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Smart combination of work, private life and environment

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In the old days, the average office worker was someone who spent the day in his own office, puffing on a pipe as he pottered about his work, made telephone calls, read documents, received visitors and held the occasional meeting. At ten o’ clock, he would enjoy a cup of coffee and at twelve o’ clock he would have three packed sandwiches for lunch.

All that has changed for good: Today, there are many more traffic jams on the motorways, working hours have been made flexible and information is no longer disseminated in paper-based dossiers, but can be accessed on a server. In addition, there are a lot more working women doing a veritable juggling act to combine their work and private duties. Flexible working hours and telecommuting can contribute to the improvement of the private / work balance, reduce environmental burden, and help to cut back on facility costs in the office.

Why telecommuting and flexible work?
Flexible work and telecommuting bring about a host of benefits that are related to a number of social and technological changes. This article takes a closer look at a number of those factors.

There has been a major growth spurt, over the past few years, in the trend towards part-time working, the reduction of working hours and flexible working hours. This has resulted in major changes in the way that office space is used today; for example, it means that not all the workspaces are occupied at all times. That, in turn, has resulted in inefficiency and higher costs. In addition, a growing number of women have joined the workforce in recent years. Those women now need to find a balance between their domestic duties and their work duties. The workers’ option of being able to partially determine their own working hours has given them more freedom to combine their work and private lives more effectively.
The Dutch motorways are becoming increasingly clogged up with traffic: This means that a lot of office workers are not only losing important working hours, but are also coming home later than desirable. That situation is making it increasingly interesting to telecommute at least partially in order to avoid the traffic jams. In that regard, telecommuting obviously also helps to cut back CO2 emissions - an issue we will deal with at greater length later on in this article.

Contemporary organisations are becoming ‘flatter’ or increasingly horizontal, and are placing growing emphasis on collaboration. In the static sense, there are fewer jobs available in the employment market today than in the past. The burgeoning trend is to move away from hierarchical organisational structures towards more project-based work with changing positions and locations. In addition, it is becoming increasingly important, in our contemporary information society, to be able to exchange and access information fast. Efficient office design not only supports these trends, but could actually create the requirements for effective collaboration. Flexible workspaces make it possible to work in groups with constantly changing compositions, and office gardens make it possible to consult colleagues fast and effectively.
Information technology contributes to the possibility of working independently of time and place. This is possible because, after all, information is increasingly being stored at a central location from where it can be accessed from almost ‘any’ local workspace via a login account.

Conditions for telecommuting
The employer is still responsible for ensuring the availability of a healthy workplace for the telecommuter. Employer and employee therefore need to establish clear rules about both the work and the workplace. For that reason, the workplace at home must be set up such as to eliminate, to the greatest extent possible, potential causes for complaint. In addition, it must be possible for the worker to do his or her work as efficiently and as comfortably as possible.
It is therefore wise to sign a telecommuting contract with telecommuters. The contract must specify what exactly the worker is required to do at home, as well as the requirements applicable to the telecommuter’s workspace. Other conditions that should be covered include:
  • Who is the owner of the equipment?
  • Is the worker also entitled to use the equipment for private purposes?
  • How often and how long is the worker entitled to work at home?
  • How is the worker required to communicate with the office?
  • How are the costs distributed?
  • How should the workspace be set up and designed from an ergonomic perspective (after all, the home workspace must also be in compliance with the applicable Health and Safety Conditions)?
  • How to effectively draw a line between work and private life, and how to find a proper balance between work and private life?

Conditions for innovative office design
A number of conditions must be fulfilled to ensure successful implementation of new office design forms. It is essential to view and treat the work process, the design concept, the workplace allocation, the information technology, and the organisational structure as a coherent whole. Changes in any one of the individual components will have an influence on all the others. The introduction of shared workspaces, for example, tends to have an influence on the organisational culture. In some instances, it yields unexpected side effects; for example, one company that introduced flexible working hours discovered that its staff started to come to work earlier and earlier. It turned out that everyone wanted to secure a ‘window seat’.

New information technology systems are used to ensure proper use of new office design concepts. Those technologies need to be learned and that, in turn, takes time (which costs money). In addition, it also demands a sound balance between privacy and accessibility for the company’s staff. The company needs to give due consideration to issues such as securing confidential corporate information. Generally speaking, a personal workspace is kept cleaner and tidier, because the worker tends to view it as his or her ‘own’ space. This is much less so in the case of flexible workspaces. As a result, it is necessary to make explicit agreements with staff about cleaning their workplaces: the so-called CleanDesk policy.
Another challenge is accessibility to one’s colleagues: It takes more effort to find a colleague you need to talk to if he or she is occupying a different workspace every day. The employer needs to give due attention to these details well in advance of the implementation of such changes.

Environmental conditions
Telecommuting also holds substantial environmental benefits. The average daily number of home-work commuting kilometres in the Netherlands is 110,000,000 km. The introduction of telecommuting and flexible work can drastically reduce those kilometres: one out of five days already yields a 20% reduction in home-work kilometres!

The following is an example of the true scale of the financial and environmental benefits: An organisation with 100 employees introduced telecommuting, whereby the staff were required to work at home one day a week. By doing so, it was possible to save 22 km x 200 work days a year x 20% (telecommuting one day a week) = 880 kilometres per person. In other words, the company in question saved 88,000 kilometres a year; which quickly translates into a reduction of 11,880,000 grams of CO2 emissions per annum! Over and above the reduction of the CO2 emissions, this option is also interesting from a financial perspective: At an average cost of € 0.19 per kilometre travelled, it is possible to save no less than € 16,720 in travel expenses. And that does not even include the travel time saved in that situation.

Savings on square metres
One walk through the average office will generally suffice to reveal the number of empty workspaces and the low level of occupation; which translates into unnecessarily high facility costs. How much could be saved by reducing the total number of workspaces? In the example mentioned above, the company introduced telecommuting on one day a week, as a result of which it was possible to reduce the number of workplaces by 10% to a maximum of 20%. The average workplace costs between € 17,000 and 27,000 per annum (see, which means that a reduction of workplaces will yield potential savings of at least 20 x € 17,000 = € 340,000 per annum. Obviously this does not cover the investment necessary to set up the necessary workspaces for the applicable telecommuters.

Practical implementation
What is the ideal design for a flexible or telecommuting workspace? And what are the requirements that those workplaces must fulfil? In most instances, the telecommuter or flexible worker will make use of a laptop. Laptops do not fulfil the following minimal legal requirements for a workplace:
• The screen must be such that it can be moved around freely and it must also be easy to adjust and swivel.
• The keyboard must slope down and should not form part of the screen.
• The keyboard must have enough space available for the user’s arms and hands.

A number of options are available to ensure compliance with the above-mentioned minimum conditions, one such option is the use of a mobile laptop holder in combination with a compact keyboard and an external mouse. The advantage of this solution is that this set can be moved around in the laptop case or on a trolley, and could therefore also be used at home. Another possible disadvantage is the fact that the user might have to reconnect all the necessary cables every time he or she moves from one workplace to another: this includes the data connection, the mouse and the keyboard.

An alternative solution is to make use of a permanent laptop holder in combination with a docking station that is mounted on the holder. By setting up the same support system at home as in the office, it is possible to create an ergonomical workplace that is also fitted with a document holder.

A third option is to make use of a fixed laptop holder with a docking station and an external screen. Laptop screens are generally rather small and it is almost invariably more comfortable to work on larger screens. It offers the user a superior overview, access to more information on the screen, and larger display sizes. Moreover, recent research has shown that the use of two screens (dual screen) yields higher productivity levels and reduced error margins. Those are important benefits in times when employers are more or less obsessed with cost cutting!
The following are a few other useful points of attention:
• The workplace is easily adjustable and can easily be adjusted to the personal needs of the user, for example, desk height and screen height.
• Employees could be instructed on the correct adjustment of the workplace and on how best to deal with flexible work and telecommuting.
• The workplace includes storage space for personal possessions and paper documents, such as a locker and / or a trolley instead of a laptop bag.
• Attention to hygiene: shared telephones, keyboards and desks could cause infections. You might have heard that, for example, a keyboard and a desk carries more bacteria than a toilet seat.

In conclusion, it is clear that the implementation of flexible work and telecommuting concepts demands a well thought out policy and investment in the workplace and personnel. On the other hand, it does offer substantial benefits: for the stakeholders, for the environment and in terms of potential cost savings.

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