Teleworking is not a new idea and has been with us for some time and despite research showing the potential benefits, decision makers have not embraced it as an effective alternative to current work structures. This hack takes a practical approach to sustainability through the implementation of telework and virtual offices and shows how the application of lessons learned from Massively Multiplayer Online Games can be applied to allow companies to reduce their energy consumption and thus aid in improving sustainability.
Jack Nilles while stuck in traffic coined the term “telecommuting” and the initial interest in this field was driven by concerns for traffic congestion and pollution. Although the primary motivation at the time was fear as a result of the oil crises, the reality is that in the context of today’s concerns with global warming, pollution, peak oil and sustainable development, the work done by Nilles is of no less importance. What has changed though is the number of vehicles on the road. A 2011 study found that the number of vehicles in operation globally surpassed 1 billion, which when put simply, adds up to a staggering amount of energy used to move a piece of steel from point A to point B and then back again. When viewed from the perspective of commuter traffic, it raises a simple question; why do we do it?
During the industrial revolution, workers had no choice but to commute to work because most work at the time was manual labour of some sort. Today however, a significant proportion of workers have roles that are suitable for teleworking i.e. there is no good reason for them to be in the office. Research in the United Kingdom found that workers engaged in teleworking “had reduced travel time of 1–2 hours per day (35.5%); 2–3 hours per day (22.6%) or 3 hours and above per day (19.3%)” (Baruch, 2000). According to a 2009 report by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management on teleworking, which surveyed seventy-eight federal agencies, about 60% of these workers had roles that were eligible for teleworking (Status of Telework in the Federal Government, 2009). This finding is in line with the results of an older study, which indicated that half the workforce had roles conducive to teleworking (Olson, 1984). A 2012 meta-analysis of existing research in to teleworking concluded that that there is “a small but positive relationship between telework and organizational outcomes”, but that this is subject to variables that could either increase or decrease benefits (Harker Martin & MacDonnell, 2012). The evidence would suggest that unlike the workforce of the industrial revolution, for a significant proportion of workers today, commuting is not a requirement for their roles.
Studies have shown that a managers' willingness were predictive factors in determining the individual’s choice to engage in telework (Mannering, 1995) and that managers’ perceived loss of control “as employees disappear from the manager’s daily gaze” (Harrington & Ruppel, 1999) are significant barriers to the adoption of teleworking arrangements. In other words, managers’ perceptions and lack of trust in their employees was the reason why people did not engage in teleworking.
This leads us to the real problem; managerial perceptions of a loss of control and trust issues indicate a failure by management to implement effective measuring systems. The result is slow adoption of teleworking arrangements that would reduce or eliminate workers' daily commute, reduce the organisation's impact on its environment aid in a more socially accountable capitalism.
Structured teleworking and the ability for organisations to employ workers that are not able to commute to offices, benefits communities through the increase of employment opportunities for marginalised people including disabled or injured people (Bricout, 2004; Kenny, 1990), primary caregivers, retirees (Arvola, 2006) and those that are geographically challenged. Communities further benefit because family relations are positively influenced (Baruch, 2000) by teleworking arrangements. Teleworking is one way for organisations with CSR programmes to effect positive change in communities and where applicable, fulfil legislated requirements for work force diversity.
More recent studies suggest that different teleworking strategies resulted in varying levels of performance gains, ranging from no gains to significant (Hunton & Norman, 2010). Their results suggest that teleworkers based exclusively from home, displayed similar levels of organisational commitment as control groups, but that commitment increased relative to the options of work locations. This research also found a link between organisational commitment and task performance, where an increase in commitment had a related increase in task performance. This correlates strongly with the results of Golden (2006) where job satisfaction increased and peaked as the frequency of telework increased, but declined slightly after optimal frequency.
Professional isolation is often cited as a reason for the slow adoption of teleworking and concern for its impact on teleworkers (Baker, Moon, & Ward, 2006; Whittle & Mueller, 2009). Research in to the relationship between professional isolation and teleworker job performance has shown a direct correlation between isolation and reduced performance (Golden, Veiga, & Dino, 2008). The same research also showed that face-to-face meetings and access to rich content communication technology could be used to reduce the impact of isolation on performance. It is important to note that workplace isolation is not limited to teleworkers and this is an issue faced by sales people or people within the office through social isolation.
The solution requires the creation of a work environment that allows employees and managers to engage in telework, while addressing issues of trust, performance and professional isolation.
The aim of telework adoption is to change organizational structures from their current form to value-creating networks that could consist of individuals who are either employed by an organization, or contractors that are specifically included in these networks based on their skill sets. These networks would need to be given autonomy to perform within a supportive structure which mobilise and coordinate efforts. Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG) provide a blueprint for the implementation of such a structure.
Recent studies into social interactions in MMOG could shed light on future trends in managing a value-creating network consisting of teleworkers. These studies have shown that social interaction and achievement in a virtual environment were significant motivators (Cole, 2007; Yee, 2006). Individuals “derived meaningful relationships and salient emotional experiences, as well as real-life leadership” (Yee, 2006). Players are regularly engaged in achievement motivated activities requiring the co-ordination of teams of up to 50 people with diverse skills. Creating virtual and immersive work environments will allow organisations to reduce teleworker isolation, facilitate formation of effective goal orientated teams and enhance productivity and motivation through achievement based awards. As demonstrated in MMOGs, motivation is linked to award achievement through social recognition. These virtual badges of honour are highly effective in motivating individuals and in some cases, may even promote addictive behaviour.
Achievement awards are also effective in giving management visibility in to team performance and addresses the issues with trust currently preventing large-scale decentralization of the workforce. If team performance is continuously monitored and reported, manager’s can shift their focus to team dynamics and addressing any performance concerns. This addresses the problems with managerial trust raised in previous studies of teleworking (Mannering, 1995, Harrington & Ruppel, 1999).
A decentralized workforce or virtual work environment will lead to the disaggregation of the organization. Teams will be able to form quickly with the specific capabilities required to address new opportunities (formulated as achievement orientated tasks). As in existing MMOG, high achieving individuals will likely seek out similar individuals to form effective teams, with the aim of securing the highest reward recognition. Within a virtual environment, this may be easier than for teleworkers without the benefit of this environment.
Within MMOG, leaders are typically assigned leadership roles due to their demonstrable abilities, including co-ordination of activities and empowering team members through knowledge transfer and training. Members of the team assign these leadership roles and leadership will change depending on the attributes required for team achievement, in other words, situational leadership is prevalent.
The development of fully immersive virtual office environments will not only reduce the environmental impact of organisations, it will also address the limitations placed by managers on teleworking by addressing the issue of trust and potentially create an environment which stimulates performance. The social aspects of the virtual environment also address the concerns of professional isolation raised by previous studies.
- Reduction of energy usage associated with worker commuting
- Disaggregation of the organization
- capabilities are easily redistributed where needed
- dependancy on physical infrastructure is minimised
- resources can easily be moved, redeployed or added
- The work environment becomes immersive
- The distinction between work and leisure is reduced
- Workers are motivated by social recognition based achievement awards
- Existing barriers to wide scale teleworking are removed
- management trust is addressed
- professional isolation is eliminated
- Task specific teams are quickly formed
The first step in implementing this hack would be the small-scale implementation of structured teleworking (outside a virtual environment). This requires organisations to implement job design practices with the aim of ensuring role suitability for remote work including measurable and well-defined criteria for success. This will also require reporting structures that give managers visibility to performance.
The second step would be the development of an immersive office environment. Workers from the initial small scale deployment can be used as test subjects. Factors such as performance, employee commitment and engagement, professional isolation and team dynamics need to be measured against a control group.
Dr B. Frey, Massey University
- Without whom, this hack would never have seen the light of day