WIRED Proposes Remote Work Site Program

August 10, 2007
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One of the “innovations” slated for discussion at the Workforce Innovations in Regional Economic Development approval meeting last Thursday was a plan to introduce remote work sites to a trio of heavy commuter communities in West Michigan.

Developed by the Arizona-based Work Design Collaborative, a future-of-work consulting group that has in the past partnered with local office furniture companies such as Herman Miller Inc. in Zeeland, the remote workplace program is a business plan and tool kit designed to provide the region’s employers a more sophisticated version of telecommuting by partnering with third-party entrepreneurs to create pooled workplaces in destination communities.

Ten potential locations were considered in the seven-county WIRED coverage area, with the proposal’s authors settling on downtown Muskegon, Ada Township and Newaygo County for intended pilot sites.

“As you shift from a heavily manufacturing-based economy to a more service-based economy, there is an opportunity to do something that can actually bring people and hold people to the area,” said Charles Grantham, a principal in Work Design Collaborative with partner Jim Ware. “We determined that remote work centers could provide a magnet for this talent.”

The WIRED program is a three-year, $15-million federal grant through the Department of Labor administered by the West Michigan Strategic Alliance containing 12 separate work-force development “innovations” that build on successful programs already in place in the region or that introduce relatively new concepts to the region. Some of these were likely to be cut after last week’s strategy meeting.

A $73,000 grant from that fund was used to determine the feasibility of remote work centers in the region, revealing intense interest from local employers, particularly those that compete for talent on the national level such as Herman Miller and Amway Corp. A remote work center will provide an out-of-the-home location for employees to work in their location, something that various studies are proving necessary for workers to maintain productivity.

“There is a psychological component: People need to be around people,” said Grantham. “Staying locked up in your office a considerable amount of time, you really start to feel some social isolation.”

Naturally, these facilities will also provide all the benefits of a normal office — copiers, conference rooms, coffee — and most importantly, technical support. Such locations also provide employers an identifiable location to reach their employees, as opposed to a coffee shop or other locale.

In principle, the concept is far from unique, most commonly referred to in the real estate and employer community as “hoteling” or “executive suites.” There are a half-dozen facilities in West Michigan that currently offer a form of this service, including three in downtown Grand Rapids, two in the Cascade Township airport corridor and another adjacent to the Muskegon County airport.

However, there are some core differences between these facilities and the WIRED proposal. Most of these facilities are primarily operated as small-scale office parks, pooling amenities such as office machines and a receptionist for companies with small offices. While these amenities are sometimes charged per usage, the offices are mostly short-term or long-term leases.

“If you’re not there, you’re still paying for it,” Grantham said. “What we’re suggesting is something like a health club: There is a small membership fee, and then if you want to hire a personal trainer or use a tanning machine, it’s a little extra. But you don’t pay for anything unless you’re using it.”

Unlike an executive suites facility, a remote work center would have no designated work space, allowing potentially hundreds of workers to share a relatively small piece of real estate. These workers would likely split their time between home, the main company location and the remote work center.

The plan’s authors chose the three pilot communities because of the potential for acceptance and the possibility of an immediate environmental impact on each community in removing commuters from the roads. In Newaygo, 49 percent of the population leaves the county for work every day, while a third of Muskegon County travels daily to Ottawa and Kent counties for work. In Ada, 8 percent of the employed population currently work out of home offices.

WIRED will not be implementing any such facilities. Rather, it will assist entrepreneurs in establishing the venture with a marketing program and tool kit to be released later this year.

Grantham said that his group has been working with a half-dozen local entrepreneurs interested in launching remote work sites in partnership with local employers. 

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