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The Impact of Technology on the Traditional Workweek in a Global Environment

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What is the impact of technology on the traditional workweek in a global environment? What are the impacts and effects on working parents, and more specifically, working Moms? Aleta Bernard explores the benefits and drawbacks of our rapidly changing workplace.
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It is the new drug disguised as a benefit, and once you start, you would rather risk life and limb than give it up!  What addiction is this you ask?  The benefit of working from home.

The number of employees working remotely continues to climb. Forrester Research projections are that by 2016, 43% of Americans will be working from home. IDC studies show that, with an increase in productivity of 15%, an at home workforce is certainly advantageous for the employer. An employer can eliminate on-site dedicated real estate, reduce lighting costs and gain other energy efficiencies. They can even remove themselves from some level of the expensive IT equation, with high-speed networking being sourced directly by the employee and a third party vendor for home connectivity. Some of the savings to a company are negligible, like not having to maintain vending machines. Others savings prove substantial with exponential benefits, like not having to ergo fit an entire workforce for chairs, monitors, or keyboards at a cost of up to $1,500 per employee. Employer benefits are vast and continue to be discovered as more and more companies shift to a remote workforce.

Cost saving opportunities like this have resulted in corporations shifting traditional workplace norms. Time spent in a morning commute or afternoon rush hour become available working hours. A company of 5,000 employees can expect to yield an additional 10,000 hours of additional productive time, if the average commute is an hour each way.  These facts have further influenced some companies like Chevron to give the remote workforce a try.  Other companies such as Genentech have opted for hybrid versions like the 10/40, a compressed week of 10 hour days, 4 days a week. This typically includes Fridays off, allowing for a three-day weekend. Kaiser has instituted an every other Friday work-from-home policy, perhaps testing the waters of a trend. These options are often advertised as flexible benefits to potential employees. The question is, are they really benefits?

A workforce that has optimized mobility and is perpetually connected also demands to be managed. The seduction of a career filled with a work from home “benefit” can easily drift into instability with just one too many meetings, or that last 5% of required e-mail maintenance. The Bureau of Health Professionals reports one in three U.S. employees are chronically overworked. This can have debilitating effects on not only the health of an employee, with stress related leave on the rise, but the health of a career as participating labor gets swapped out for the next most cost effective geography, and even the health of a company that can drown in its own soup of complexity if not properly managed.

Hallway conversations go by the wayside in a remote working environment. Each interaction is scheduled and deliberate. This makes for intoxicating efficiency, but has a diminishing impact on spontaneity. Concerns like this have contributed to decisions like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has made, opting to reduce many of the remote workforce policies on the Yahoo Campus.

The trend of a remote workforce is a moving pendulum, still proving its benefits and revealing its drawbacks as various companies try it on. Many have sold their Bay Area cracker box of a house for millions to work remotely from sprawling ranches in outlying regions of California, or beyond. Some of these early adapters of a shifting workforce find themselves too far out to make the adjustment when the pendulum swings back, as in the case with Yahoo.

On the surface it appears that opportunities for promotion are less likely for those working remotely on a permanent basis. Colleagues maintain an office cubicle and are on site more frequently tend to have the upper hand on the rate of promotion.  If you’re looking to make a rapid ascent up the corporate ladder you may find a quicker path in establishing a daily physical presence. Consider where you are on the arc of your career path and plan accordingly.

The Evolution of the Workweek in Geographically Dispersed Companies

Many high-tech companies, considered thought leaders, have long since abandoned the concept of the traditional work week or even the demarcation of a start and end to what has historically been known as the 9-to-5 work day. Work groups often include any number of geographies. An example of this is HP’s global work team. This can include a program manager in Palo Alto, an architecture team in Australia, a development team in India, a test lab in China, a support center with trained agents by “go live” date in Costa Rica, and a release team in Europe. To add further complexity, each of these teams can include members in various locales. An individual contributor to the development team in India can sit in Boise, and a member of the call center team in Costa Rica can sit in London.

Overcoming geographical coordination challenges requires sophisticated collaboration tools.  This technical symphony also relies on basic but critical applications, like a world clock that becomes a necessary desktop fixture. It is easy to see how traveling into an office on a daily basis is inefficient and approaching obsolescence.

A strong program manager will seek to coordinate and manage all of these inputs like a conductor with a baton. Meetings over dedicated conference lines take place well beyond the workday in any single geography. Standing meeting times are negotiated early on, and every regional holiday is considered in planning, from Chinese New Year and Christmas, to India’s annual Diwali festival. These work groups share a mission critical reliance on one another but may never meet face to face. I have had managers host virtual happy hour to help the virtual team bond. Get your drink of choice, Skype in, and share as much personal information as you like, including photos. Cheers!

The Effect on Working Moms

From this, a unique species has evolved, the New Version of the Working Mom. I call her “Working Mom 2.0”. Without a commute to and from the office or the need to maintain the often time-consuming activity of a public image that is hair, wardrobe, and make-up, the Work-from-home-Moms become a new kind of army.  This set of impeccably mastered, multi-tasking talent can get kids off to school, take a quick shower, and with damp hair become a remote gladiator of inconspicuous global execution.

The proverbial “short-straw” of having to work late in the office has been replaced by the addictive, “work whenever from wherever” adage. Now we have meetings after soccer practice, music lessons, homework, dinner and even children’s bedtime. The ability to bring birthday cupcakes to class, share in “room mom” duties, or even spectate the Halloween parade are now all available options. These were sacrifices of first generation working moms that no longer need to be made by  Working Mom 2.0 as work gets done in this new world.

The trend towards all work, all ways, can be found on little league fields across Silicon Valley. They are brimming with moms sitting in our portable chairs with green blinking lights from laptops and other devices inconspicuously connected to wireless hotspots fed by cell phones. A telltale sign are the open solar powered battery chargers sunning on the grass. You can be sure that the 24 by 7 beast of an in-box is being tamed. Heads are down until Jacob is at bat or Jennifer has a solo.

This level of flex can be great if you’re able to manage the balance. However, in a highly competitive environment and an urgent drive to do more faster, a regular diet of cross geography meetings in dispersed time zones can push normal sleep patterns out of healthy range in short order.

One of the innate attributes of motherhood is the management of expectations, be it the needs of a demanding toddler or a complex project.  Until the next new set of gadgets is created to eke out that additional cycle of productivity, optimizing a satisfying work-from-home balance will remain a benefit. Those that finesse the balance of managing the workload, without betting the farm will be poised for the greatest advantages from this benefit.

Summary

Bringing work home is obsolete since home is the new headquarters for getting work done. It is no wonder technology has enabled us to add the equivalent of two more months of productivity a year than we had just forty years ago. While this notion of work anytime, work anywhere, is presented as a benefit, it can easily consume an individual.  The best advice is to manage your benefit and recognize and adjust before it becomes a liability.

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