Posted by: lrrp | November 9, 2004

Business Unplugged By Jyoti Thottam

With wi-fi, work will follow you anywhere you let it

What if you could work online from anywhere, inside your office or out? Check e-mail in the conference room, submit an expense report while waiting for a delayed flight, instant message from a coffee shop. With no more walls to demarcate your work space, would you be more productive, or just worn out?

That’s exactly what the employees at iAnywhere Solutions, a unit of Sybase headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario, are trying to figure out. About 18 months ago the company, which makes software for handheld devices, plunged headlong into the wireless world by turning its entire campus into a giant wi-fi hot spot. Employees—mostly in marketing and product development—with wi-fi-enabled laptops (about half the 250 full-time staff at headquarters) can access the Web at lightning speed from anywhere in the building, no wires necessary.

What’s so great about wi-fi that a company would reconfigure its entire computer infrastructure around it? For openers, it’s as fast as a high-speed T1 line, more convenient than a mobile phone, as addictive as a BlackBerry and nearly imperceptible. What’s not so great about it? Same thing. Wi-fi makes work that much easier to do and that much harder to escape. “We’re just adapting to this new environment, adapting to what the technology allows you to do,” says Martyn Mallick, a product manager at iAnywhere.

The company is one of a surprisingly small number of U.S. firms that have installed wi-fi networks. Fewer than 5% of U.S. workers use them today, according to an estimate by Gartner, a high-tech research firm. With IT budgets squeezed, few companies are rolling out new projects that don’t immediately add to the bottom line. But pioneers like iAnywhere are giving it a shot—and giving the rest of us a preview of what the wireless workplace is like.

So far, the biggest change has been felt in meetings, which used to be decidedly low-tech. Employees used to jot notes in black, spiral-bound paper notebooks and later transfer the most important information to their computers. Now they’re toting around laptops, and instead of just taking notes at meetings, Mallick and his colleagues are exchanging files, looking up stuff on the Web—a description of a competitor’s product, for instance—and consulting their calendars to choose a time for their next meeting. “Before, everyone would leave, and maybe 13 e-mails would go around,” Mallick says. By dealing with questions as they arise, staff members can move on “action items” as they pop up. “Sometimes I would come out of a meeting with a page or two of things to do,” says Milja Gillespie, a marketing manager at iAnywhere. “I can easily cut that in half.”

Mallick admits, however, that attending a meeting full of people communing with their laptops instead of one another can be strange. “Sometimes I find it distracting,” he says, “when I’m giving a presentation, and everyone’s typing away on their laptops. It’s a bit of a mind-set change, that people are actually working, that this is the new workplace.” It isn’t too hard to tell, though, when people are goofing off. “If they are looking up and paying attention to you and making eye contact, their body language tells a lot about whether they’re part of a meeting.”

At some companies, says Gartner wireless analyst Phillip Redman, the wi-fi distractions at meetings have got so bad that they use the “say the name twice” rule, because that’s often what it takes to get someone’s attention.

In a way, this is similar to the adjustment people went through with cell phones and BlackBerries: a period of intense use (and overuse) followed by a mellowing out as new ground rules emerge. Gillespie, for example, says she leaves her laptop on her desk when she and her colleagues are brainstorming. And Mallick says certain tasks require the focused concentration an old-fashioned desk provides. “I don’t find I can do software development in an airport,” he says.

And, to be sure, wi-fi doesn’t make sense for every employee. iAnywhere didn’t try to replace its wired network entirely, says CEO Terry Stepien. Some of its engineers need even more bandwidth than the fastest wi-fi networks can support, and the tech-support staff need desks with phone lines, so they don’t use wireless laptops. (Eventually, some of them will be able to work wirelessly, using an Internet phone system instead of a regular phone.)

Perhaps the true promise (or hazard) of wi-fi for business, says Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering, is its use as a “day extender”—as yet another way to bring work home. Fiering estimates that wi-fi raises the per-employee cost of a laptop by as much as 4% a year, about $325, depending largely on wi-fi access charges while traveling.

Some of that cost is justified by employees’ improved productivity on the road. “I’m no longer a bottleneck [when traveling],” Gillespie says. Mallick says he doesn’t even set his out-of-office message anymore for short trips. For well-paid knowledge workers, the cost of wi-fi is even more readily absorbed by the extra time they willingly spend on work at home. Because wi-fi makes it so easy to jump on the corporate network from your living room, more employees are working longer hours. Mallick, for instance, says that since he got wi-fi installed at home he works about 10 hours more every week—and that’s down from 15 when wi-fi first arrived. “I don’t find it that inconvenient to sit on my couch and pull out my laptop,” he says. That’s good for work, but how good is it for his home life? “It mostly comes down to willpower,” Mallick says. “There are times when I say, ‘Ugh, why am I doing this?'” While iAnywhere hasn’t clipped its wires entirely, that may be an option for smaller firms. Gartner’s Fiering says she expects significant growth in corporate wireless networks to come from small companies that use wi-fi to avoid altogether the expensive investment in cabling. That allows them to move offices quickly when they outgrow them or when their rent goes up.

Perhaps the most intriguing promise of the wireless workplace is that it could allow offices to be more like they used to be. All that wiring has been shaping the way offices look—in some buildings, for example, walls are built not to support the structure but to carry cabling. Next year iAnywhere will move into a brand-new space on the campus of the University of Waterloo that has been conceived with wi-fi in mind. Patrick Simmons, a partner in the firm designing the building, RHL Architects, says wi-fi removes constraints that have become second nature to architects. “You were kind of tethered to the system,” Simmons says. “[With wi-fi], you don’t have to have walls in a certain place, have dropped ceilings just to give you access to cabling. You don’t have to group people within certain distances of server rooms.”

Instead, Simmons says, “you can go back to how the company sees itself.” Sure, wi-fi lets you tear down the physical boundaries and work anywhere, but that’s not necessarily what everyone wants. It turns out that what many of iAnywhere’s employees really covet are conventional closed offices—walls and all.


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