Monday, October 22, 2007

An About Face on Flexible Work Arrangements

In my 10 years as a CIO, I've strongly believed that productivity is best when everyone works in close physical proximity, so that you get the benefit of the "over the cubicle" effect of being able to brainstorm with colleagues ad hoc, respond to urgent issues as a group and build trust among team members.

But the world has changed, and new factors need to be considered. First, the commuting needed to bring everyone together has become burdensome and expensive. Commutes can now take two hours or more, and gas prices are causing hardship. At the same time, environmental consciousness about the carbon impact of those long commutes is on the rise. Second, Internet connections are becoming faster, more reliable and cheaper. I have a 20Mbit/sec. fiber connection in my basement for $40 a month.

We also have many more means of communication: e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, wikis, WebEx ,videoconferencing. Face-to-face meetings that take weeks to schedule are no longer sufficient for the pace of IT change and the level of service demands.

How should a CIO react to this changing landscape? I believe we have to explore the entire spectrum of flexible work arrangements.

Are in-person meetings really necessary? I find that a kick-off meeting to initiate a project works best if the team assembles in person. Collaborators can introduce themselves and build a common framework for working together. Thereafter, conference calls, online collaboration tools and e-mail are sufficient.

Is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the best way to staff an office? Not if it implies hours on the road each way. If working from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. reduces the commute by an hour each way, it's likely that productivity and staff satisfaction will rise.

Is being in the office even necessary? For some jobs, the interruptions of the office may actually reduce productivity. Some structured time in a home office may be preferable.

Of course, there are issues.

A home office needs infrastructure support - networks, desktops and connection to the corporate phone system. Figuring out the best way to service hundreds of remote locations will require planning and pilots. The technology may not need to be complicated, though. Videoconferencing isn’t always necessary, for example, since phone calls and Web-based remote presentation tools are very efficient.

Accountability for employees with flexible work arrangements is key, so you may need management tools to monitor specific project milestones and productivity goals. But you may be pleasantly surprised. In a recent pilot in Massachusetts, a major health insurer found that productivity for 200 staffers working from home rose 20%; only two participants had performance issues.

Equity is another problem. Some staffers, such as those doing direct desktop service or training, need to be on-site. But you can still offer some flexibility, letting them put in four 10-hour days, say, or giving them every other Friday off.

Security and privacy are other concerns, and they loom especially large for me, since my IT organization is part of a large health care provider. If protected health data is to be accessible in employees’ homes, we will need to investigate biometric devices, re-examine application time-outs, strengthen surveillance of audit logs and ensure end-to-end security from data center to the home.

Over the next year, I'll be piloting the technologies, policies and business processes needed to manage technology professionals in flexible work arrangements. I expect that retention, productivity and employee satisfaction will rise as time spent commuting falls. I'll keep you updated on the progress - from my home office.

A few of my posts will be based on a monthly column I do for Computerworld. For those posts, the legal folks require that I add the following:
Copyright 2007 by Computerworld Inc., One Speen Street, Framingham, Mass. 01701. Reprinted by permission of Computerworld. All rights reserved.


Jim Sabin said...

In the area of my special interest -- health care organizational ethics -- there is a useful aphorism: if the CEO is not the "Chief Ethics Officer" ethics programs are likely to be a waste of time. Your first 3 entries lead me to a new aphorism: we need the CIO to be "Chief Integrity Officer" as well. The work arrangements post highlights questions of worker integrity &, via awareness of the environmental costs of commuting, planetary integrity as well! And the final two sentences of the first post could come from an "ethics" article, with their emphasis on trust and stewardship. I look forward to continuing to learn from this fascinating blog. Thank you for writing it so that non-techies like me can read it. I invite readers of this blog to look into the related world of health care organizational ethics at

jessica lipnack said...

Great post. We need more CIOs stepping out, so to speak, on this topic. Take a look at "Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?", research we did with two biz school profs on "far-flung" teams (meaning not face-to-face) pub'd in Harvard Business Review. Among other findings, these teams, largely engaged in complex software development, never met F2F--not even for the kick-offs. Overall, they reduced development time and came in ahead of schedule and under-budget. Personally, I hated the non-F2F finding as I'm a people junkie but, alas, data is data.

eric said...

Patient care may benefit as well, by using technology to support clinician interactions with patients. There are many exciting possibilities: virtual housecalls with webcam and blood pressure monitor and blood sugar monitor and weight scale, as one simple example. Indeed, the American College of Physicians is promoting such a concept with its "Medical Home" model of care. By so doing, patients and doctors are freed from the inconveniences of office visits, which are so hard to schedule and get to nowadays. With the shortage of primary care physicians, time can more appropriately be spent on sick visits and complex cases, while routine follow-up care can be done on-line. Already, in underserved areas, physicians are monitoring patients in multiple intensive care units on-line. Radiology studies are interpreted on-line. E-mail communication between patients and providers has been promoted by your own Daniel Sands, MD, but has been stymied by antiquated Medicare policies.