Designed for mobility: This conference table, from the design firm Steelcase, allows employees to dock their mobile devices and take turns sharing the displays at the ends of the table.
The quick expansion of social and mobile technologies is creating a widely distributed workforce. To better suit employees who come into offices more sporadically, some companies and design firms are testing radically new—and more efficient—configurations for physical offices, and betting that improved technology will make the experiment more successful than similar ones in the 1990s.
A project at the headquarters of Cisco Systems in San Jose, California, for example, overthrows decades-old conventions about office space. Called Connected Workplace, it replaces individual cubicles with open clusters of wheeled desks that belong to groups, not individuals; personal belongings are largely confined to lockers.
There are no PCs at the desks, because the employees who use the space use mobile technologies, including the Cius tablet, which Cisco recently began selling to businesses. Rick Hutley, a Cisco vice president, chooses his desk according to which colleagues are present and what’s on the day’s agenda. Then he docks his Cius to a port on the desk that includes a phone handset. The tablet handles voice and video calls whether it’s docked or mobile, and it can be used to share documents at meetings.
It can also be plugged into a monitor and keyboard to be used like a full PC. “You can walk around with your entire world with you in this device,” Hutley says. “My laptop would often stay on my desk, but the tablet never does.” If he needs to make a private voice or video call, he can step into one of the rooms at the edges of the cluster.
Employees can also participate in the company’s corporate social network, Quad, which is accessible on the Web or through the iPhone, iPad, or Cius. People can post meeting requests, give status updates on projects, and quickly get in touch via instant messages, voice calls, or e-mail.