Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Six reasons to stay away from work today

Published 14 November 2012 05:57, Updated 23 April 2013 10:32

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Six reasons to stay away from work today

Of Cisco’s 70,000 employees around the world (there are 100,000 if you count contractors), 43 per cent are classified as mobile workers. Photo: Reuters

If you love somebody, set them free. It is trite – even though Sting sang it – but it is also true.

It is the basic philosophy of companies such as Cisco which encourage their people to fly from the office and trust that the freedom will be rewarded with loyalty.

After all, how many other employers would allow them to work from wherever they like, whenever they like? Flexibility is a promise held out by many organisations, but few really come up with the goods.

So, why would Cisco employees leave?

HR leader of Cisco’s Employee Engagement Global Solutions, Jennifer Dudeck, is visiting from the US this week and says true flexibility is so attractive that research shows one-third of people would accept a lower paying job if it offered greater freedom to use social media and the ability to work remotely.

Of its 70,000 employees around the world (there are 100,000 if you count contractors), 43 per cent are classified as mobile workers, 6 per cent are fully remote (never coming to the office) and 89 per cent telecommute at least once a week, says Dudeck, who spoke at the Teleworking Congress in Melbourne this week.

At Cisco people have been cutting physical ties to the office for at least five years and the results are impressive:

  1. $US151 million is saved each year because employees use the saved commuting time to do work.
  2. $220 million saved each year through using collaboration tools, avoiding time wasted through walking to different meetings (Cisco’s California “campus” is the size of a major Australian university).
  3. $1 billion cut in real estate costs because fewer people need to be accommodated.
  4. $118 million has been saved in recruitment costs because of lower levels of staff attrition.
  5. Remote and mobile workers have significantly higher levels of engagement, are more likely to stay at Cisco and are more likely to recommend Cisco as an employer.
  6. Remote workers have significantly higher levels of self-reported productivity.

So why have companies in Australia been so reluctant to follow Cisco’s lead? Dudeck says she believes the issue is about trust.

“We do trust our employees, to [be able to] give them the freedom,” she says.”

In Australia and elsewhere, there has been a trend towards Activity Based Working (where people do not have their own desks at the office) but this has been more about saving real estate costs than about accommodating people’s preferences in work style.

“We are really looking at the company from a people perspective. It has never been cost-led,” she says.

The “war for talent” is as fierce as ever when it comes to the kind of skills that Cisco is after and its super-flexibility is a point of difference with competitors, such as Google, which place attention on creating work spaces that their people would never want to leave.

A gilded cage, rather than an open door.

At Cisco, there is a variety of options offered to try and make work suit the individual. Some people come into the office at the same time every day because that is the way they prefer to work while others hot desk when they come in from time-to-time. Others work fully from home or a coffee shop.

Cisco is now also considering using the services of shared working spaces so that their remote workers who want the social contact can go to a building in their area which offers all the convenience of an office – but it is not a Cisco office.

They would, instead, be working shoulder-to-shoulder with people doing work for other companies and paying a fee for casual or permanent space.

Dudeck, with 11 direct reports, works from a coffee shop in Raleigh, North Carolina and goes to the office once or twice a month.

The general manager for Intel Asia-Pacific, Philip Cronin, says that business education has not yet caught up with teleworkers.

“We are a sales and marketing office, so we are more out-bound than the average company. We are less inclined to measure attendance than productivity and output,” says Cronin, the outgoing chair of the AIIA (Australian Information Industry Association). “The environment or place they are in is increasingly less important to us”.

However, people in less IT-focused industries are struggling to comprehend how they will manage their staff remotely.

“In this day and age, you can still do an MBA and you won’t find a module that teaches you, as an individual, how to manage in that environment.”

While some industry sectors are pretty fixed in their work practises, the gains from teleworking “far outweigh the risks to management style and the structure of the company”, he says.

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