Organizations adopting alternative work arrangements are finding they not only can reduce costs but can drive employee engagement as well.

Mobile work, hoteling, and telecommuting are on the rise at a growing number of companies, and employees are initiating and working out the "informal" arrangements, according to the 2011 Benchmarking Study by New Ways of Working (WOW), a research consortium focused on alternative workplace solutions.

"By informal implementation, we mean that alternative workplace (AW) programs are not being planned or implemented top-down by the organization. Workers are working alternatively on their own initiative because they have the technology and other resources and conditions and the consent to do so," says Joe Ouye, co-founder of New WOW.

The benchmarking survey was conducted online in June and July 2011. More than 140 respondents representing Fortune 500 and 100 companies completed the survey, which examined how leading organizations around the world implement, manage, and profit from AW programs. AW is defined as the combination of nontraditional work practices that supplement or replace the traditional office. They include mobile work inside and outside of the office, hoteling, telecommuting, and working from third-party places.

Alternative Workplace Programs Are on the RiseIn 2011, 32 percent of surveyed organizations had informal programs, compared with only 18 percent in 2009. Also, the number of employees with assigned physical workplaces decreased from 76 percent in 2009 to 66 percent in 2011, while the use of mobile work arrangements continued to rise.

And organizations are directly supporting and engaging with remote and mobile employee groups with social websites—web-based resources that connect group members with one another and necessary information such as current news, discussion threads, individual profiles, reports and memos, and events.

"The unique thing about social websites is that their value to the group increases with the number of individuals using it," says Ouye. "The more individuals, the more posts, the more information, etc., leads to resources and to more users."

Assigned and unassigned employees now are receiving nearly identical technological support and services. Nearly the same percentage of employees assigned physical space have laptops (70 percent) as those who don’t have assigned physical space (71 percent). Thus most employees easily can work remotely from a technology standpoint. Data security, however, could be an issue, notes New WOW.

The downside to informal programs is that along with the lack of top-down planning, there may be little evaluation of the effectiveness of these arrangements. According to Ouye: "Less planning may not be a big problem since it appears that workers can do without it, but less evaluation means that organizations don’t have a way of knowing how the workers are doing. They don’t know whether they are satisfied, productive/effective, need other resources, need other help."

Although cost savings continue to be viewed as a top value, the study shows more focus on employee-related values such as work-life balance, attraction and retention, and satisfaction. Ouye notes that for these programs to work, good work practices—such as clear expectations, social glue to hold the group together, standard tools and procedures, open communication, and a culture of sharing—are critical.

Says Ouye, "They are essential for alternative work as you don’t have the luxury of informal communication in face-to-face groups to fill in the gaps."