Virtual Manager: Mastering business in a networked world

All the technology in the world won't boost productivity if your employees' workplace is making them sick

In the past I have used this space to describe how my company, VeriFone Inc., wields computers, networks, and software applications to replace the physical trappings of a brick-and-mortar business. Working in this virtual environment, we encounter most of our colleagues only as voices on a wire or words on a screen.

But there is a danger here. Lacking face-to-face contact, we risk forgetting that those voices and words belong to real people who labor in real places and are vulnerable to the many environmental ills that flesh is heir to. Though most of our company's operations are virtual, we still have manufacturing plants and office buildings. In them, and in many home offices, our employees are being exposed to pollutants that can damage their health and seriously reduce their effectiveness.

In February, Scientific American reported that people are likely to have the "greatest contact with potentially toxic pollutants not outside, but inside the places they usually consider...unpolluted, such as homes, offices and automobiles." Those pollutants can cause ailments ranging from general malaise to asthma, potentially costing U.S. businesses billions of dollars a year.

That isn't news to VeriFone, which has made healthy workplaces a top priority since the early 1990s. And while this program is the rare instance in which our tools have been largely low-tech, I believe it has done more to boost productivity than all the bandwidth in the world.

Our first big push into environmentally sound construction came in 1992, when we expanded our Costa Mesa, Calif., site with an 80,000-square-foot shell housing a warehouse, light manufacturing, and offices. As was usual with projects like this, we consulted first with our environmental planner, who made a startling suggestion. Since we planned to build from scratch, why not create a facility that would actually enhance the health of its occupants? Specifically, she recommended spending nearly $900,000 extra for natural building materials that would reduce toxins and for devices that would cut electrical consumption.

Back then the case for investing in healthy buildings was not obvious to senior management, and our environmental planner got what might generously be described as a lukewarm reception. Undeterred, she went away and came back armed with hard numbers: by adopting the proposed environmental modifications, VeriFone would save $110,000 annually in energy costs and many times that in productivity gains. The payback was estimated to take 4.5 years.

She also brought reinforcement, in the form of Randolph Croxton, president of New York architectural firm Croxton Collaborative, which specializes in designing healthy buildings. Standing before a group of VeriFone executives, the native North Carolinian patiently explained his philosophy. Good buildings, he believed, not only stave off illness but actually promote their inhabitants' well-being and productivity. He could build VeriFone a good building. After reviewing Croxton's figures and plans, we told him to do it.

Working with Croxton was an education in justifiable paranoia. The architect saw enemies everywhere: from glues and paints that contain a soup of chemicals to carpets treated with excessive amounts of pesticides, mildewcides, and fungicides. Even something as innocuous as an office chair, he told us, can emit dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde.

Since anything outside a building is likely to be tracked inside, the design team drew up landscaping and pesticide policies that relied on natural materials rather than synthetics. Laser printers and photocopiers that pump out TCE and benzene posed a knottier problem; the team coped by corralling the offending machines in small, enclosed "service centers" with vents to the outside. Where we couldn't enclose a machine, we surrounded it with plants such as Ficus benjamina, determined by NASA scientists to be good at filtering out air pollutants.

Minimally toxic products (there's no such thing as "nontoxic," Croxton points out) were hard to come by back then, although a few manufacturers--such as Glidden, Benjamin Moore, and Steelcase--had begun to test the market. Our design team spent more than half its time scouring the country for materials. As evidence of the designers' success, the paint companies told us we used all their low-toxic products available west of the Mississippi.

Croxton emphasized the natural world in his design as well as in his materials. He built in skylights and clerestories to make up for the lack of windows and installed "smart" fluorescent bulbs that provide just the right quantity of artificial light for each user while saving energy and, consequently, money. Oversized fans circulate air three to five times more often than required by building codes. He even created a system that automatically flushes out old air and brings in fresh stuff every morning.

We started using the building in June 1993. Eighteen months later the absentee rate for employees working in the new facility was 40% lower than for those performing the same jobs in an older VeriFone building next door, and productivity was up more than 5%. Workers in the new building proclaimed the demise of end-of-the-day headaches and end-of-the-week sluggishness. They loved the natural light and said the air was so fresh they felt as if they were working in a forest (no mean feat when you consider that the building sits practically in the lap of Interstate 405 and the John Wayne Airport).

Those results were enough to sell senior management. Every VeriFone facility built since 1992 has replicated the Costa Mesa experiment; we have retrofitted many of our older facilities as well. And since so many of our employees are virtual, we offer them lots of advice on creating an environmentally safe home office: avoid chipboard, for example, and make sure the fax machine is near a window.

while nontoxic paints and benign credenzas have a pretty low technology quotient, information technology does play a role in creating and maintaining healthy workspaces. In years past companies would have needed a mainframe or supercomputer to analyze building plans for optimally healthful designs, and even then they would have uncovered only a few options. Today computer-aided-design software that runs on PCs can do the same kind of analysis, helping companies evaluate plans right down to the individual workstation and providing them with a wide range of design options. In addition, the growing use of intranets, kiosks, and other democratic vehicles for information dissemination makes it easier for companies to keep workers up-to-date on what the businesses are doing to keep them healthy and on how they can contribute to the effort.

And, as always, there is plentiful information on the Web, from sites such as the ones for Real Goods, an alternative-energy-products company, and for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. Mailing lists such as can also help managers protect their workforce from environmental ills.

Many of technology's greatest contributions in the healthy-building area, unfortunately, lie in the future. Because we cannot manage until we can measure, we need simple, accurate instruments that would track, say, the level of pesticide in an office. I envision a network of monitoring stations that would sample the air, lighting, electromagnetic fields, and water in all of a company's offices--including employees' home offices. Those stations would send status reports to a central computer that would alert environmental specialists in case of a problem. Placed near copiers and laser printers, the monitors could even be programmed to notify the manufacturers when a machine is running foul.

There's a real opportunity here for some smart entrepreneur.

William R. Pape is cofounder of VeriFone Inc., with headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. He was VeriFone's first chief information officer and has been operating virtually for 20 years.