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So, where are you reading this? In a plush and private office? In a cubicle in an open plan setting? At home? For an increasing number of employees, the answer is “C.” Or at least, that’s the upshot of a recent survey conducted by CoreNet Global’s Applied Research Center. The survey of roughly 29 companies reveals that remote working is a trend who’s time has come. Three years ago, when the group started tracking off-site labor, less than 7% allowed such concepts as hoteling or remote work. But it predicted that by 2010 25% of knowledge workers would not be tied to an office. Three years away from that target date, the research shows a 20% adoption rate. Eric Bowles, the Atlanta-based director of global research for CoreNet, sat down with GlobeSt.com recently to discuss the impact of the trend on corporate culture and on the real estate community that lives and breathes by office space.

GlobeSt.com: So the remote-work trend is building faster than anticipated?

Bowles: People moved faster than the industry did. With the advent of broadband and enough bandwidth to actually get work done at home, people went out and bought their own wireless devices and technology. In some cases businesses furnished it, but the real driver was people literally going in to the stores and buying this stuff, putting it in their house and saying, “OK, hook me up to the company network.” So, while you have some work by companies on this, it’s a grass-roots effort.

GlobeSt.com: It smacks of entrepreneurialism and a sense of separation from corporate, if they’re picking up the tabs themselves, no?

Bowles: I think there’s a bit of that, but there are a lot of people who simply said it improved the quality of life to have more flexibility. They’d rather put in an hour or two at home on terms that are acceptable to them and still get the job done for the business. There are lots of people who view this flexibility as a tremendous benefit. They understand that it’s good for the corporation but it’s good for them.

GlobeSt.com: Doesn’t it erode corporate culture?

Bowles: Absolutely. It can create a much greater challenge to engage the minds and hearts of employees. That occurs not just with working from home but whenever the manager and employee are not in the same physical location, but that’s also reality today. There are plenty of situations where the people you work with are in different locations, and yet you’re able to form relationships and teams.

Through the tools and technology, people can actually become closer. Think about instant messaging and some of the other systems that are out there. There’s a whole new way of interacting at a distance. You can have people in the same conference room, and they’re still instant messaging each other with unsaid but clear instructions: “It’s time for you to step in,” or “Say something about this issue.” It takes a different mindset, for management and the employee, to work in this environment, but you can actually be more in touch than in a traditional environment where you had offices and the doors were shut.

GlobeSt.com: What about productivity?

Bowles: With remote work there’s an increase in productivity.

GlobeSt.com: Were you able to measure it?

Bowles: We didn’t measure it in this particular study, but other studies have found that workers working from home are as productive as, or more productive than, office workers. Working from home isn’t for everybody, and the output of the work needs to be observed and measured, but there are types of work that lend themselves well to working at home.

GlobeSt.com: Is it trackable by industry?

Bowles: The first thought you would have is that the technology industry is going to be way ahead of the curve on this. In fact, technology is also where you might have some exceptions, and there are large companies that have literally made a policy against technology workers working from home, but there are reasons. If, for example, you find that you’re losing engagement with your workers, how do you start bringing things back? So it’s more than just a technology or workplace or real estate challenge, it’s an HR challenge.

GlobeSt.com: So if tech if lagging, who’s leading?

Bowles: I won’t say technology is lagging. I’d say there are incidents where it’s lagging. Probably the leaders are really based more on demographics than industry. Where you see young demographics you’ll see this trend moving ahead. You’ll see mobile workers, such as salespeople, buying into it, and consultants. In one firm, consultants were stopping by the office first thing in the morning, getting information they needed and then heading off to a client’s office for the day. On the way home they’d stop by the office again. So management saw big valleys in their office population during the middle of the day.

GlobeSt.com: What are the potential savings to the company?

Bowles: There are dramatic real estate cost savings. You’re looking at 225 to 250 sf per worker. Price that at today’s rate, and then heat it and cool it and put light in there and you’ve got a lot of infrastructure costs. Add to that the fact that workers are in their space probably 40% of the time at most. They’re out in the office in meetings or working with other associates 60% of the time. So you’re paying for lighting, heating and cooling space nobody is in most of the time. What’s more, that space isn’t very flexible. When you have 20 offices, and you hire the 21st person, you need to make a major change. If you have virtual or drop-in space you can add a 22nd or 23rd without a problem.

GlobeSt.com: So, what’s the upshot for commercial real estate?

Bowles: Typically, companies can more than double the number of workers a space supports. You could be seeing 100 sf per person. People are perfectly happy with that. It’s nice space, configured to their needs, but it’s not a permanently assigned office. The bottom line is that space will have to be configured differently–to handle more density and provide more flexibility. The quantity of space used by businesses for workers will go down, at least on a per-worker basis–and it will go down fairly dramatically.

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