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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 18:27 GMT
Silicon Valley ditches the office

By Maggie Shiels
BBC News Online in Silicon Valley, California

Silicon Valley in California's Bay Area led the technology boom in the USA. Now it is also pioneering new ways of working.

iWork cafes provide workstations for Sun employees
iWork cafes provide workstations for Sun employees
The days of having a grand corner office with your name stencilled on the door are on their way out in Silicon Valley, as an increasing number of companies ditch desks to cut costs and give workers a greater say over how they want to work.

While 'distributed working' may sound unglamorous, for thousands of employees it offers freedom of choice and control over a big chunk of their lives.

Santa Clara-based Sun Microsystems is leading the way with its iWork programme.

It is a mix and match scheme that gives its employees a number of different options as to where they can work.

They range from working from home, to being able to use remote worksites called iWork Cafes, and being able to book empty offices in any of Sun's buildings around the world for conferences and meetings, or just the chance to get their job done in peace and quiet.

Leila Chucri: I have the freedom to work when I want

BBC News Online caught up with Leila Chucri, Sun's group product marketing manager in desktop solutions, during a session at the firm's iWork Cafe in Menlo Park.

"Before we had this kind of an infrastructure if I had to work I had to drive into the office to work on a weekend or stay very late at night, which I didn't like doing," she says.

"This basically erases that. I now have the freedom to work when I want and how best suits me."

Boosting productivity

And it also suits Sun Microsystems, according the head of the iWork Solutions group, Eric Richert.

"Space is a very expensive component of how any company works, so right now we are avoiding about $71m of real estate costs because of this programme, " he says.

"You know, $71m divided by $100,000 - $150,000 per R&D (research and development) engineer, that's a lot of engineers that buys."

Bill Vass, Sun's head of information technology, says overheads are also down, with the annual electricity bill falling by $2.8 million worldwide.

But what ensures the success of this new way of working is the technology.

Technological fix

At Sun, each work station has the latest in computer and communications tools as well as traditional items like post-it notes and pens.

Leila Chucri says with her Sun security card she can work anywhere in the world.

"The fact is that I can be here in Menlo Park, I can put my card in, work, take my card out, go to another building anywhere that Sun owns, and put my card in and again my whole services are following me everywhere. Not only from a desktop perspective but from a phone perspective."

So far about 17,000 out of 35,000 of Sun's Santa Clara-based employees have dumped their desk for the roaming office.

And Eric Richert predicts that number will one day grow to between 70% to 85% of the workforce.

"Those who feel they have a strong voice in choosing their work arrangements report a significant gain in productivity," he says.

"Another semi-objective measure we have is the time people save if they avoid commuting to work, at least occasionally.

"They report that 60% of those time savings are given back to Sun, and they keep 40% for themselves, so its a terrific win-win situation all round."

No commuting

Douglas Garay now works from home
Douglas Garay now works from home
For Douglas Garay, not having to do daily battle with hundreds of other commuters on the overcrowded freeways it just one reason why he jumped at the chance to work from home.

His company, Encore Technical Staffing, a headhunting firm, closed its Redwood City office to avoid a rent increase and asked its 40 or so employees to be mobile.

"The obvious benefits are that I can wake up at 7.10 in the morning and be in the 'office' at 7.15 with a cup of coffee.

"In dollars and cents, I save on gas, money on depreciation of the car, insurance, wear and tear, food, and coffee. But I think the most I save on is the thing I value the most and that's time," he said.

Other Silicon Valley titans like Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and Intel say they've also reduced their building needs by hundreds of thousands of square feet by eliminating offices for many of their employees.

Intel's spokesman Chuck Mulloy says:

"If we were to go 100% WiFi [remote terminals], we would take out about 20% off the office space we have in the US and save more than $100m."

Mark Golan, head of Cisco's real estate and workplace resources division, says what's happening is "a pretty important trend."

Trend-setting

That view is backed by Steve Hargis, the vice president of HOK Associates, which provides workplace and services solutions for Fortune 500 companies.

And he isn't surprised that high-tech companies are taking the lead in this field.

"It's really their business to leverage technology and present themselves to the market as network organisations, so the idea that they can allow employees to work the same way is very appealing."

But he warns these new working patterns are not for everyone.

"With smaller newer companies, they need to develop a culture and that is based on a number of individuals getting together and forming a common viewpoint about the business.

"For instance, during the dot.com era, those companies didn't know what their end product was going to be, so employees needed to be together to build the product and form a vision," he said.




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