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Testing the waters: an experimental mindset

Last fall, 84 staff from the Office of Research Administration (ORA) occupied the Stanford Redwood City Pilot Workspace at 3160 Porter. Russell Brewer, AVP for ORA, shared how they successfully transitioned to the open work environment and the role flexible work arrangements and technology played to create an effective and collaborative workplace.

Q. Moving from traditional cubicle environment to an open work environment must have been a challenge. What helped your staff embrace this new challenge?

Russell Brewer, AVP for ORA
Russell Brewer, associate vice president of
research administration

Russell: Our supervisors, managers and leadership are open-minded leaders and encourage experimentation. That mindset combined with our philosophy to try new things has pushed us to embrace the new work environment. ORA has always been open to testing new ideas that traditionally have not been done at Stanford; however, if something does not work the way we initially envision or want, then we will modify or perhaps even stop doing it and try something else.

Q. What were your staff’s concerns about the open environment and how did ORA address the issue?

Russell: The biggest concern for staff was the density of an open workspace environment and the close proximity of working next to each. There may be both noise and visual distractions. While some people can easily tune things out, others find it more difficult to do so.

For ORA, our solution was simple. Our flexible work arrangement and work-from-home program helped minimize the dense office environment. This means, on any given day, we have anywhere from 15 to 48 people working from home. When an average of 30 staff are out of the office each day, you are able to minimize the dense office environment feeling.

In our experience, implementing a robust work-from-home program is a critical piece to making an open work environment successful.

Q. Tell us about your work-from-home program and some of the outcomes ORA experienced.

Russell: We started experimenting with our flexible work and work-from-home program in 2012. The program began with staff working one day per week from home, and in 2016, expanded to two days per week.

Some of the positive outcomes we have experienced from this program include an increase in staff morale and improvement in our recruitment efforts. The higher morale has contributed to our successful transition to an open workspace environment. As for attracting new talent, many applicants have told us that one of the reasons they are interested in working at ORA is because of our work-from-home program.

Q. There’s a perception that working-from-home negatively impacts interpersonal relationships and community building. How did ORA manage any change in the work culture experience?

Russell: In ORA we find there are many opportunities for our staff to stay connected. We have events, but outside of those planned functions, somehow we seem to cross paths often. For virtual meetings, it is a requirement for staff to use their camera during meetings, and what we have found during Zoom meetings is that our staff continue to share the same back and forth banter as if they were sitting with team members in a conference room or stopping in the hallway to chat.

Q. What tools and technology are required to implement a successful work-from-home program?

Russell: In order to successfully work in an open workspace environment and have a work-from-home program, ORA continuously works to ensure that our staff have all the tools and resources needed to be able to do their work.

Staff use laptops so they can truly work anywhere. The laptops also serve as their phone; by using Cisco Jabber, staff can take phone calls from their office line without the need to forward their office line each time they are not physically at the office.

Staff have the option to get noise-canceling headsets with microphones, and are used at the office or at home. The microphone feature allows the staff person to take calls.

In addition to Cisco Jabber, communication needs are met via Zoom video conferencing. It is a regular and expected practice that all meetings have a video conference option so people do not have to attend in person. ORA also requires that all staff participate in video calls with the camera turned on. Use of cameras is an important practice of virtual meeting etiquette to ensure all participants – whether in the meeting room or online – to be engaged and present.

Lastly, we have made it possible so that nearly all of the work that the staff do can be performed using web-based systems or cloud storage options. This allows flexibility for the staff person to work anywhere and enables access documents via the web.

The majority of documents are stored in Oracle, Stanford electronic research administration (SeRA) system, and Sunflower (the property management system). For other documents, our staff uses both Box and One Drive.

In 2010, we scanned 1.3 million pages and moved to electronic documents in anticipation of the change in work environment.

Q. How do you think flexible work will affect the future workplace at Stanford University?

Russell: I believe telecommuting and remote work is our future, and here is why: It became clear a year into our work-from-home program that it was an overall success. On any given day of the week, ORA staff are working from 60 different locations. Not only is our productivity up, absenteeism is down and our staff are happier not having to deal with the stress of long commutes. I think we are going to continue moving even more into the direction of increased telecommuting.

What steps are you and your team taking to experiment with new workplace practices?

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