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6/17/2007
00:00 AM
Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
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Collaboration is About More Than Just Technology

This week, I spent some time talking to an IT executive at a company that’s in the middle of designing a new building for a large number of employees, none of whom are remote workers. In a somewhat radical idea, the company is planning on benching people—that is, literally having people sit on benches, rather than at cubicles, let alone offices. He was wondering whether they should include conference rooms in the design, and if so, how big and how many.

His question speaks to an issue around collaboration that on the surface, at least, has nothing to do with technology. This is a company that has already deployed advanced conferencing solutions, like telepresence, and that uses IM religiously. But according to the IT exec, 90 percent of the in-person meetings held at the company’s offices don’t involve any technology at all—it’s just a bunch of people sitting at a conference table. Trouble is, fewer and fewer people are even attending those meetings, let alone participating in them. And now the company is wondering how to fix that problem—or whether it’s really a problem at all.

If people aren’t attending your meetings, chances are your meetings are pretty ineffectual. But it’s not surprising—none of us like to go to meetings. In some businesses, people don’t go to meetings because getting up from their desks literally can cost them money. In others, meetings are held in the interest of collaboration but everyone knows that their ideas and suggestions won’t be heard, never mind put into action. Most last at least twice as long as they should.

This company has operations worldwide, and they use video conferencing and, to a lesser extent, web conferencing, to connect executives, partners and employees in different locations. Connecting virtual workers really isn’t their problem. What they’re trying to do is find ways to support those employees working 500-to-a-floor, many without offices, at headquarters and large remote-office locations. How should they be connected to one another? Probably in much the same way as their virtual counterparts.

Although the vast majority of those employees’ meetings don’t require technology, they could probably benefit from it. For starters, a good chunk of their meetings could happen virtually, via group chat or audio or web conferencing, so that people don’t have to leave their desks to participate. Just because 10 people are co-located and could easily march down to a conference room for a discussion doesn’t mean they should. The employees are already voting with their feet; management should figure out why, then give them the tools to successfully meet this way.

Implementing wikis for various business units and the company overall could also help cut down on the length of meetings, and make follow-up much more likely and productive. This is especially important for an organization like this one, in which team members of all ranks are given the power to quell ideas if they don’t like them. The best way to do that without risking stagnation is to help everyone get information, add input, and make decisions quickly.

Finally, we suggested the company install collaboration kiosks on all the floors of its new office, so that employees can get privacy for calls and meetings when they need it. Thanks to IP-based unified communications, it’s a simple matter for them to take their desktops (and phones, and IM) with them, meaning the move from bench to “office” doesn’t have to be disruptive, or negatively impact productivity.

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