Creating a natural workplace

video conferencing, collaboration

The transformation of the workplace is accelerating worldwide. What is happening is a fragmentation and the typical workplace is changing from the rigid template of the office, cubicle and conference room into a vigorous mélange of working environments. Subject matter experts share their views in this speaker series on-demand webinar.

One of the major effects of this change is paradoxical in a way, because it is also one of the major causes: it represents a migration from artificial, made-up and often inefficient workplaces to natural ones that free people to excel at what they do. This first really struck me about eight years ago, on a summer day as I was leaving my Polycom office in San Jose to drive the fifty miles home to San Francisco. I realised that I had come in that morning, gone into my office and closed the door to spend the day writing, meeting via videoconferences, reviewing and emailing. Then I left my closed door office and drove home. There was absolutely nothing I did in San Jose that I could not have done as well or better from my home office, saving two hours of commuting time and some gallons of gasoline. An office often is a workplace that fills some basic needs, but it doesn’t have to fill them in only one way.

Individual vs group workplaces

Let’s look at this in more detail. There are individual workplaces, where we don’t need to have anyone physically nearby and there are group workplaces, where having more people right next to us is part of the experience. In either case, we can be collaborating with people in other locations, the distinction is just whether you could hit them with a rolled-up sock (group workplaces) or not (note: it’s usually not a good idea to actually throw socks in the workplace!).

Individual workplaces have been shifting from the old-fashioned private office to partitioned open spaces like cubicles and more recently to fully open collaboration workspaces. Each has its advantages but one of the challenges this adds is that the surrounding noise increases as the partitions are lost. This is distracting to anyone the worker may be talking to on a phone call for example, as well as to other workers in the vicinity. Indeed, studies have shown that worker productivity decreases in open environments, especially when no corrective measures are in place. It’s for this reason that tools like the Polycom Acoustic Fence and NoiseBlock were developed, to restore a quieter environment and allow the worker to concentrate and have productive meetings with remote collaborators.

What’s happening in group workplaces is interesting too, but it’s a little more subtle in its way. For many decades, one classic group workplace has been the conference room, most often with a long table running down the middle of a rectangular conference room, and with people seated along both sides, often, with the boss or supervisor looming at the end of the table in the “power seat.” This has become a kind of standard for many videoconference rooms because the camera can be mounted opposite the power seat for the best view. Unfortunately, it’s lousy for collaboration, because participants can’t hear or see one another equally well and the poor soul at the far end of that video link spends a lot of their time looking at the backs of heads as the side-sitting people turn away from the camera to look at the boss or try to be heard at the far end of the table.

There are two trends that are emerging to remedy this:

One trend is that on average, conference rooms are getting smaller. Not all of them, but as companies take advantage of distributed workplaces and link together distributed groups over video, each local gathering typically has fewer people in each location, so the total seating in one location is often not twenty people, but three or four, maybe six. The natural way to sit in groups like this is “in the round,” as we do when we gather to talk with a couple of friends at a party, so the new conference room is a “huddle room,” more square than rectangle.

The second trend is that remote collaboration systems have emerged that position everyone in the same direction from where we are. Instead of constantly swiveling our heads 180 degrees to look at the video screen, the boss, the two distant ends of the table, we sit around a ring of displays having a smart, agile camera in the center, and we can see everyone, both at the near and far ends, by looking in the same direction. This restores the natural experience we have when sitting around a campfire, or at a family dinner, and gets the technology out of the way so we can talk and collaborate smoothly.

Workplaces haven’t finished evolving yet, but we can see some of the major directions. And fortunately, innovative solutions keep emerging to keep them feeling natural, productive, and efficient.

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