New technology sets workers free to roam

Copyright: David Lawson

Published in Property Week July 2009

Up to a fifth of London’s workforce was snowed in when the worst weather for decades struck last February. Business losses were estimated in the billions yet the property industry merely got on with the job.   Top firms such as Jones Lang LaSalle and CB Richard Ellis shrugged off any difficulties and management adviser Remit Consulting found that almost half its clients said they were just as effective working from home.If the value of new technology was ever in doubt, that must have disappeared as professionals logged into laptops and handhelds and carried on much as if they were at their desks.

  ‘Technology no longer appears to hinder the property profession should it wish to work remotely. Compare this with the pre-email days of 1991 when the last heavy snow hit London,’ said Remit partner Andrew Waller.

   Blackberries and ‘smart phones’ are now almost universal. Special ‘middleware’ programs which allow staff to dial into an office server from anywhere in the world are standard among larger firms while cheaper retail packages are available for smaller operations.  Many firms have given up conventional operations altogether, working almost entirely online and via ‘virtual’ offices. Managed space group Regus provides 180,000 home workers with back up via phone and email redirection. It is reshaping centres across the world in favour of drop-in facilities in anticipation of soaring demand as redundant professionals set up on their own.  Meanwhile, remaining staff are being encouraged to spend at least some time out of the office by companies focusing on cutting the cost of space.

   None of this would have been feasible without the advent of faster data transfer over phone lines – commonly known as broadband. The addition of wireless means it is now possible to work as easily from a laptop in a coffee bar, business centre or home office as in a conventional HQ.  Property software is changing to match this revolution as suppliers work furiously to ‘web enable’ valuation, agency and management programs for remote access via browsers. 

  So is technology fatally undermining the future of city centres? Not according to a study for the British Council for Offices led by Prof Peter White at Westminster University.  This found that only around 3% of workers are based entirely at home and that figure has remained unchanged for years. One telling fact is that Canary Wharf has been built – and filled – since home computers and the internet emerged.   Part-time home working could soar, however, as pressures grow to improve work-life balance and cut travel both to save money and appear ‘greener’. Around 6% of staff already work from home at least once a week and this is forecast to rise as technology becomes cheaper and easier to handle.

   ‘The main constraints will be social and managerial rather than technical,’ says the study.  In sectors such as financial services which underpin office city centre offices, staff will still need interaction with colleagues. Mangers will also be reluctant to lose immediate contact.

  Landlords and investors should be aware, however, that a mix of home and office work is likely to evolve, reducing space per worker and cutting overall demand. Flash points will emerge where a business is looking for ways to convince shareholders it is cutting costs and/or promoting a greener image, as this could see more hot-desking and staff eased towards partial telework. But those looking to expand could be just as inclined to seek ways to add staff without taking on more space. 

Speedbumps on the Road to Mobility

 It is rare to have a conversation or lunch nowadays without someone breaking off to anxiously scan their Blackberry or smart phone. That might seem a revolution but there are speed bumps on the road to mobile working.  Handhelds do little more than forward email and basic spreadsheets. None can run widely-used specialist property programs and it will be years before applications emerge, says Philip Evans, managing director of software specialist PEX.

   He has wide experience developing programs on handhelds for residential agents and maintenance managers but says personal digital assistants [PDAs] are notorious for locking up. IT departments also dislike having to support them.  Many professionals would be better off using the new generation of netbooks – portable computers which can run conventional software, says Evans. But even here smaller firms are at a disadvantage because of the cost of a licence for every computer and the ‘middleware’ needed to log into main office servers. This will persist until vital software is rewritten to be ‘web enabled’.

   The irony is that this gulf will be more apparent with advances in remote management. ‘I was at a conference where big firms were boasting about ensuring service charges more transparent by making them available on the internet,’ says Evans. ‘No-one seemed aware that these techniques will be beyond the means of smaller firms for years to come.’