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How Telecommunications Is Changing Work

How communications technology is creating a new, results-based model of work at nonprofits and libraries

How Telecommunications is Changing Work 
Jacob Griscom - October 06, 2009
Telecommunications allows an increasing number of organizations to operate in ways that previously could only be accomplished in person. The potential impact of this shift in work is financial, social, cultural, and environmental.

Telecommunications allows an increasing number of organizations to operate in ways that previously could only be accomplished in person. The potential impact of this shift in work is financial, social, cultural, and environmental. For employers, this means:

  • Reduced space and energy requirements, along with reduced overhead.
  • Increased employee productivity and creativity.
  • An average 30-percent reduction in the organization's carbon footprint. (Arguably, telework has a more significant environmental impact than any other single strategy. See the concept paper (628 KB PDF) that BetterWorld Telecom commissioned on this topic from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute for more details.)

Here's one example, from Cisco's implementation of teleworking:

  • Background — Implemented teleworking an average of two days a week for 2,000 employees
  • Profits — $277 million in saved costs
  • People — 80 percent of workers surveyed said teleworking improved their quality of life
  • Planet — 47000 tons of carbon saved through teleworking; $10 million/year in saved fuel costs for employees

Yet a successful transition from a traditional work environment to an open work environment demands considerations beyond technology solutions. While technology can help enable an evolution in the workplace, a transformation in office culture must also take place for it to be successful.

To fully understand the changes required by a shift from a traditional to an open work model, consider not only the technologies an organization uses to communicate across distances, but also its systems for measuring results and accountability, its culture and values, and the way its employees carry out their roles and responsibilities.

The Telecommunications Solution

An organizational telecommunications system that allows for the greatest adoption of an open work environment may look something like this:

  • VoIP and PBX. Phones using VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) with a hosted PBX (private branch exchange) solution are run over the Internet connection from any location. This solution allows for unified communication among a distributed workforce with features like professional call trees, extension dialing, transferring calls, conferencing, voice mail, fax to email, and so forth. It substitutes traditional local and long distance charges with a flat monthly per-account fee, and it dramatically reduces international calling rates. See TechSoup's Unified Communications Options for Nonprofits for more on VoIP, PBX, and other communications options.
  • Instant messaging (IM) software allows file transfers and quick one-on-one text, audio, or video dialogue across large distances between employees. Examples include AOL Instant Messenger, Skype, Google Talk, and many others.
  • A virtual private network solution allows company data to be accessed by employees from numerous locations, while keeping it entirely secure. See TechSoup's How to Set Up Your Virtual Private Network (VPN) Server for more on this subject.

Systems for Measuring Results and Accountability

When employees don't work in one central location, most meetings can be scheduled and conducted via web conferencing, phone, or even IM. Yet even in the most optimal open work environments, certain tasks, meetings, trainings, and creative processes are either impossible or severely limited if employees can't meet face-to-face. To address this, an open work organization might consider a regular schedule for use of office space that you own and lease out for additional revenue, or utilizing on-demand conference space that's rented as needed.

The systems shift can be called a move toward a "results-only" work environment, a transformation prioritizing and rewarding productivity and job requirements, not time at work or scheduling, and a solution that can be customized at the workgroup level or across the organization.

A Shift from a Traditional to an Open Work Environment

From To
A focus on work hours (just being there or "face time"). A focus on job requirements (doing work well and on time).
Supervisor sets hours, schedules. Individual and team set hours, work times, schedules.
Meetings are a regular part of work routine. Meetings held only as needed.
Reliance on face-to-face interaction. Varied methods of virtual and transparent communication.
A "reactive" orientation, dealing with crises as they occur. Proactive, early planning to avoid crises where possible.
Flexibility arrangements negotiated between individual and supervisor. Flexibility is the norm. Team members cross-train to cover for one another and set schedules.
If work needs are met, presence still required. Customized work time and schedules aimed at achieving goals.
Essential ingredient: Tracking employees' time spent working. Essential ingredient: Defining specific nature of job and expectations.
Problematic: Absenteeism, tardiness, "presenteeism" (when employees come to work even when they are sick). Problematic: Not meeting job deadlines, expectations.

This chart is from Moen, Phyllis, et. al. Learning from a Natural Experiment: Studying a Corporate Work-Time Policy Initiative. In Work-Life Policies That Make a Real Difference for Individuals, Families, and Organizations, edited by Ann C. Crouter and Alan Booth. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 2009.

Individual Roles and Company Culture and Values

Individuals in management must be able to think and lead differently in an open work environment. While any work environment benefits from people who have been encouraged to take an honest inventory of their strengths and weaknesses, this is essential in an open work environment. An employee that thrives in a results-oriented open work environment will have or cultivate a great deal of personal accountability, organizational skills, and the initiative to seek out the support and resources necessary to achieving his or her goals.

Open work environments, when adopted, can quicken the development of democratic values in the workplace: transparency, dialogue and listening, fairness and dignity, purpose and vision, accountability, collective goals, choice, integrity, reflection and evaluation, and decentralization of power.

Why Nonprofits Benefit

Nonprofits tend to value environmental sustainability and social justice. Moreover, they need to budget effectively and keep their overhead low to be successful. Adopting open work through the use of telecom solutions allows an organization to operate with greater efficiency, reduce costs, and create a more flexible and productive work experience for its team.

In short, telecom can allow organizations to create work environments more in alignment with their social and environmental values, while freeing more capital to accomplish their goals.

Find telecommunications products at TechSoup.

Image: Vintage phones , Shutterstock