 98 percent occupied. The mobility efforts coincide with a major remodeling that will take down the cube size from 8’ x 8’ to 6’ x 6’ with low or no panels. Collaboration space will also be added. To allow for the renovation and to get the occupancy down to a more manageable level, Starbucks is asking groups of 150 to 200 at a time to go mobile for two to four weeks.

“We are trying to tell them ‘don’t go away for four weeks,’” Loveland said. “’You can become a mobile campus worker—go work in a Starbucks store.’”

The initiative, a result of the company’s Flexible Work Standards that were implemented in January 2011, was established by human resources rather than corporate real estate. As of early October, no one has given up an assigned workstation as a result of telecommuting, so no net real estate has been reduced.

“It hasn’t gone very far,” Loveland added. “It was left up to individual departments and mangers to do this on their own, and each business unit leader has a right to say yes or no.”

Loveland believes that the company needs to develop a method to track how many partners are participating in the work share. The IT department is currently working on brining cloud solutions and laptop-enabled workforce to the table, which should help things ramp up in the near future.

“It seems that an important lesson is that there needs to be consistency among departments initiating their own mobile policy,” Loveland said.