Sun Microsystems' Solution to Traffic That Doesn't Move Satellite Work Systems

January 1, 2001
Two days a week Kirk Scanlon, a SunMicrosystems new product manager, cuts 60 to 85 minutes off his normal commutetime to his Newark, California, office and heads instead to one of hiscompany’s three satellite work centers. There he will work for a couple ofhours or for the entire day at a desk that will be assigned to him on afirst-come, first-served basis.

    Called alternativedrop-in, hoteling, or telework locations, Sun’s satellite work centers arecomfortable but no-frills operations, little more than a series of cubicles,each equipped with a computer workstation and a telephone.

    But it is thecomputer with its high-speed network connection, the ergonomic desk furnitureand good lighting, along with the work center’s office support-equipment likefax and copy machines, that make the satellite office Scanlon uses in Pleasantonmore attractive than working from home.

    “The drop-incenter I use is only five minutes from my house in Dublin, but there I have allthe software tools that I need to work efficiently,” he said. Thanks toSun’s own proprietary technology, any computer he sits down at is able tobring up his work files, allowing him to proceed as if he were at his own desk,he noted.

    “I know I won’tget interrupted, and I know I won’t face the distractions that I would get athome,” Scanlon said. “There is something about the drop-in center that says‘work.’”

    Sun opened its firstthree drop-in centers almost three years ago at the suggestion of a group ofengineers who were tired of wasting so much time getting to and from work on theever-more-congested Silicon Valley highway system, said Brent Daniels, a managerin Sun’s workspace effectiveness department. Employees were polled, and manyenthusiastically supported the idea of a shared work location nearer to wherethey lived that they could use on a periodic basis, Daniels said. And, he added,it was refreshing for company executives to realize how committed their stafferswere to increasing their own individual productivity.

    The company’sfirst three centers, one located in downtown San Francisco, one in Campbell,southwest of San Jose, and Scanlon’s in Pleasanton, serving the East Bay area,were immediately popular.

    “Right now weoperate on a first-come, first-served basis, and Pleasanton and Campbell areheavily used to the point where about two or three days a week some people haveto wait for a seat,” Daniels said. But because the turnover is high, generallythe wait still involves less time than if employees got back in their cars anddrove the rest of the way to their regular work sites, he added. 

    The facilities areopen 24 hours a day, which means that if Scanlon ever has trouble sleeping, hecould head into Pleasanton to cure his insomnia, Daniels joked. Most often,though, the 3,000 workers who regularly take advantage of the drop-in facilitiesare there for only an hour or two during the regular workday. “They head inthere to get some work done while they wait for the traffic to die down or theyleave work early, planning to spend another hour or so at the drop-in centerbefore they go home,” he said.

    Parking is plentifulin the suburban Campbell and Pleasanton locations, but employees using thedowntown San Francisco location either get savvy about finding on-street parkingor use public transportation. “I work at the San Francisco site and find Iactually enjoy using public transportation to get here,” Daniels said.

    He said the companydoes discourage staffers from using their offices-away-from-the-office more thantwo times a week, however. “We don’t want the drop-in centers to become asecond desk. We’d create another set of problems if people were absent fromtheir regular work environment more than twice a week.”

    Sun, which is veryaware that its success depends on a happy workforce, has made giving its 40,000employees work-site options a top priority, said Sun workspace architect ScottEkman. “The drop-in centers are part of an initiative we at Sun call ‘thenetwork of places,’”  he said.“This initiative is part of our overall effort to keep Sun a competitive placeto work. In today’s tight labor market, employees are able to exert morecontrol on where they live and work. We are constantly looking at ways toaccommodate a rapidly growing workforce within the constraints of having to getthe work done.”

    Among the otherworkplace initiatives is just plain not assigning workers to specific desks andinstead allowing them to float between shared work areas. This saves money bycutting down on the amount of space needed for each worker, Ekman said, andgives employees more control over how they use their time.

    The company is alsotrying to make it possible for Sun employees to routinely work from itsvendors’ and partners’ locations.

    “What this meansis that we are putting more emphasis on getting the work done rather than wherethe work gets done,” Ekman said. But Ekman said that allowing workers to havemore to say about where they work means that managers needed extra support tomake sure they had the tools to adequately supervise a more mobile workforce.

    “We have had tothink about much more formal ways to keep supervisors and their staffs connectedand to base accountability on the actual work that gets done.”

    For Scanlon, whetheror not to use the Pleasanton drop-in center is decided by his daily meetingschedule. “There are some days when no matter how bad the traffic is, I haveto drive all the way in because people need to see me face-to-face,” he said.“But I find that when there are no meetings on my schedule, when I am justgoing to write up a report or do research, what we like to call ‘heads-downwork,’ the drop-in center is the place where I’d rather be.”

    Daniels said thecompany put a lot of thought into where it located its first drop-in centers,choosing the Bay Area because of the high concentration of workers living there,more than 1,000 at last count. “For instance, about 300 Sun workers live nearor on the way past the Campbell site, and I would say that, as of now, aboutone-quarter to one-third use it.”

    He also said theyintentionally are using Class B real estate, in other words nice officebuildings, rather than the spacious campuses more often associated with largercompanies like Sun.

    “Once you’reinside, it looks like any other Sun office, but we didn’t feel we needed tospend the money on outside landscaping.”

    The drop-in programhas proven so successful in California that the company opened a satellitecenter to serve its workers in the suburban Denver area. Sun is also planning toopen a similar facility in Nashua, New Hampshire, in March to serve its new EastCoast headquarters in Burlington, Massachusetts.

    “We expect thatfacility will be at capacity as soon as it opens because we are already hearingcomplaints about the commute times to Burlington,” Daniels said. “Fullyone-quarter of our staff live over the border in New Hampshire, so it makessense to locate a drop-in center there.”

    The Nashua center isalso being designed to accommodate “unassigned workers,” those who do nothave their own desks in the Burlington facility.

    Sun is developing anetworking product that would allow other companies to set up similar workcenters with the same type of high-powered computer links back to their hublocations. “We were in a unique position to try this idea because ourproprietary ‘smart card’ technology allows the remote computers at ourdrop-in centers to recognize the workers and bring up their last work sessionsimmediately at log-in so that, from a computer standpoint, the employees feel asif they are at their own desks,” Daniels said. “We think there is going tobe a lot of interest in this idea from other industries.”

Workforce, January 2001, Vol80, No 1, pp. 108-111  SubscribeNow!