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Written by Zach Fagenson on 29 February 2012. Posted in Global Connections

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Mobile technology is changing the way we work and creating new challenges, from how to build team spirit among dispersed employees to how to protect corporate data on personal devices.

Microsoft's Emre Memecan said workers will become more loyal if they're given some flexibility.
It’s also transforming work spaces, giving rise to “co-working centers” where mobile employees from diverse companies can share while changing the traditional office to become more open and flexible.

Those were among the highlights at WorldCity’s Global Connections on Feb. 24 when four senior executives headlined a panel on “The Future of Work and the Worker.”  Many in the audience chimed in, prompting a lively discussion that continued even after the roughly 75-minute event.

“Not everyone is suited to tele-working,” volunteered Sara Baker, human resources manager at Western Union Latin America from the audience. “It depends on the employee, the manager and the job... Some people tend to overwork [from home], and then, they have wear-out syndrome.”

Spurring changes at work are a host of evolving technologies: high-speed Internet phone service, Skype and “cloud” solutions that make it easier for employees to access corporate data on the go and to come together for meetings, often seeing each other over Internet video, said Jay Gumbiner, a director at the high-tech research company IDC Latin America.

The new technologies make it easier to coordinate work across borders. They cut corporate office costs by letting people work from home.  But they also have their downsides, especially in building rapport among people who can’t meet in the hallway to chat or can’t share lunch or a drink near the office to hammer out a common problem.

“When you’re working from home, by definition, you’re isolating [yourself],” said Gumbiner.

To counter isolation, co-working centers are springing up worldwide. They let a diverse array of people work side by side, sometimes collaborating with each other. Independent fashion designers, for example,  might gather in a co-working space and share drafting boards and sewing machines, said Carolina Rendeiro, chief executive of RightSpace Management and past president of the Global Workspace Association.

Some workers, given the opportunity to work from home, may in fact overwork themselves, said Western Union's Sara Baker.

“You do need collaboration and body warmth around you, but it doesn’t have to be someone from the same company,” Rendeiro said. Co-working centers often are located near a coffee shop, book store and casual restaurant, so that people can move inside and outside the office space to work and bond too.

The new technologies are often hand-held and relatively inexpensive, so that some workplaces now are “BYOD: Bring Your Own device”, said Gumbiner. That creates additional challenges: Is the company liable, for example, if an employee working on their own device sends an inappropriate message to an ex-girlfriend? Or how do you guard corporate data if someone leaves their phone at a restaurant?

Then, there’s the issue of headquarters expecting you to be accessible 24-7, when mobile connections can and do fail. “If you have a cloud solution and you don’t have Internet access, your device is a brick,” said Gumbiner. Internet links often fail, for example, at Guarulhos airport in São Paulo, Brazil.

The flexibility to work anywhere is a top lure for tech-oriented employees at software giant Microsoft, said Emre Memecan, senior human resources manager for Microsoft Latin America. Microsoft management focuses on results from its employees, not on face time at the office.

“People will feel loyal to the company as long as they have flexibility,” said Memecan.

But loyalty may be harder to engender at other companies, participants said. Gone are the days when companies encouraged life-long tenures and employees stayed put to earn a pension and gold watch, said Steve Smith, vice president of real estate company The Hogan Group/Waterford at Blue Lagoon.

“There is no corporate loyalty anymore,” said Smith. “It’s all about the individual.”

One consulting firm in England has found solutions to build team spirit among employees spread out and often working at home, said audience member John Price, managing director in Miami for Americas Market Intelligence. The company invites employees into the office for a serious, business planning session on Mondays. And then, it welcomes them on Fridays starting at 3 p.m. to socialize, converting the office into a fun space, complete with a bar and table football games.

As companies try to squeeze more workers into less space, office buildings' infrastructure is being tested, said Steve Smith of the Hogan Group.
Without face-to-face contact among workers in different departments, companies run the risk of creating communication silos. Working at home may even create silos within the same department, said Lloyd Braithwaite, head of business development from Dale Carnegie Training of South Florida from the audience.

That’s where management skill comes in, responded Microsoft’s Memecan: “At the end of the day, it’s all about managing diversity. If can do that, you don’t create silos.”

For those still laboring in corporate offices, there’s often less space to work than before.  Many companies are trying to save on rent and are squeezing in more people per square foot. That’s creating problems finding parking at some buildings built for lower density, said real estate expert Smith.

“The existing infrastructure” at corporate office buildings, Smith said, “is not set up to handle that.”

Global Connections is one of seven event series organized by WorldCity to bring together executives on international business topics. The series is sponsored by Florida International University’s graduate school of business, Waterford at Blue Lagoon, Comcast and the Miami Marlins. The next Global Connections is set for March 30 to discuss “Brazil: Countdown to the World Cup and the Olympics.”

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