Digital Workplace Strategy, IT and Facilities Management

Future of Work

The Digital Workplace Experience, Where IT and Facilities Management Meet

Digital innovations have changed the way we interact with one another, and those changes are affecting traditional workplace roles and responsibilities. New paths to collaboration uncover valuable data and insights and as a result, companies are seeing a convergence of the digital environment, traditionally owned by IT, and the physical work environment, owned by Facilities.

Because of this transformation, a new role is being born, one that covers both the digital and the physical. The skillset needed for this new hybrid IT/Facilities role not only includes keeping the lights on and the internet connection secure but answering questions critical to an organization’s success in the workplace.

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Who owns this new set of responsibilities?

A positive workplace experience depends as much on functioning digital environments as it does on how comfortable the physical environment of the office is. The data running through this combination of the physical and digital worlds places the hybrid manager of facilities and IT at the center of a new web of strategic insight.

The path to adopting a converged IT and facilities management is varied. At some organizations, it starts with perceptive volunteers filling an emerging need; at others, it’s a top-down directive, reflected in the organizational structure. 

How we landed at this crossroads: A review of the physical and digital work environments

The physical workspace

In the late ’90s, early ideas of telecommuting claimed most of the workforce would soon disperse to work from home. If that vision had been borne, we might have seen the work of the facilities manager turn purely digital.

Twenty years later, it’s become an article of faith in Silicon Valley (and everywhere the Silicon Valley culture holds true) that to succeed as an innovative company, you must have smart people working on well-organized teams in the same physical space. Physical proximity, it turns out, is important. 

In 1977, MIT organizational psychologist Thomas J. Allen demonstrated that communication between engineers drops exponentially as the physical distance between them increases. This phenomenon is known as the “Allen Curve.” Researchers at the MIT Media Lab recently demonstrated that the Allen Curve holds true today. Even with the availability of a growing and sophisticated toolset for remote collaboration, people communicate more when in close physical proximity. 

Organizations today are investing in their workspaces as a critical tool for their success. Offices are designed to facilitate collaboration and “casual collisions,” like Google’s “Googleplex” headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., completed in 2013.

Googleplex is a great example of a company investing in a successful digital workplace strategy for their employees
Googleplex’s courtyard is one area where casual collisions and conversation are the norm, facilitating constant collaboration.

And yet, Google is one of the companies leading the effort to establish far-flung engineering centers. Many companies are following suit. In 2016, a real estate firm documented the rapid rise in the number of national tech companies opening Seattle engineering offices, following Facebook and Google, which established an engineering presence there years ago and have grown those offices to thousands of local employees. 

These offices aren’t outposts–they include the same type of comfort and culture as their respective HQs. Work inside these organizations takes place in a mesh of physical and digital environments that must be overseen by a team that pulls its know how from both facilities and IT. 

And yet, Google is one of the companies leading the effort to establish far-flung engineering centers. Many companies are following suit. In 2016, a real estate firm documented the rapid rise in the number of national tech companies opening Seattle engineering offices, following Facebook and Google, which established an engineering presence there years ago and have grown those offices to thousands of local employees. 

These offices aren’t outposts–they include the same type of comfort and culture as their respective HQs. Work inside these organizations takes place in a mesh of physical and digital environments that must be overseen by a team that pulls its know how from both facilities and IT.

The digital workspace strategy 

BlueJeans Network, a video conferencing service, has 500+ employees with a shared mission to make video communication as ubiquitous as audio. Most of the collaborative space in their offices are networked for videoconferencing and bookable both in the office and remote, using conference room scheduling software. Steve Weinstock, director of business development and integration, describes what that’s like for employees. 

“It’s being able to grab a room on the fly because I’m lazy, I forgot, or something just came up. The calendaring system shows the meeting on the screen outside the room, but I also have the ability to walk right in and literally fire up the meeting right away. When I have that mobile app open, the conference room equipment recognizes me and will say something to the effect of, ‘Hi, Steve, do you want to start your scheduled meeting here?’” 

Video and audio conferencing in a variety of spaces is a critical part of the digital workplace strategy
Including video and audio conferencing in a variety of spaces so employees can present and collaborate with colleagues everywhere is a critical part of the digital workplace strategy.

Pendo, a customer engagement software company in Raleigh, N.C., is another example of the digital and physical workplaces converging. Jeremy Smith, IT and facilities manager, now oversees an iterative process the company designed to open and grow new offices that match Pendo’s company culture. At Pendo, it’s rare that a meeting doesn’t have at least one remote participant.

“If you’re having a 30-minute meeting, and you have to spend more than 2 minutes getting the remote conference system to work, that’s a waste of time,” Smith said.

BlueJeans, meanwhile, works to make the quality of a remote meeting match the quality of in-person conversation.

Recently, the company replaced an audio stack it had built seven years ago with one provided by Dolby Laboratories, a London audio technology company. Meetings with BlueJeans technology now include background noise cancellation, as well as a feature called spatial audio, which changes the right-left balance of the audio signal to reflect where in the room the speaker is.

If someone is walking from his seat to the whiteboard, for example, “you hear him if you have a headset on, coming from a different perspective depending on where he is,” said Weinstock. “It’s a more natural, normal experience, like if you were in the meeting room yourself.”

BlueJeans’ latest innovation, “hot walls,” are wall-mounted monitor links BlueJeans HQ to another office passively. When Weinstock, or anyone else, wants to call over to a colleague in another city, all he has to do is shout, much like he would call out to a colleague across the room. With this modern innovation, though, comes necessary technical and physical management. Hot walls are usually placed in break rooms and open areas, and volume is kept relatively low. 

“I’m pretty good at tuning out the chatter of my coworkers who are five feet from me having a conversation,” Weinstock said, “but there’s something about the audio coming from a TV with speakers that is harder to tune out.”

The digital tools we use have changed the way we work: instant messaging services like Slack, project management applications like Trello and Basecamp; high-fidelity video conferencing applications like BlueJeans and Zoom; workplace experience software like Robin. These have stretched the boundaries of collaboration beyond the conference room and into a variety of settings, often spread across multiple locations. And yet, the most successful organizations still emphasize the need for nearness. 

Understanding the convergence of the digital and physical workplace environments and the uncovered insights that come out of that are changing the way IT and facilities management work together — or become one — to improve workplace experience.