Portability drives office of the future

Technology portability and environmental integrity will feature prominently in the office of the future – and technological advances are now making that possible.

Small, dispersed workspaces, more mobile employees and a changing business environment – such as high fuel costs – are making streamlined offices a necessity.

“Canadian businesses have to tighten their belts, (rethink) how they operate, how they’re going to differentiate themselves,” said Jennifer Horton, director of marketing for technology with Grand & Toy in Don Mills, Ont. This includes more face time with customers and associates, driving a need for collaborative, portable solutions.

Also, as Canadian businesses move into international collaborative tools, from videoconferencing to digital whiteboards, are becoming more important.

In the past, many employees were afraid of this technology, but these tools are becoming much easier to use and deploy.

The rising cost of fuel is causing some businesses to reconsider air travel. And the upcoming talent crunch is leading to recruitment and retention challenges.

With Generation Y entering the workforce, they’re expecting to have “always-on” access to technology, whether they’re in the office or on the road. That’s what this new generation of workers are used to in their personal lives, said Horton, and they have the same expectations of employers.

Some businesses have addressed this through overkill, with too many products and services. Or, they rely on old technology – waiting until it dies to replace it – a strategy that can end up costing an arm and a leg in supplies and maintenance.

It’s really about strategic sourcing, said Horton.

Grand & Toy has revamped its business over the past couple of years by withdrawing from mall locations and setting up shop in business areas. It now has a fleet of small business account reps that can provide expertise on technology and office design.

“We’re not just selling paper and pens,” said Horton, adding that the company is going through the distribution channel, partnering with Synnex, Ingram Micro and Tech Data. “You can’t sell technology unless you come from technology,” she said.

There are also trends around outsourcing and in-sourcing, where account reps can help a small business figure out what can be done in-house or what can be done through Grand & Toy’s imaging division, such as making posters or business collateral, said Mark Lorne, general manager of technology and imaging with Grand & Toy.

To demonstrate its business focus, Grand & Toy designed the press lounge at the Toronto International Film Festival, being held this week, from ergonomic furniture to small-footprint technology, he added. The IT Lounge was created to showcase an evolution in how people are working and the shift toward increased collaboration and communication within smaller spaces.

Reps from Grand & Toy’s interiors and technology departments designed the IT Lounge in an 18-by-24 square foot conference room at the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto’s swank Yorkville district. This small space had to accommodate hundreds of journalists over the course of the film festival.

This small space, in an older building, is representative of many of today’s workspaces: often small, due to high real estate costs, with requirements to accommodate on-the-go workers, provide portable storage and offer the latest in technology.

The designers chose to use wireless systems and portable hardware, so less room would be required for equipment, while providing digital documentation to reduce the need for hardcopy storage space.

Small, portable technology, such as the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC (weighing 1.27 kg), and wireless communications also meant that less time was spent on wiring and hardware setup.

From an interiors perspective, Grand & Toy wanted to go for a contemporary aesthetic that complemented the classic design of the hotel. It selected a free-standing worktable to accommodate people that work in open spaces and designed lounge seating for relaxation purposes. Each workstation was outfitted with an ergonomic chair, with access to a multi-function printer/photocopier/fax machine.

The office of the future may also include more telework or remote access options. And a number of technologies have emerged in this space to help enterprises support these options, said Jayanth Angl, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group.

In recent months we’ve seen rising fuel prices and increased environmental awareness from a corporate perspective. These are factors in the office of the future, but technology has also improved. The options have matured, and we’re seeing unified communications (UC) platforms that fit nicely with this whole approach, he said, including voice-over-IP and various IP communications tools such as instant messaging and videoconferencing.

“What UC offers is, with a single client on the desktop, the end-user can access the full scope of tools rather than requiring a number of different tools,” said Angl. “This is an opportunity for an enterprise to integrate and consolidate all of those tools into a single client.”

Technology areas such as fixed mobile convergence will allow end-users to roam between the enterprise wireless LAN or home-based Wi-Fi and the public carrier cellular network with a single device. And that means an employee can be provisioned with a single device they can use essentially anywhere they work or travel.

A UC client can provide an employee with access to the enterprise directory, instant messaging and presence (so colleagues can view the status of that mobile employee), all linked to a central calendar. “We’re still in the early stages, but it’s clear the direction we’re going in,” said Angl.

And, when it comes to real estate, there’s an opportunity to avoid a significant expansion to an existing office or taking on a new lease; instead, some employees could work remotely or from home. “Organizations are becoming more distributed, and they may have a need to support remote employees,” he said. “That’s becoming more common.”

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