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The opportunities and benefits presented by virtual working, as well as how to overcome some of the accompanying challenges, are themes which we regularly explore at DWF. For example, we are currently welcoming contributions to a survey which seeks organizations’ views on how employees find their digital working environment.
At DWF, our research clearly shows that there are multiple benefits for organizations providing the ability for employees to work remotely, either from home or when they are on the go. These include increased productivity, a happier workforce and a reduced environmental footprint. Despite the positives, there are still barriers which prevent wider take-up and introduction of virtual working programmes.
Some of these barriers are clearly cultural, often due to a lack of awareness of the benefits among leadership, as well as individual managers. There are various initiatives which aim to rectify this situation. In fact just last week there was the “New Way of Working” week in the Netherlands, and also a National Telework Week which was launched simultaneously in Australia and New Zealand. These initiatives are excellent in that they help to promote remote working, and often provide good practical advice for organizations, encouraging some to at least dip their toe in the water.
What’s it like working out of the office?
However, we believe an additional and highly significant barrier to wider adoption of remote working programmes is that often the experience of working out of the office is frustrating. Technology interfaces are clunky and hard to use, some key functionality might not be accessible, software is not optimized for mobile devices (including the tablet), employees have to log in to multiple different systems with multiple different passwords, and systems can be agonisingly slow or inconsistent. This forces workers back into the office.
This is an important area that needs to be addressed if organizations want to reap the benefits of new ways of working. This is also the focus for our next research, and where we would love to hear your your experiences and views.
Recent events have also reminded us just how important it is for workplace technologies to have a good user experience, particularly when out in the field or away from the office.
When things go wrong
One example of where things recently went wrong is the well-publicised “failure” of Orca, the innovative technology that was set up by the Mitt Romney US presidential campaign in order to gather on-the-ground polling data in real-time. This data was to be used to co-ordinate volunteer efforts to mobilize Republican voters where it was needed most.
The original idea was to produce a web-based app which allowed users to record the arrival of known Romney supporters at polling stations in key marginal states, and then send the data back to campaign HQ. However on Election Day the system is largely reported to have failed because passwords did not work or reset, pin numbers were wrongly distributed and many couldn’t connect to the website because if they failed to put the https:// prefix it didn’t redirect them to the secure website. The system also crashed because of bandwidth constraints. The distribution of a 60-page user manual also suggests the system was difficult to use.
According to the campaign’s Digital Director Zac Moffatt: “There was so much data coming in — 1,200 records or more per minute — it shut down the system for a time. Users were frustrated by lag, and some people dropped off and we experienced attrition as a result.”
While there were some technical issues, the poor performance, lack of testing in an accurate environment and poor preparation for users seems to be at the heart of the matter.
When things go right
A total contrast to this example is the way some organizations were able to carry on operations despite the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy. Telework has been encouraged amongst federal workers for some time now, and was in the spotlight when the extreme weather of “Snowmageddon” in early 2011 meant that many in the US Eastern states could not travel to their offices.
One US government organization that was able to sustain 70 percent productivity in the days after Sandy, despite power cuts, was the US Patent Office. The office’s call centre operation was even able to run at 100 percent capability.
It is no coincidence that the US Patent Office has a remote working programme that has been running in one form or another since 1997, and about half of the 11,600 employees work remotely full-time, with two-thirds teleworking to some degree. This means that not only are the cultural barriers to teleworking removed, but also there is a mature technical set-up with the distribution of laptops, webcams and video-conferencing capability. There is also training available.
With a workforce that is comfortable working remotely and the necessary investments in infrastructure, software and support to enable a good user experience, it’s no surprise that the US Patent Office was able to be resilient after Sandy. The organization’s approach is that remote working is business-as-usual rather than just being part of its continuity planning. Of course the Romney campaign had a different situation, but one wonders if it were focused more on the experience of its mobile volunteers using Orca it might have circumvented some of the issues.
Tell us about what’s happening in your organization
We would love to hear your views. How well does your organization facilitate virtual working? Does it provide the right sort of technology? Do you find it easy or frustrating working outside the office?
To gather views we’re running a short survey which should take about 10 minutes. All participants will receive a summary of the survey results and relative analysis.
All answers will be treated in the strictest confidence and will not be passed on. For more details please visit our privacy statement at https://digitalworkplacegroup.com/privacy-statement/.
About the author
This is a guest post by Steve Bynghall. Steve was the content producer for IBF 24 2011 and helped research Paul Miller’s book “The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work”. He is also a benchmarking evaluator and has written three research reports for IBF, and regularly blogs for DWF and IBF. Steve is the founder of Two Hives Ltd, a consultancy specializing in KM, collaboration and web-based projects. Steve previously worked at accountancy firm BDO in a variety of knowledge roles, including managing its global extranet programme. He has co-written a book on crowdsourcing with Ross Dawson titled “Getting Results from Crowds”. He tweets (less than he should do) at @bynghall.