Don’t forget the virtual environment for greater business collaboration

(c)iStock.com/Maxiphoto

As I’m writing this, I’m looking over at the foosball table that resides in the corner of the Dropbox office. It’s a hub of activity as two of my colleagues battle it out while they take a break from a planning session. There’s also a group of people huddled together on beanbags and sofas, armed with coloured markers and clearly intent on solving a challenge.

The atmosphere is informal but productive, and the reason they are able to work in this non-traditional format is because I think it’s important to create a physical working environment that helps people to feel and perform their best while at work.

By no means is this non-traditional approach to office space unique to me or to Dropbox. Today, companies all over the world spend millions of pounds ensuring the office environment gets the most out of their employees. Interesting spaces, furniture and facilities are used to encourage more productivity, creativity and better team relationships.

Employees are too often inhibited by clunky email attachments, messy tracked changes and awkward conference calls

While these unusual and dynamic working spaces have previously been the domain of tech companies in Silicon Valley, today we’re seeing companies across every sector transform the traditional office into cutting-edge working spaces. The BBC’s MediaCity, for example, has everything from "collaboration pods" to security guards on Segway scooters and giant neon and metal "thought wheels".

But while there is lots of research around the importance of the physical space we work in, what is often overlooked is the need to also create the best virtual environment to help employees thrive. This is especially surprising, knowing that the way people work together today is increasingly complicated.

Gone are the days when people work in silos at their work stations or with a small team in their immediate vicinity. Today’s employees are working across international borders and time zones and with a wide range of partners, customers, freelancers and colleagues. Technology is redefining the way we work. According to Cisco, ten years from now seven billion people will be online, using 50 billion connected devices. Online collaboration is here to stay.

The scale of this change means businesses are facing a new and immense challenge – how to foster the same creativity and productivity that can be generated in the physical environment, online. In my experience this is an area where businesses often fall down; too focused on the functional – how things can be done faster and cheaper – rather than providing the tools that create the best possible virtual environment for employees.

As a result, many businesses have been slow to adopt collaboration online. Employees are inhibited by clunky email attachments, messy tracked changes in documents and awkward conference calls. By contrast a good virtual working environment give employees:

  • The comfort of knowing you’ll have access to all your documents whether you’re at a meeting or on a business trip
  • The ability to work as a team on a document, contributing and editing in real time, with freelancers, partners, contractors and colleagues in different locations
  • The ability to share folders with people around the world and receive content they produce instantly, even across multiple time zones

While this opportunity to have more productive and creative employees is largely being missed by many British businesses, there are some companies reaping the reward of online collaboration. One organisation, Pipers Design, is using cloud technology to change the face of London.

By embracing the virtual environment and investing in it as equal and complementary to a physical office, businesses can really thrive

As part of the regeneration of Kings Cross, Pipers has built a huge interactive model of the new station district. These kind of designs, previously made out of wood and glue, now need to be interactive and able to change as the designs develop. That’s where cloud comes in – it’s helping the team coordinate thousands of tiny, detailed design changes from collaborators across international time zones. Their staff and partners are able to be highly creative, safe in the knowledge that all information is secure, changes will be tracked and recorded and everyone can be involved even when they’re on the move. These guys are world leaders in their field, visionaries in the best way to get work done.

Pipers is just one example of how creating a virtual environment conducive to collaboration can help employees and businesses excel. But it is an example that I think other sectors should learn from. By embracing the virtual environment and investing in it as equal and complementary to a physical office space businesses can really thrive.

I’m looking forward to the day when innovative online collaboration is as commonplace as beanbags and foosball tables.

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