Building virtual communities with the new workspace
What will tomorrow’s workspace look like, and how will collaborative technology help to build it?
The nature of work has changed dramatically over the past two decades; employees are more mobile and need to work in widely dispersed project-based teams that can change from week to week. A workspace is no longer centered around a desk in the office. Instead, employees need a virtual environment that is available from anywhere at a moment’s notice. The traditional office will need an overhaul to adequately support new working practices and mobile employees.
Despite new Yahoo CEO Melissa Mayer’s public renunciation of flexible working, four out of five businesses today have employees working remotely, according to Frost & Sullivan’s CXO survey. Technology tools such as unified communications (UC), cloud services and mobility are playing a key role in supporting flexible workers, both inside and out of the office.
However, technology is just one of three pillars required for a virtual working environment, says Alan McGinty, Director of the Global Workplace Solutions Group at Cisco. “Without all of them, you will fail miserably,” he warns. The first is the physical design of the workplace, which must reflect the new virtual collaborative working patterns of employees. The second is the collaboration technology that makes it work. The third is a supportive corporate position on flexible work practices.
Cisco has been busy transforming its working environment from the inside out as part of its Connected Workplace strategy. It plans to shave over a million square feet off its San Jose campus over the next few years by using reconfigured workspaces, so that fewer employees need to be in the office at one time.
Rearranging the workspace is a crucial part of this strategy. Cisco built its office around a series of “neighborhoods,” designed to support groups of workers. “We allow those folks in that neighborhood to govern their own space, so it takes the real estate people out of the role of being the space police,” McGinty says.
Neighborhoods can have open plan workstations and team storage rooms. They can feature “touchdowns” – generic, non-assigned work areas for visitors – and open project areas, which are non-bookable spaces designed for teams to meet and work together on an ad hoc basis. A post office provides easy pickup and delivery of parcels and other non-virtual items.
Deloitte – another advocate of the virtual workspace – has laid out its San Francisco office with lounges to encourage group collaboration. Group tables, many of which are at standing height, feature screens at either end so that collaborators can group together and throw their mobile device displays onto an easily-viewable screen.
“We have collaborative workspaces…open spaces, like cafes,” says Katherine Loscalzo, Workplace Strategy Leader at Deloitte. “We’re hearing from younger employees that they like to work in that kind of space.”
Indeed, the need to court younger, “Gen Y” talent could be a driver for virtual collaboration and adapted workspaces. Seventy percent of young graduates leave their first job within two years, according to a survey by Experience, a career services provider for young alumni. Sixty per cent of respondents said they were looking for another job, even though they were happy with their current one. This is clearly a skittish generation, always looking for better opportunities, which employers must work hard to keep.
The best way to keep them interested? A technically advanced workplace, in which people can be constantly connected – preferably with their own devices.
“Telepresence and videoconferencing are useful ways of helping people to connect from remote locations, but things are now expanding beyond that,” says Didier Duriez, Senior Vice President, Global Solutions and Services at Orange Business Services. “Other possibilities include allowing employees to plug into the corporate communications network in any physical location and make it their own, while having secure access to business applications.”
Cisco’s Connected World survey showed that Gen Y workers associated workplace and social disconnections with corporate IT. Forty per cent of them were restricted by company policies that prevented them from using company-owned devices for personal activities. Almost three in four disobeyed those policies.
Mobility, combined with a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) culture, is a big enabler for virtual workspaces. Being able to videoconference on a tablet or have instant messages from colleagues find their way to a smartphone frees up an office worker to move around the working space – and beyond.
Similarly, the idea of sharing everything in one space, so that all documents, appointment information and discussions are easily accessible by a group, helps to give employees the ease of use necessary to work flexibly.
a cultural shift
The reconfigured workspace environment and the supporting technology are vital parts of the puzzle, but let’s not forget the third part: a supportive corporate attitude. Culture is everything, explains Ghislaine Caulat, an executive coach at Ashridge Business School and author of Virtual Leadership: Learning to Lead Differently – a book on virtual working.
Nothing will stick unless senior executives lead by example, says Caulat. “What you need to do is be the change that you want to see. So for me, it’s important that those in senior management have important meetings not face to face, but virtually,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the organization. Get trained and take time to reflect on new behaviors.”
Virtual working requires virtual leadership. Orange Business Services has built teams stretching from Dallas to Delhi using remote collaboration tools. But it wouldn’t work without astute management practices, including the ability to delegate and enable remote workers to build relationships directly with each other online. This can avoid what Orange executives call “hub-and-spoke” relationships, in which remote workers all have better relationships with their managers than with each other.
taking the collaboration challenge
Different companies move at different speeds in adopting new workspaces. IT firms are the most likely to adopt virtual working practices ahead of the curve. Professional services firms come second.
A 2010 study by the Economist Intelligence Unit revealed that fifty-one percent of IT firms considered themselves early adopters of virtual working practices, with forty-two percent of professional services companies taking the plunge. However, just over one in five pharmaceutical, healthcare and financial services firms were early adopters of the technology – and manufacturing firms were the least likely to take an interest.
Reconfiguring the working environment entirely is a far more daunting undertaking than simply adopting a few collaboration tools on a per-team basis. The rewards in terms of employee engagement, real estate costs and travel expenses are potentially massive. The question is, how ready are you to grasp the opportunity?
Orange Business Services can help
Orange supports its customers throughout the entire lifecycle of their workspace projects, from project definition through implementation to support. It offers consultancy tailored to their specific challenges, including bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, fleet management, security and partitioning. Orange also provides application development, integration, deployment and other value-added services.