Future Work

by | May 21, 2008

It’s a common complaint: “Technology is enabling my work to follow me 24/7, wherever I am.” But a growing number of organizations and individuals are flipping this complaint on its head and asking, “If these technologies allow us to work anytime and anywhere, why not use them to work at the best times and in the best places?” And what these organizations are finding is that the rewards can be huge: increased productivity, happier employees, major cost savings, societal benefits, and big time environmental benefits.

This week, our CEO, Jonathan Schwartz, joined the Environmental Defense Fund and California’s Governor Schwarzenegger to launch the group’s “Innovations Review: Making Green the New Business As Usual.”

Sun was included in the report for its Open Work program — our experiment with “work from anywhere.” I say “experiment” since we are in uncharted territory: over half of Sun’s employees have given up their permanent office, and are now splitting their time between home, Starbucks, drop-in offices in their area, and (importantly) the main campuses where they used to show up every day to go to their desk but now go consciously to be with others. And while experiments can have a wide range of results, this one is increasingly positive.

From a personal perspective these employees are saving major time and money in commuting and are working more flexible schedules, resulting in increased employee satisfaction and retention rates. Financially, Sun has reduced its real estate per employee dramatically, resulting in nearly $68M per year in savings as we eliminate single offices for team environments. And from an eco perspective, we’ve reduced Sun’s CO2 from employee commuting by almost 30,000 metric tons per year.

Even with these great results, we’ve learned a lot along the way. First, models like Open Work don’t work for every job. If your job involves turning a screwdriver, you need to be somewhere specific and most likely in the same place every day.

More importantly, Open Work must provide options for several different job tasks. Certain kinds of brainstorming and planning are best done in person, so having space and ability to bring people physically together is very important. That’s why we talk about the program as “work from the right place on a given day,” as opposed to “work from home,” and why we are focused on creating better work environments for folks who do visit our main campuses either sometimes, or often. Some people also prefer coming into an office environment merely for the social aspects, and that’s OK too.

Finally, technology matters. Having corporate information assets roaming all over takes care. We’ve solved part of the problem with eco-friendly thin client technology (our Sun Ray and desktop virtualization products), which employees can use in drop-in centers, campuses and at home. We also continue to play with a wide range of network and device technologies in order to improve the productivity and experience.

But the good news is that these challenges can all be overcome through planning, training, counseling and creativity, and the potential upside is huge.

Can you imagine what it would be like if half of all commuters either stayed home or could work somewhere local to where they live? How many tons of CO2 would be saved? How many lost hours of travel would be returned to employees and their companies? How much commercial real estate could we avoid building? How much closer to “sustainable” would our economy be?

Like I said, it’s an experiment. But it’s an experiment that’s worth doing.

Dave Douglas is Vice President of Eco Responsibility at Sun Microsystems.

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