The impact of new mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones might not altogether remove the need for desktop computers, but it does open up the potential for a really radical shift in how workplaces might look.
For a start, the subtle way that even simple mobile phones increase flexibility in the working environment, even inside its boundary – no one needs to return to their personal desk to make or receive a call. With smartphones and tablets, all forms of communication can be achieved on the move – voice, text or video – and can be ‘unified’ around a corporate platform or ‘social’ around a consumer (or perhaps enterprise) platform.
The concept of ‘in’ and ‘out’ trays therefore seems a little dated, although most would admit the paperless office is still a distant dream. So, does everyone need their own personal desk while in the building?
Since many now have working practices (and technology) that allows them to be productive outside the office environment – at home or out and about mobile – is there a case for revisiting the concept of shared desks to cover for the odd time when someone is in?
This idea of flexible working, hot-desking, or ‘hoteling’ is not new, but advances in mobile technologies, the ubiquity of wireless networks and the personal appetite for working on the move and seeing the office as a place for occasional use all gives it an extra boost. So too does the potential for cost saving.
The cost of providing a typical desk in a city like London can easily run to over £10,000 per year, and the average across the UK is almost £6,000. Providing one for every employee, whether they are going to use it all the time or not, starts to look like an unnecessary extravagance, especially if all it is doing for many working hours is acting as a support for a few personal photos, memorabilia from past training courses and a never-inspected pile of (often unnecessary) paperwork.
Despite this, many companies as well as individuals find it difficult to kick the mahogany (or aluminium and chipboard) habit. According to recent research conducted for Vodafone, just over a third of companies had not even considered flexible working to reduce costs, thought reducing desks was ‘inappropriate’ for their business or thought it would have a negative impact on teamwork.
A lot of the people-related preparatory work for switching to a flexible office can be a bit daunting and de-humanising. Terms such as ‘stacking density’ do little to boost morale and while most organisations and individuals would like to think they measure success by results rather than time in the office, presentee-ism still prevails and being seen in the office is perceived to have promotional value.
Technology can help with this, especially as so many consumers have been ‘converted’ to mobile, but it still needs careful management.
First the devices. Now that so many expect to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to use at work, there are more types of devices to deal with, all with different and personal applications. User expectations are high, but still the organisation needs to secure its assets, especially data. Controls, policies and procedures need to be applied and although user education has to be at the heart of it, automated management controls are vital to avoid costs spiralling, otherwise everyone might as well be given a desk.
Next come the networks. Most organisations have an infrastructure designed around people sat in fixed and known locations, and even desk swapping raises issues – “that’s my PC!” or “why can’t this phone ring with my incoming calls?”. Wireless networks, where they are present, are often oriented around laptops. So connectivity may be available in the places where people can sit and ‘de-camp’, but there may be insufficient coverage and capacity to deal with lower powered radios in devices such as most smartphones AND tablets.
The network capacity will also need to be increased, but also in a flexible, dynamic and automated way. Increased use of video and ‘chatty’, more social collaboration – good for bringing diverse and dispersed teams closer together – impacts on the network, especially if users are mobile and video usage is ad hoc and unpredictable.
In a flexible office, even the traditional desktop (yes, they’re unlikely to disappear completely just yet) is affected. The network needs to be able to cope with delivering services to different users in different places at different times. User authentication and delivery of their services to the spot they’re currently occupying requires sophisticated and predictable management.
The working world may be coming much more mobile, but in the flexible office one thing is still fixed – the need to manage everything as simply, seamlessly and automatically as possible.