The Happier Workplace

Office spaces will change as more employees are able to decide when—and where—they are the most productive.

Aly Song/Reuters

Peter Gibbons, a character in the 1999 cult hit Office Space, has a depressing realization one day while sitting in his cubicle. Since he started working, every day has been worse than the day before. So every day that he shows up to his office is the worst day of his life.

“What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?” a therapist asks him.

“Yeah,” he says.

“Wow, that’s messed up,” the therapist replies.

Indeed, work, by definition, is usually not fun. And it’s hard to find anyone who actually enjoys working in a cubicle.

But will work get more fun if we no longer have to sit in uncomfortable rolling chairs, or show up to the office at all?

An increasing number of companies are allowing employees to work from home full-time, or show up just a few times a month, as long as they get their work done. That means employees can choose their hours—if they’re night owls, they can work at midnight and sleep the day away. It may seem a risky move, but the companies are saving employees money and stress commuting, and saving themselves millions on office space.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, for example, started realizing almost a decade ago that they were losing their best workers to competitors that offered programs allowing people to work from home. Blue Cross decided to test out a similar program, and let 150 people work remotely. Now, the company has 736 people who work outside of the office on a full-time basis, which represents about 20 percent of the company.

As more and more people started to work from home, the company realized it didn’t need so much office space, so it consolidated, saving $8.5 million a year in real estate costs, said Karen Kelly, a workforce mobility consultant at the health plan. But even then, there were rows upon rows of empty work space in the head office, since some people worked from home only sometimes, and still had desks. So the company is now launching a program which would get rid of permanent desks for many workers. Instead, they’re given a laptop and a rolling locker that they can use to store coffee mugs, pictures, and other belongings. When they want to work in the office, they can log onto a calendar and reserve a mobile desk.

The new set-up saves money while getting more productivity out of workers, Kelly said. Surveys that the company did indicated employees “were less distracted and more productive working in the right environment,” she said.

Kelly works from home most of the time now. She has gotten back around two hours of personal time now that she doesn’t have to commute she says. She lost 10 pounds since she can go to the gym more, and spends a little more time working, since she doesn’t have to spend so much time in the car.

A study by Stanford researchers published earlier this month affirms that allowing some employees to work from home makes them more productive. Chinese travel agency C-trip allowed a random sample of call center employees to work from home for nine months, and the researchers studied the results. Working from home led to a 13 percent performance increase, partly because people worked more minutes per shift since they didn’t take as many breaks or sick days—and partly because they were able to make more calls per minute because they were less distracted.

Another new type of work style that’s changing the way the office looks allows people to come in when they want to, as long as they complete assignments.

“We really have this one-size-fits-all version of the way work is organized,” said Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. “Why does everybody go to lunch at 12, why do we all get in our cars like lemmings and start leaving for work or home at the same time? It’s so ingrained, the clockworks, calendars are socially constructed, we think they’re rigid and set in stone and that we can’t change them.”

But this instinct can be changed, Moen found. Moen studied a pilot program by Best Buy that allowed workers to show up to work when and where they wanted, as long as they accomplished previously agreed-upon goals. This experiment, called a Results-Only Work Environment, reduced turnover in the period during which it was in place.

Companies that focus on results, rather than hours worked, can get more productivity out of their workers, said Jody Thompson, who helped develop the Results-Only Work Environment for Best Buy. (It’s worth noting that Best Buy did away with its ROWE program last year).

And if more companies allow this kind of flexibility, there may be less traffic on the roads and less-crowded subways. Already, companies such as PNC, Marriott and Procter & Gamble have allowed more telecommuting, saving office space and commuting time. They were also able to employ people who live in rural locations and otherwise would not have been able to work for the company.

Of course, there are some negatives to allowing people all this flexibility and doing away with offices and desks. The biggest one: employee monitoring. For years there have been companies that track workers’ key strokes or take video of their computer monitors to see what they’re doing. Employees often push back against these policies as privacy violations. But employees who don’t come into the office may have a harder time arguing that their boss shouldn’t look over their shoulder, since there’s no way for the boss to do so physically.

Employers can attract better employees if they’re willing to allow them to work from home, said Brad Harrington, the executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family. And “because of the monitoring systems, they can virtually assure that the work is being done.”

Awareness Technologies, a Westport, Connecticut company, sells software that allows companies to make sure employees aren’t giving proprietary information to competitors. It has software that records everything on an employee’s screen, which employers can play back in case they want to check what an employee has been doing. The company has been adding about 150 new customers a month.

“A lot of companies want to allow people to work remotely, but are saying, ‘How do I know they’re working?’” said CEO Brad Miller.

While employees might initially chafe at the lack of privacy, employers typically use the software as a nanny cam of sorts, Miller said. Parents don’t look at nanny cam footage unless a kid turns up with an injury–employers don’t look at computer footage unless an employee is unproductive, or otherwise causing problems. Miller’s own director of sales uses the software on his employees, since the head of sales is located in Pennsylvania, and the company is based in Connecticut.

“Companies have to protect patent information, credit card information,” he said. “Information travels with us in our laptops. Once it’s out the door, how do you control it?” For Miller, the shift to allowing employees to work at home brings up the fundamental question, "How do I supervise someone as if I was sitting right there?" The answer: Look over their shoulder, virtually.