The Future Is Now

By Ann Pomeroy Sep 1, 2007

HR Magazine, September 2007 Careful planning and attention to detail make the Future of Work, Capital Ones workplace f lexibility program, a reality for a growing number of employees.

For employees accustomed to a cubicle environment, the prospect of switching to Capital One Financial Corp.’s Future of Work (FOW) program caused some concern. When the pilot program rolled out in 2004 at the McLean, Va., headquarters, “They didn’t like it at first,” says Capital One’s Chief Human Resources Officer Matt Schuyler. 

Under the Future of Work program, employees of this credit card and banking giant were equipped with up-to-the-minute mobile technology that allowed them to work most anywhere. An innovative use of office space facilitated mobility and flexibility. The program dramatically changed the way employees worked—and change can be hard. 

Schuyler and his colleagues faced a “change management conundrum” as they tried to help employees understand the changes and how they would affect individuals, teams and business units. 

Nearly three years later, Capital One has solid metrics that demonstrate the program’s success. Employees who hated the idea of change have come to love it. How did Schuyler and his colleagues manage this complex change process? 

Very carefully.

Laying the Groundwork

Bryan Berthold, vice president of corporate real estate, says he and his human resources and information technology colleagues spent about 18 months planning the details of the program before the rollout. “Our knowledge worker base is very mobile. We discovered that 40 percent of their seats were vacant at any given time, so we asked ourselves where people were.” 

Most employees were working, they discovered—often somewhere in the building—but they weren’t necessarily working at their desks. Meetings, presentations and other activities took these peripatetic workers to a variety of locations throughout the day. During that time, the desks sat gathering dust. 

Unused space was wasteful and expensive, and “We weren’t helping these workers be more productive” by providing them with desktop computers and land-line phones they could use only when seated at their desks, says Berthold. “We needed to align the workplace to fit the way people were actually working.” 

A key ingredient in that alignment: up-to-the-minute technology. Under the FOW program, mobile workers receive laptop computers with wireless access and a BlackBerry cell-phone device. A voice-over Internet protocol connection allows them to keep the same phone numbers at any Capital One location. Thus equipped, employees can work in a conference room, at an off-site meeting location, at home, at Starbucks—anywhere that has a WiFi hot spot. 

Reconfiguration of office space into an open design that accommodates the needs and work styles of these mobile workers became the other key FOW component. Together, these ingredients support the workplace flexibility that more employees everywhere say they want. 

The 2007 Benefits Survey Report from the Society for Human Resource Management found that employees who have the flexibility to telecommute, for example, are more satisfied with their jobs, more committed to their work and more productive. They even work longer hours when they can do so on their own schedules. These employees also have lower stress levels, researchers found. 

Hoteling on Steroids

The first thing that strikes a visitor to the FOW area at the McLean headquarters is the quiet. Employees work side by side in large open spaces unbroken by cubicle walls, sitting at tables equipped with hookups for their laptops and phones. Mid-level executives work beside them at similar tables known as the “executive digs.” 

Interspersed throughout this space are Quiet Zones with “huddle rooms” for small impromptu meetings, confidential phone calls or simply work that calls for peace and quiet. Virtually every employee surveyed—95 percent—said they were more satisfied with their ability to find quiet spots for uninterrupted work in these spaces than in their previous office environments. 

FOW has similarities to a practice called “hoteling,” where employees reserve workstations at remote locations as needed rather than working every day in the same offices. But FOW encompasses a more expansive version of this practice, says Schuyler. “It’s hoteling on steroids.” 

The IT and HR departments volunteered to be the first to try the new program. As Schuyler puts it, “We decided that we needed to eat our own dog food”—to try what they were asking other employees to try. “We loved it,” he says. 

Business unit heads decide whether to try the optional program. Currently, about 3,000 employees, predominantly at the McLean headquarters and Richmond, Va., campus, work under the FOW program. Business units such as the branding, communications and community affairs departments have followed HR and IT in signing up for FOW. Program leaders reassess it regularly and make tweaks based on employee feedback. As Schuyler points out, “FOW is a work in progress.” 

Orientation 101 

Employees get plenty of training at every step along the “change curve” as they prepare to join FOW. “Orientation 101” presents the details of the program, discusses its pros and cons, and answers employees’ questions. Berthold says the class eases the transition to the next stage. 

Together, employees and managers choose their preferred work styles based on the kinds of work they do. “We hoped a third of the employees would choose to be mobile,” says Berthold. “In fact, two-thirds of them [chose that option].” Mobile workers have no assigned seats. When they need to be in their offices, they simply look for a vacant spot in their areas, plug in their laptops and they’re in business. Many in this group telecommute at least once or twice a week. 

Employees who prefer to have a regular desk can choose to be “residents.” Administrative assistants, called “anchors,” also have assigned spots because of the nature of their jobs. 

Anchors receive training in “Anchors as Advocates” classes that prepare them to answer questions for others in their units and promote employee ownership of the program. One class is even devoted to providing etiquette tips for employees who work in close proximity to each other. For example, putting your phone on “speaker” is a definite no-no. 

In “team norm” discussions, members plan how to collaborate successfully with members they seldom see. Teams must decide on their preferred method of communication. Will members e-mail each other, send instant messages or leave voice mail? 

The pre-implementation period generally lasts about six weeks before FOW goes into operation. “And we don’t just assume that everything will be fine then and go away,” says Berthold. Regular focus groups and coffee-break sessions give employees opportunities to ask questions. These sessions continue “until they stop coming,” he says, usually after about a month. 

At the same time, unit heads report what they observe in their departments during regular one-on-one meetings with Berthold and other program leaders. This feedback helps them fine-tune the program. Capital One has a “test and learn culture,” says Berthold. “We know we need to keep sharpening the saw.” 

Managing in a Virtual World 

The FOW program involves big changes for managers as well as for those they manage. To help them understand the differences, managers attend a class in how to manage in a virtual environment. How, for instance, do managers complete a performance review for someone they seldom see? 

Michelle Mason, a director of IT for the chief information officer, has a staff of 17 direct reports, some of whom work remotely in locations such as Tulsa, Okla., and Baltimore. At first, she wondered if conducting performance reviews from her Richmond, Va., office would be a problem. Mason soon discovered it was not. Whether employees work across the country or across the street, “My passion for my people is the same,” Mason says. 

Schuyler says online evaluations are based on 360-degree feedback from those employees work with—their “ecosystem”—their work performance and their success in “living Capital One’s values.” Individual ratings are cross-calibrated “to relieve the problem of tough bosses and easy bosses.” Schuyler believes that a virtual performance review can actually be superior to an in-person meeting, since it forces a manager to focus on individual job performance and not on personal issues. 

Large quantities of paper hamper mobility, so Capital One offers classes in going paperless. Employees can choose to have important papers scanned or copied onto their computers, thus making them available electronically. “We are pretty close to having paperless offices,” says Schuyler, who adds he has everything he needs on his BlackBerry.


Manager's View 

The impetus for the Future of Work program was threefold: ​​

  • Employees want and need flexibility at work. Offering that flexibility helps attract and retain the best employees, says Schuyler.

  • People are able to be more productive when they have the flexibility to work when and where they choose.

  • Reconfiguring office space to fit the way employees really work saves the company a bundle of cash. “We now house 1,500 to 2,000 employees in an area where 500 to 600 people used to sit,” Schuyler says. The open space design also promotes a collaborative environment by eliminating barriers to efficient communication. “We got rid of the ‘caves,’ the private offices with closed doors,” he says.

Although technology allows employees to attend meetings virtually when necessary, “That’s not our primary vehicle for collaboration,” says Schuyler. The communication method should fit the job in hand. 

The FOW program works for employees in any job that doesn’t require face-to-face communication. Bank tellers, for example, and any other employees who must deal with the public in person, can’t work at home. For the majority of Capital One’s employees, however, it’s a huge benefit.

There are potential disadvantages, of course, chief among them the danger that the technology that allows people to work anywhere and anytime will lead to employees who can’t disconnect. “We try to watch for that and discourage it,” says Schuyler. 

Capital One’s culture supports a mobile, paperless environment, so “If you like stuff around you at work,” he says, “you’ll probably self-select out.” Managers who insist that they must see their direct reports working also are likely to select out, because the program depends on a foundation of mutual trust between employer and employees. 

To many knowledge workers and to senior management, however, FOW has become a win-win situation, as reflected in regular employee surveys. Both pre- and post-implementation surveys consistently report high approval ratings. Berthold says he’s “proudest of the fact that 87 percent of these employees prefer the FOW environments to their old ones; 66 percent say FOW has improved their view of Capital One.” And nearly half the employees say Capital One’s commitment to work/life balance for its employees was a key reason for staying with the company. 

Although there is no specific measure for productivity, company officials conclude that the combined findings from employee surveys lead to greater productivity, Schuyler says. Employees report that they get faster feedback from peers and managers, are happier and more satisfied, and find the atmosphere more creative. 

The program’s success has also been recognized externally. In 2006, both the McLean headquarters and the Richmond campus received the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. 

Looking ahead to the future, Berthold predicts that workers from Generation Y, now poised to enter the workforce in increasing numbers, will like FOW. “It’s how college students live now.” ​

Ann Pomeroy is senior writer for HR Magazine.

Web Extras

Online sidebar: Public Policy for a Reality-Based Workplace

Online sidebar: Employees' Reactions to Workplace Flexibility

SHRM report: 2007 Benefits Survey

SHRM report: 2007 Job Satisfaction Survey

Study: Workplace Flexibility 2010 initiative

Web site: "When Work Works" project (Families and Work Institute)

Capital One Financial Corp.

Industry: Credit card and banking company

Top managers: Rich Fairbank, founder, chairman and chief executive officer; Matt Schuyler, chief human resources officer 

Employees: 32,000 worldwide 

2006 revenue: $12.1 billion 

Headquarters: McLean, Va. 

Web site:

Family-Friendly Federal Agencies

Managers in more organizations, large and small, private and public, are recognizing the need to help employees balance competing responsibilities at home and at work. Leaders for one of those large employers, the federal government, have discovered that flexibility can be a competitive advantage for some agencies.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) office at Research Triangle Park in Durham, N.C., numbers among recent winners of the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. Agency managers say government salaries often cant compete with those in the private sector, so its even more important for the EPA to offer flexibility in the workplace.

Employees at the wireless Research Triangle Park campus often hold meetings while walking the two-mile path around the campus lake. The agency provides mobile technology that allows its staff to work remotely, including at home.

Another government agency that recognizes the importance of competing for top employees by offering family-friendly policies is the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in Seattle. Every one of the GAOs 100 employees at the Seattle facility has a flexible work arrangement. They may telecommute a couple of days a week or work a compressed week. Employees start their days between 6 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., and end them at variable times. Seven years ago, everyone started work at 7:30 in the morning, took lunch at the same time and went home at 4:15 in the afternoon.


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