Virtual offices will reverse years of isolation

IT is undergoing the kind of cultural evolution that companies endured when they first pushed computing technology out to the bulk of their workforces.

As computers entered the workplace, they ripped corporate cultures apart, raising individual productivity but disconnecting workers from one another through compartmentalization and anonymity. The office lost its status as a social hub.

Even those who don’t subscribe to touchy-feely workplace concepts understand that employees who don’t communicate may be productive, but only individually. The workers who shine always find ways to work around a culture of disconnectedness to link up with others.

Thankfully, we’re recovering from the shock to the system and moving away from the idea that human communication is a distraction, an impediment to the head-down, isolated work style that typifies modern life. Companies and organizations now want to use technology to build inclusive and interconnected communities of employees and outsiders.

IT will be tasked to build each employee a virtual office. Its door leads to the building’s interior, where co-workers and management can converse and make connections. The window opens onto a courtyard where outsiders can congregate and chat with employees or just watch them work. And an employee can teleport herself into her office from anywhere, any time that suits her, and observers wouldn’t know her location.

IT can’t make people work well together. What it can do is foster its own informal, yet accountable, pilot culture. It should create a workflow that’s open to the spit-balling and experimentation that naturally grows out of personal connections among workers. Set up servers that workers can use to put up public- or internal-use blogs, forums, Web casts, Web conferences, and other modes of communication; whatever grabs people as long as it’s legal (groups will police themselves). Get an IM server going and a WAP gateway to the company intranet. You needn’t make a project of it. Just pull together some standards-based services and open them to the staff.

The genesis of this concept lies less in blogs and IM than it does in mobile devices. Cell phones gave workers the freedom to mix their personal and work lives in ways that they controlled. No matter how buttoned-down a company’s policy was about personal calls, Internet access, chat, or pictures of one’s dog in one’s cubicle, the cell phone provided employees with joyful circumvention. I know there are plenty of office workers whose phone use creates a nuisance. Certainly there are people who would also make poor use of open collaborative services. That’s life. You deal with individual cases, but you never subject professionals to “one bad apple” policies.

Why host the services locally? Because when workers collaborate among staffers and communicate with the outside world, they’ll be proud that it’s done on their home domain. It helps restore the lost concept of the workplace as a social hub.

If you make it just as easy for your staff to reach in as to reach out, using a mix of the resources they have with the resources you provide, they’ll link up in some remarkable ways. It’ll take time, but soon you’ll have a productive, vibrant culture as a result.

Tom Yager is technical director of the InfoWorld Test Center.

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