Sun’s Shining Example

By Samuel Greengard

Mar. 1, 2005

In an era when companies increasingly battle for talented employees, Sun Microsystems has developed an innovative and highly evolved program called iWork that institutionalizes the virtual office and flextime.

    With a program that has been implemented throughout the world, Sun wins the 2005 Optimas Award for Global Outlook. The program has boosted employee satisfaction, reduced turnover and saved the company $255 million on real estate over the past four years.

    “The iWork program has revolutionized the way people work,” says Eric Richert, vice president of the iWork Solutions Group.

    No other company shines at providing a virtual work environment and a flexible schedule quite like Sun, which manufactures computer workstations and software. With about 80 percent of its workforce of about 20,000 in the United States and Canada connecting to the company remotely, its slogan “Everyone and everything connected to the Net” isn’t just marketing hype.

    The program is based on the concept that people need far more flexibility in the way they work and where they work. In some cases, the conventional office can block success and productivity. So Sun created flexible work spaces and drop-in centers while helping employees connect from home and on the road. Technology links employees worldwide.

    When an employee or on-site contractor wants to go to work, he or she uses a smart card, known as a Sun Ray, to log on to the network. It’s then possible to view files and applications in a customized desktop–anytime, anywhere. Employees can view specific applications and files wherever they go–from building to building or around the world. They are also able to use portal technology, collaboration tools and videoconferencing. Sun offers an assessment tool that helps employees determine whether they’re suited to working away from the office. It also provides online training programs and other tools to help managers–who typically display the greatest resistance to flextime programs–get the most out of the iWork program.

    Sun Microsystems introduced the idea of flexible offices in 1994, and has been fine-tuning and expanding it ever since. Today, nearly all employees in the 51 countries where Sun operates are eligible for the iWork program, which allows them to work from home, as well as in flexible offices at 12 drop-in centers and 115 other locations. Those range from world capitals such as Tokyo to suburban communities like Pleasanton, near San Francisco.

    A company surveys show that 80 percent of employees in the United States like the program, as do 73 percent worldwide. iWork also has trimmed costs while boosting productivity.

    As employees have embraced the concept of working at home or drop-in centers, the company has saved money by eliminating or avoiding the need for 7,700 cubicles and workstations. It also has cut $24 million annually in IT and power-consumption costs.

    Currently, about 43 percent of the firm’s 35,000 workers globally are “flexible” employees, able to use iWork up to two days per week, or use any flexible office as needed. Another 1,500 work from home three to five days per week. Meanwhile, workers who use the drop-in centers report that they save about 90 minutes in drive time and daily distraction time per visit. Those working at home also avoid time-consuming and expensive commutes.

    The setup also helps employees balance work/life issues. An employee can, for example, work at home in the morning, drop the kids off at school and then head to a drop-in office. Later, it’s possible to pick up the kids and finish work at home.

    Sun plans to introduce voice-over-Internet protocol, which will further streamline communication and will expand collaboration tools to make it even easier to share files and work in virtual teams.

    “iWork has increased our competitive advantage, proven much more cost effective and created a huge and measurable increase in employee satisfaction,” Richert says. “Our employees can work around their personal and family schedules–they love it.”

Workforce Management, March 2005, pp. 48-49Subscribe Now!


Samuel Greengard is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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