The modern workplace could be anywhere — a beach chair in Bali or a mountaintop cabin in Colorado.
But Keith and Patty Wingfield found an irony running their green building business outside the cubicle: A home office can require too much housework.
“We thought that was going to be a neat way to work,” Keith Wingfield said of the early days of River Rock Builders. The couple built a new house for themselves in the late 1990s with a spacious home office and separate entry, but it didn’t work out.
“We had people in our home all the time,” he said. “When they found out the house had all these features, they’d always ask for a tour. The home had to be spotless.”
The tale illustrates how workspaces are evolving in several directions. More companies now offer flexible and remote work options, but businesses like Bank of America and IBM have called workers back to the office. In all work environments, far more part-timers and freelancers are in the mix as employers experiment to find the right formula for their organizations.
Verizon announced last month that it would empty its call center in Little Rock, turning 600 workers into “home-based agents.” The company, which has 1,800 employees in Arkansas and 163,000 overall, will use the vacated 150,000-SF of space at 1 Allied Drive for unspecified other operations.
On the small-business side, the 11-employee digital design group Few focuses on getting work done, not where or when employees do it. Visitors to Few’s $900-a-month suite in the Little Rock Technology Park may find just one or two employees there during business hours; others may be toiling in Philadelphia, Dallas, and even Bali, Indonesia.
“Our culture is driven by flexibility, in being able to be a remote company taking advantage of the technology today,” CEO Zack Hill told Arkansas Business. “It’s a different kind of a mindset.”
Gallup Inc.’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report called recent changes in the work environment “historic and monumental,” and said businesses must reconsider management practices amid shifts in “the very essence of how, when and where people work.” It found that employees working remotely at least some of the time was up four percentage points from 2012 to 2016, to 43 percent, and that recruits demand flexible options.
Workplace trends allow companies to cut real estate costs and shed expensive benefit packages by hiring freelance and part-time employees. “Open and hybrid floor plans allow more people to coexist in less space,” Gallup’s executive summary said. Beyond cost efficiencies, organizations “become more agile and collaborative,” the report said, encouraging people to “move more quickly, whether that’s putting them in the same space or structuring teams that cut across functions.”
Employee satisfaction and efficiency are top goals. Jeannine M. Brew, speaking for Verizon, said that 96 percent of its remote workers report high satisfaction as home-based agents since Verizon began shifting call center work in 2016. “Verizon’s goal is to always provide the highest levels of service to our customers, and we believe this flexible work environment will improve both our customers’ and our employers’ experiences,” she told Arkansas Business.
“A company of our size has a number of functions that have varying needs,” she added, referring to changes at locations nationwide. “We have been making adjustments … including removing cubicles in favor of shared workspaces and open floor plans to encourage a collaborative environment.”
Verizon’s pushing 600 customer service representatives from its 294,000-SF complex near the Arkansas River was part of a phase-out of targeted brick-and-mortar call centers. Operations are also being closed in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Franklin, Tennessee; Huntsville, Alabama; Mankato, Minnesota; Hilliard, Ohio; and Charleston, South Carolina. "However, we will maintain several brick-and-mortar locations," Brew said.
Union leaders like Dennis Trainor of the Communications Workers of America called the Verizon move a cover for layoffs, because some employees will not be able to meet demands for working split shifts, weekends and holidays. Verizon spokesman Rich Young replied that its call workers aren’t represented by the CWA, and that employee feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Workers had options: work at home, take a severance package, seek other Verizon jobs or transfer to one of the company’s remaining call centers. “Verizon provides a stipend of $65 per month for internet access and has a number of resources in place to help employees through the transition,” Brew said.
Few, and Far Between
Hill said the remote workplace model suits Few for several reasons, but chiefly in luring and retaining talent. “The best talent is distributed beyond our local market,” he said. He wants workers with fresh ideas and solutions. “Any change of scenery can be inspiring, but travel and exposure to different cultures and people takes it to a whole new level.”
In the past month, staffers have worked in five time zones. Chief Creative Officer Arlton Lowry clocked in from Bali, then Australia, and only recently returned home. Another designer spent time in Bali and Japan.
“We have about five local employees who consistently use our flexible space in the tech park, and another two who are local but primarily work from home,” Hill said. Two developers telecommute from Dallas and Philadelphia, and another is on a cross-country drive. Contractors hired for larger projects “tend to be remote also.”
Hill said technological advances like global broadband access are key to remote success, along with the rise of co-working spaces like the Tech Park on Main Street and the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, as well as business communication software like Slack and Zoom.
“We have to consider maturity in the staff and the ability to be self-motivated and responsible,” Hill said. “Instead of judging performance based on someone being in the office, we are much more focused on productivity metrics.”
The urge to mix work and travel has spawned services like Remote Year, a program that charges $27,000 a year for transport, accommodations and 24/7 workspace access and coordination with employers as workers travel to destinations like Istanbul, Prague and Bangkok. “I really think I would do that,” said one Little Rock computer specialist whose attempt at working from home left him distracted and unsatisfied. “For a couple of thousand dollars a month you keep your job and travel all over the world.”
With the slogan “keep your job, see the world, leave the planning to us,” Remote Year’s website pictures a laptop user on a perch above Machu Picchu, the “lost city of the Incas” high in the Peruvian Andes.
Pushback to the Office
In tandem with the work-from-home trend, some corporations bringing workers back to the 9-to-5, but in reshaped workspaces that enhance cooperation; IBM cited collaboration as one reason for halting its remote-work policy. Another goal was to improve monitoring of productivity.
While companies offering work-at-home options are at an all-time high, Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers from last year suggest that the percentage of at-home workers actually fell from 24 percent to 22 percent from 2015 to 2016.
Several analysts have predicted that more companies will follow IBM’s lead by reining in telecommuting.
“Employers are finding that people working at home aren’t as organically involved in the process of innovation as people who interact at the work site. This is especially true in high-tech companies,” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told Arkansas Business.
Businesses in industries that prize innovation want their people in the office, interacting in real time, Carnevale said, noting that workers have learned to mix their job environments.
“In general, people are working more, at home and in the office,” he said. “But the notion of people working solo at home is not as attractive as it used to be.”
As for the Winfields, the Little Rock green builders, having a second-floor office suite in the Pleasant Valley Corporate Center off Rodney Parham Road has easily beat working at home.
“We’ve been here six or seven years,” Keith Wingfield said, “and it’s really worked out better.”