Wanderwork: The Unintended Consequence of Telework
In 2010, Congress had a good idea — give Federal employees the flexibility to work some portion of their week outside of the office, even in their own homes — called telework. The idea was to improve COOP (the government’s Continuity of Operations systems that allow it to function during emergencies), promote management effectiveness, reduce environmental and societal impacts of commuting, and enhance the work-life balance of employees. Never mind that the concept of telework was forty years old, they still did the right thing in enacting the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010.
The law instructs Federal Agencies to: (1) establish policies that would allow teleworking; (2) determine which employees would be eligible to telework; (3) notify the employees; and (4) send a report to Congress every year describing how things are working out. In particular, Congress wanted to know how many employees were teleworking, how much they were teleworking, and how the teleworking affected emergency readiness, energy use, employee recruitment and retention, Agency performance, and employee productivity and satisfaction. Unlike many laws, it is brief and easy to understand.
Telework has been successful in many ways. Environmental impacts of commuting as well as congestion on commuter highways and public transportation have been reduced. Individual employees also benefit. Not only do they not have to commute, they don’t have to spend time getting ready for work. They can work at home during inclement weather when the office has to close. They can work at home when they are too ill to travel into the office but well enough to work. They can accommodate personal commitments like caring for a sick dependent or taking the car into the shop. And perhaps best of all, they suffer fewer interruptions and have more privacy and quiet than they would have in an office environments. This is an important consideration for introverts who make up half of the workforce.
There are also a few drawbacks. Not everyone can telework; some individuals have to do their work at specific locations. Those who can telework usually have to pay for their own home offices, including internet connections and utilities. Most can’t deduct the costs on their tax returns. Also, teleworkers often use the time they would have spent commuting to work. On the Agency group level, there is often a loss of office culture and camaraderie. But the biggest impediment to teleworking turns out to be supervisors who fear that their charges will goof off if they are not constantly watched. So much for improved management effectiveness …
On the whole, though, telework was doing fine, increasing steadily over time. Then something very bad happened. Some decision makers in the Executive Branch decided that telework could be used to save money. That shouldn’t be a bad thing but the ramifications turn out to be profound.
Agencies started thinking that teleworking could allow them to save money on office supplies (toner, printer cartridges, and paper), utilities (lighting, heat, air conditioning), and most of all, real estate. When employees telework, fewer desks are needed in the office. Fewer desks means less office space is needed. Less office space means lower rents and other real estate costs. Unfortunately, it is the employees who end up bearing these costs.
As it turns out, the only way to provide fewer desks than employees is to institute wanderwork. Wanderwork means that employees are not assigned their own desks as they would be in a traditional office. Instead, they use whatever available desk they can find. There are three strategies that are used to provide the available desks, used singly or in combination:
- Hoteling — Desks can be reserved by employees for some finite time period, but they have to be vacated at the end of the reservation so they will be available for the next employee, just as hotel rooms are prepared for the next guest. Hoteling requires either specialized reservation software or a human concierge to keep track of who can use a desk.
- Hot Desking — Desks are available on a first-come basis. They have to be vacated at the end of the day so they will be available for the next employee. No tracking software or concierge is needed.
- Coworking — Desks are shared by specific individuals on a set schedule. For example, one employee who teleworks Mondays and Tuesdays might use a certain desk on the other days of the week while the coworking employee would use the desk on Mondays and Tuesdays and telework on the other days of the week. Coworking requires some management system to ensure that desks do not go unused.
This is where it gets sticky. If employees are teleworking and wanderworking, they won’t be able to use their traditional desktop computers and desk phones. Employees can’t carry them around from desk to desk. They’ll need laptops or tablets and cell phones instead. They’ll also have to carry around their own accessories, like keyboards, mice, and headsets. Nobody wants to use devices other people have touched. If desks are outfitted with any peripherals, like monitors and power supplies, they all have to be compatible with everyone’s computer hardware. Video conferencing software has to replace many of the physical meetings in the office. There has to be IT support and training for staff who have to adopt all the new technologies, such as the reservation systems for hoteling. Making these seemingly little accommodations turn into a lot of work for somebody and the costs add up.
But that’s not all. The workstations wanderworkers use have to be cleaned after every use, like a hotel room, so germs are not spread throughout the workforce. Desks and chairs have to be easily adjustable, so that they are usable by individuals of all heights and weights. Handicapped individuals have to be accommodated. This often means that a transition to wanderworking requires purchasing a lot of new office furniture.
There’s more. Wanderworkers won’t have the personal items they have become accustomed to. That’s not just pictures of their loved ones, but also seat cushions, fans, heaters, footstools, air cleaners, and other things that make them more comfortable working in an office. All their dictionaries and reference books and other shelf items have to be eliminated. Even a favorite coffee mug might be too much of a burden to move daily with everything else. Office supplies, like pens, staplers, scissors, and tape, either have to be supplied every day at the desks or there has to be a nearby distribution point.
Wanderworkers won’t be able to carry around all the paper files they might use in their work so there has to be some place to store them. Reductions in the amount of office space may necessitate the purchase of new storage furniture or even scanning and digitalizing all the paper files. Going paperless sounds great but it is a huge endeavor and a very hard cultural attachment to overcome. As hard as it is sometimes to get a signature, working out all the bugs in getting an electronic signature for the first time is far worse.
Finding where a wanderworker is sitting is a bit more of a challenge too since they move every day, and sometimes, more than once in a day. Wanderworkers could set up software notifications but signs on desks only work in small offices. There is no indoor GPS for offices. Wanderworkers also won’t necessarily know the individuals they’re sitting next to since they won’t have nameplates hanging on the wall. And what happens in a fire or other emergency evacuation? Wanderworkers have to know where all the emergency exits are.
Then there’s the issue of productivity. Telework might improve employee productivity in several ways. Teleworking can be used during inclement weather or when an employee might otherwise take sick leave. Less commuting saves time and reduces stress. Working at home provides the privacy and quiet that offices don’t. Wanderwork has the opposite effect. It takes time away from the workday to find and set up at an available desk, and then clear off the desk at the end of the day. The loss of personal space in the office, moreover, leads many employees to feel they are not valued, resulting in less job satisfaction and lower productivity.
The true dilemma is that the productivity of most office workers can’t be measured accurately. It’s not just the ratio of outputs to inputs in a given time period, the way it is measured in manufacturing where every item is created from the same raw materials, using the same processes, to produce identical outputs. In an office environment, knowledge workers, start with different inputs, follow slightly different steps to utilize the inputs, and produce outputs that are similar but not alike. They have to think about the tasks they are working on and adjust their actions to accommodate any unforeseen events. They may have to wait for information from others or change a product on the fly to meet new requirements. As a consequence, changes in productivity attributable to telework and wanderwork can’t be verifiable no matter what the pop business articles may claim.
Ultimately, employees will adjust to wanderworking. They’ll have no choice. Agencies are already redesigning their offices to be smaller, have more desks, and be geared to wanderworking. That’ll wreak havoc on the half of the workforce who are introverts. Maybe they’ll just have to telework more.