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Business moves toward the mobile office

John Dimsdale Feb 13, 2007

Business moves toward the mobile office

John Dimsdale Feb 13, 2007

Workers in their cubicles with low dividers.

Photos by John Dimsdale

KAI RYSSDAL: The federal government closed things down early in Washington today. Snow and freezing rain’s in the forecast. So everybody got to go home at two o’clock, eastern time.

The work of the markets went on, though. The Securities and Exchange Commission said its computers can keep track of things without the human touch.

Much of what we call work, though, still needs people to happen. But offices are changing to accommodate the way we work today. Marketplace’s John Dimsdale has more.

JOHN DIMSDALE: On a bucolic campus outside Richmond, Virginia, the huge financial services company, Capital One, runs a program called the Future of Work. Some 2,000 employees are trying out the latest theories on what makes work more efficient, attractive and flexible.

The atmosphere is airy and open, with lots of sunlight and bright colors. Among the wide spaces of desks and computers are inviting conversation nooks with cushy chairs and coffee tables.

DAN MORTENSEN: We have a lot of informal space that is home-like actually, so the furniture is intended to be very comfortable . . .

My tour guide is Dan Mortensen

, Capital One’s senior vice president for corporate real estate.

MORTENSEN: One thing that you’ll probably notice as you walk through is the place is occupied and busy. We actually have been able to take a space built for just over 600 work stations. And we actually have more than a thousand individuals assigned to this space. In fact, nearly 1,200 people are assigned to a space that’s built for just over 600.

One way to save on office space is to encourage employees to work at home, or in the field. When they do come in, mobile associates don’t have a dedicated office. They take whatever space is available, or has been temporarily assigned to the associate’s project team.

That works for project manager Sue Sonday.

SUE SONDAY: I don’t have an office at all. So I’m a hundred percent mobile. And you have some areas that are designated as collaboration areas, where it’s fine to talk and it’s fine to pull up with your team. And then other areas are quiet areas.

The desks and tables are modular and can be easily re-configured. The walls between cubicles are low. Only waist high. Visually nice, but Mortensen acknowledges not good for privacy or filtering out your neighbor’s conversations.

MORTENSEN: Interestingly enough though, I believe that the low cube walls actually encourage people to speak more quietly and be more private. So it’s interesting, if you’re in an environment that has high cube walls, there’s the perception that there’s more privacy. People tend not to be as considerate. They’ll talk more loudly.

Employees participating in the Future of Work experiment say the schedule flexibility more than makes up for the lack of their own space.

Rob Keeling is vice president for diversity.

ROB KEELING: I have a 2-year old-son at home. So being able to leave Capital One at a non-traditional work time, spend some time with him in the afternoon, and then jump back online . . . I actually find I work really well in that environment.

The cost of equipping the mobile workforce with high speed internet connections, blackberries and wi-fi enabled laptops eats into some of the company’s real estate savings.

And obviously, not all work lends itself to such mobility. Promoters of the new trends are running into resistance from more traditional employees.

Prentice Knight is the CEO of CoreNET Global, an association of corporate real estate executives.

PRENTICE KNIGHT: Where it’s been most difficult, among those people who say, “I’ve worked here for years, I’ve earned that corner office or I’ve earned that private space.” And then senior management, historically, has seen that as a . . . you know . . . a way of demonstrating their power. “We’re in authority, we’ve got bigger offices in the corner, we’ve got great views.” But that thinking really is going away.

Knight says younger workers take most readily to the new workplace. And back at Capital One, Dan Mortensen says early adoptees are just the people he’s looking for.

MORTENSEN: The ability for Future of Work to support people’s individual lifestyles . . . to provide them with tools and technology to be more effective . . . leads to increased satisfaction and enhances our ability to attract and retain top talent. It’s a good business move for us.

Which means expect some changes coming soon to a cubicle near you.

In Richmond, Virginia, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

Colorful furniture with spaces for laptops.

The Capital One cafeteria.

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