Feature Story

Increase Productivity: Let Work Leave the Office

Today’s companies can’t use 19th-century organizational structure with 20th-century management and technology to do 21st-century work.

In the office. On the road. At home and at co-work sites. Or all the above.

Today’s workforce is anywhere and everywhere. And becoming more dispersed daily.

By 2020, 105 million mobile workers will make up nearly three-fourths of the U.S. workforce, according to IDC. Globally, the figure will hit 1.75 billion, estimates GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. And don’t forget the steady 10% annual growth over the past decade of regular, work-at-home corporate employees.

“Work has left the office, but most organizations haven’t fully considered what that means,” said Paul Miller, CEO and founder of the Digital Workplace Group (DWG) and co-author of Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering Digital Workplaces Fit for the Future. “The center of gravity of work is now digital. We need to shift our perspective.”

It’s this digital addition that is changing how and where we work.

In its 2016 “US Workplace Survey,” Gensler, a national architecture, design, planning, consulting and research firm, noted “A rise in virtual or technology-enabled collaboration requires new ways of working that many organizations still struggle to support.”

How can organizations adapt to this global work mega-trend? How can an organization’s leadership help improve the productivity of increasingly mobile digital employees and business partners?

The answer– Make it easier for individuals and teams to connect and collaborate anytime, anywhere, on any platform. To do this requires rethinking digital and physical workspaces – optimizing and integrating both so everyone gets a high-quality collaborative experience, regardless of location.

“The biggest challenge we get from CIOs is to create great conferencing and collaboration experiences inside office walls that extend to remote workers,” said John Mitton, CTO and Vice President of the Audio Visual Group at Red Thread. A wholly owned subsidiary of Steelcase, a Boston-based company that provides architectural, technology, audiovisual, design and consulting services for companies creating new work environments.

To get there, top technology and design firms suggest several key strategies and tactics for 2017. Most experts agree– Enterprises should focus on creating strong collaborative foundations before introducing flashy new technology like meeting robots, 3-D meeting avatars and augmented reality (see sidebar) over the next few years.

These tactics include the following:

Start with digital, simple and standard

According to Miller, ­“Most ‘Workplace 2025’ programs start with plans for newly configured offices.” Why? “Because it’s easier.”

But that might not be the best place to start.

Instead, he and others advise beginning Workplace 2.0 where work happens, “in digital worlds.” That includes collaboration, conferencing and communications systems, and Intranets. It’s the path chosen by Accenture, with 300,000-plus staff, whose CEO considers physical offices “tactically useful, but strategically irrelevant.”

“We want to be creating digital conversations independent of geography that feel exactly as real as physical ones, but ‘better’ because we can pull down data and knowledge effortlessly,” Miller said.

A key goal should be to create high-quality experiences that erase divisions between “inside” and “outside” the organization, said Mitton. Organizations that fail to do so risk creating “distance disparity” that can make offsite employees feel like second-class citizens, he said.

Offices = Collaboration Hubs

With so many working offsite or remotely, and digital ascendant, physical offices might seem less important, even irrelevant. Not so. New designers believe that the physical workplace plays an even more important role than ever. The workplace acts as key hubs and nodes of collaboration – whether in person, digitally or hybrid.

“The office didn’t go away,” James Ludwig, Steelcase Global Head of Design likes to say. “But it’s evolving into something fundamentally different.”

That something is far beyond the traditional cube farms, open office benches or conference rooms with speakerphones, whiteboard and finicky presentation monitor.

It recognizes that these days, even office workers are mobile, even if it’s within the building.

The resulting mix of co-working spaces support a variety of work needs: AV and telepresence rooms, open spaces, quiet rooms, “creativity” zones, outdoor meeting areas, eCafes, resting areas and more. High-speed wireless Internet that supports video must be pervasive, allowing people to work where and how they prefer.

It’s like having a Starbucks, hotel lobby, living room, and quiet study all under one roof. Large screens, projection surfaces, common computers, whiteboards, tack boards, etc. make informal brainstorming easy.

A good example is Deloitte’s Amsterdam headquarters, The Edge. The company says the facility – with 2,500 workers sharing 1,000 “hot desks” –  plays a crucial role in fostering and anchoring in-person collaboration.

Creation of such new integrated digital and physical workspaces requires CIO, HR and Facilities to work closely together, emphasized Miller.

Include Customers, Vendors and Partners

Most efforts at modernizing collaboration focus on employees. Big mistake, says Michael Schrage, author and fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business.

“If you’re designing just to support your best employees, you’ve done a wonderful job of solving one third of the problem,” Schrage said.

Modern collaborative spaces should be designed “implicitly and explicitly” to support your best clients and suppliers, he said. “They need to be just as accessible to people outside the firewall as inside the firewall.”

A good example, said Schrage, is the MIT Media Lab, where he is a longtime associate.

“People who’ve never stepped in the lab start immediately creating. People can walk in and start working.”

Standardize platforms

Experts say an easy, fast-start experience doesn’t happen by itself. It requires a standard interface, always-on access, simplicity and standardization across collaboration and communication platforms.

“Lots of CIOs understand this,” said Red Thread’s Mitton. “A great experience must be simple. Whether it’s a simple desktop app or a Huddle space or a board room,

they want a consistent, walk up and use experience.”

It’s the opposite of recent videoconference lunch presentation Mitton was scheduled to give at a customer site. “It was supposed to start at 12. No one came until 12:15. The admin told me: ‘No one ever shows up on time because the system is really complicated and never ready. So, they’ve institutionalized delay. That’s 15 wasted minutes times 30 people. That’s 7.5 total wasted hours.”

To avoid such unproductive waits, many enterprise customers are moving to standardize conference communications and collaboration tools, he said.

Forecast: More Mobility

Mobility is only expected to accelerate in 2017, numerous studies say. According to the Gensler survey of 4,000 office workers, the most innovative employees are spending less time at their desks and more time collaborating in conference rooms, open meeting areas and café spaces. They’re also working away from the office. That’s roughly 16 percent of their week and that number is climbing.

To manage such major changes in workstyle, successful enterprises must be open to whole new ways of doing business in new mobile, digital and collaborative era, says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics.

“Today’s companies can’t use 19th– century organizations and 20th– century management and technology to do 21st-century work,” she says.

Emerging technologies to monitor

Experts agree: Most enterprises should focus on core collaboration, conferencing and communication technologies in 2017. Still, you’ll want to keep an eye on promising complementary tools that will be ready for more mainstream use by 2020.

  • Smartphone apps to control workspaces. Functional versions already exist. “The Edge”, Deloitte’s Amsterdam headquarters, is the greenest and most technologically advanced building on the planet. Workers there use custom phone apps for everything from finding colleagues to automatically booking conference and collaboration rooms, desks – even parking spaces.
  • Cisco’s Spark app lets users on premise collaborators connect to virtual teams outside the physical room using the devices of your choice. Expect continuing advances over the next 18 months.
  • Intelligent collaboration rooms. Facial recognition, RFID, Bluetooth and near-field communication are being combined to create conference and collaboration rooms that schedule, configure, prepare – even heat and cool – based on your preferences and needs. Products by Cisco already feature such capabilities.
  • Chatbots. Coming soon: a Siri-like work assistant that improves productivity and collaboration by handling scheduling, presentation search and retrieval and other tasks previously handled by human assistants.
  • Avatars.Telepresence robots, like those made by Beam, let you attend in-person meetings (albeit as a Skype-like, video talking head on wheels). Now, companies are taking the next step, offering avatars that provide a fully-digital meeting stand-in. Soul Machines is creating an avatar that looks, talks and moves like you. It can respond to questions, share opinions and, eventually, reach consensus with other avatars in a virtual meeting. Another company, Oben, is building a 3D virtual reality avatar for digital conferences. It uses Natural Language Processing (or NLU) to listen to and process conversations, then responds using a database of your viewpoints.
  • Augmented and Virtual Reality. Gartner Research Director, Adam Preset predicts that companies virtual or augmented reality headsets, such as Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s HoloLens, will beat out avatars as the next-generation collaboration technology.
  • Holograms. Technology that beams talking, 3-D avatars from multiple locations into a live physical meeting packs a big “wow” factor. GE, Cisco, Sony, and the World Economic Summit have all used holograms at big gatherings in recent years. Yet the cost and challenges with anything beyond simple interaction keeps holographic tech outside mainstream conferencing – at least for the next few years.