Social Enterprise

The new WWW: Workers Without Wires

When TechRepublic columnist Tim Landgrave decided to launch his new company, he made sure that every laptop would have a wireless networking card. The result? A completely different working environment.


I’ve been consulting with corporations on how to build their technical teams for several years. So when I put together a team to launch my latest company, we made some very specific decisions about the kind of environment we wanted to create. It was important to us that the company was both project- and team-driven.

More importantly, we wanted to create an environment that encouraged real-time collaboration and decision-making. We felt that in order to make this a reality, employees would always have to have both the company’s network resources and their personal resources available anytime they were in the office, on the road, or working at home.

To that end, we decided to give all new employees a top-of-the-line laptop computer with a CD-ROM drive and an extra battery. But the most important addition to the laptop is an 11MB wireless networking card.

The office has sufficient access points to allow workers to roam anywhere in the building and stay connected to both the internal network and the Internet. With this technology, we’ve really created an environment of Wireless Web Workers.

But it isn’t just about technology. It’s about changing the way people work and where they work.

What’s the point of wireless if you’ve got nowhere to roam?
“No wires” implies that there are no fixed offices. We’ve created a project-based environment where employees use different work areas for different amounts of time based on the status of current projects. We have four different work areas:
  • Conference rooms
  • Creative rooms
  • Project rooms
  • Bullpens

Conference rooms
Conference rooms are for meetings that will last less than a full day. What makes these meetings interesting is that all the participants can bring their laptops with all of their resources with them to a meeting. If one person wants to share an idea or concept, they can hook up to the conference room projector and share it with the rest of the team.

Conference users can also start NetMeeting and share a document among people in the same room or with users in the building or on a conference call. More importantly, if an issue comes up during a meeting that can best be answered by another employee who’s not in the meeting, then that person is only one click away via Instant Messaging.

Creative rooms
Where conference rooms are for meetings lasting hours, creative rooms are for meetings lasting one to 10 days. The concept behind the creative room is to allow a group of people to design a product, attack a problem, envision a marketing concept, or any other exercise that may require the use of a room that will stay untouched between sessions.

The creative rooms have large whiteboards as well as ample paper and writing instruments to allow the creative process to be documented. These rooms are also laid out with beanbag chairs, recliners, and other nontraditional furniture to encourage more creative input in an environment that is less inhibitive than that of typical conference room style discussions.

Project rooms
Once an idea has turned into a project, a team of developers, engineers, marketing wonks, and others assigned to the project go into a project room for one to three months. This group will work together to see their idea become a reality.

Since each of them has been “living with their laptops” throughout the creative process, they always have all of their most important information at hand. And by using shared folders, intranet sites, and other collaborative technologies accessible through the Local Area Network (LAN), all of the company’s resources are available anytime they need them.

Bullpens
So, where does someone go if they’re between large projects or they just need a place to go work without having their team members around them? That question is what precluded the decision to integrate bullpen areas. The bullpen areas are groups of cubicles with phones, power, and some privacy. These can be signed out by anyone who needs a place to work for a day or a month. They also make a convenient home for visitors who need a place to work or for new employees who haven’t started work on their first projects yet.

The good, the bad, and the ugly
Our folks like the freedom of having not only a laptop, but also being able to move about the office without the constraints of “finding a port.” The project teams and the flexibility of the workspace maximize the value of being untethered to the building for their network support.

Working in project rooms with a team driving toward a common goal generally makes people closer. And understanding that teams can be created and disbanded many times during the year as projects and priorities change allows people to work with different people and experience different team dynamics.

We first thought the value of Instant Messaging (IM) would decrease in an environment where project teams spent a lot of time together. Surprisingly, the value of IM actually increases significantly in this environment.

Project teams that include people who carry their computers around with them have the immediate ability to talk to other people who could be anywhere in the building. IM allows spontaneous collaboration to break out among individuals or teams who aren’t in the same project or creative room.

In fact, we’ve had meetings where we left with all outstanding issues resolved before the meeting ended because people in the room were getting information and feedback from their counterparts at work in other parts of the office. When used properly, it can be a fantastic tool.

Instant messaging negatives
It’s always that “when used properly” phrase that gets you in trouble. The downside to the “always available” state is that it can be hard to get work done with the constant interruptions. It can also be a distraction to be in meetings where you need everyone’s full attention and those same people are tempted to catch up on their e-mail, documentation, or Web surfing.

There’s also an interesting phenomenon that’s both annoying and exciting regarding the use of IM during a meeting. In high school we used to call it “passing notes.” In the business world, it’s called "IMing during a meeting."

In our meetings, it’s not uncommon for two or more participants to be having a dialog on a subject that’s either in direct conflict with or tangential to the core discussion.

On one hand, it’s unnerving for the person who’s speaking to hear people clicking away in an IM session. On the other hand, many people won’t speak up if they think their ideas will be shot down, so they end up saying nothing (until after the meeting or after the project fails—either of which is way too late).

If a person sending an instant message to and getting confirmation from another person in the room helps to raise issues before they become problems, then I think the technology can make a significant contribution towards putting value back into meetings.

It’s become clear that our use of wireless technology will continue to increase. We’re already looking at ways to more closely integrate our phone system, printing capabilities, and other devices like Pocket and Handheld PCs. Now may be the time for you to see how these technologies—and the inevitable changes to the work environment—can benefit your company.
While Tim Landgrave’s office makes full use of wireless technology, other businesses have just begun taking similar steps. How about you? Tell us about your business’ plans for wireless or let us in on what you’ve already done. Begin a discussion or send us an e-mail.

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