The fall from grace of the cubicle is well documented as workspaces embrace open plan designs to facilitate collaboration and innovation. As such, the breakout area has become a staple of the modern workplace, but what technology do such spaces need?
It all depends on the nature of your business and your space. For example, coworking operator Huckletree dedicated 40% of its latest MediaWorks site in West London’s White City area to breakouts.
Gabriela Hersham, CEO and founder of Huckletree, explained this decision: “The MediaWorks site was originally completely open-plan, which meant we were able to take it to the next level in terms of our design.
“We were slightly limited at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch by the pre-existing building features, whereas Huckletree West was essentially a blank canvas. By having no (major) limitations in the space, we were free to construct a meditation yurt and no-tech willow hut in one working zone, plus a standalone sunken seating area (pictured, top) looking out onto our extensive urban garden.”
The decision to strip the space back was a conscious one, as Hersham explained: “We actively don’t use tech in our breakout spaces. We consider our breakout areas as essential space for our members to get out from behind their screens and spend time face-to-face.
“We could bring tech into it but sometimes the best way to encourage collaboration is to strip everything back and provide a comfortable space that’s visually inspiring, but also takes a backseat to the creative minds at work.”
BE Offices, on the other hand, is building a range of new breakout spaces with a focus on technology. These areas, known as “pro-working spaces”, come with enterprise wifi supported by 10GB internet connectivity, interactive Bluetooth iPad coffee machines from TopBrewer, and digital signage.
BE Offices wants its breakout areas to provide its community with a relaxed space for less formal meetings. Graham Hefferman, IT and communications director at BE Offices, said: “We are driven purely by the needs and demands of our clients. Wireless technology is, of course, a given but we are constantly seeking out and investing in new technology that will enhance the client experience.”
In its soon-to-be launched pro-working lounge at its Minories business centre, BE Offices has just signed up to install an office phone booth called a Framery O booth from Framery Acoustics. “Popular with Amazon and Google, we are the first serviced office company to provide such a facility for our clients, allowing them a quiet, private space for important calls or video conferences,” Hefferman added.
These tech-savvy spaces are available at its Cheapside, Threadneedle Street, Reading and Minories business centres, as well as BE Offices’ Barbican head office, with plans to roll out to other centres over the coming months.
What technology does your space need?
A solid wifi connection is a must for any breakout area (that wants to bring screens into its space). But you need to consider what technologies your workers need and use to get the job done.
Tony Freeth, principal at Medusabusiness, said: “The basic principle, which we build into any hybrid workspace with a collaboration area, is that people have to be able to carry on with their work.”
For example, if you move to a different location (whether that’s a different spot in an office or an entirely different office), your laptop should automatically connect to the wifi network. Or if you move to a different meeting room, you should be able to start work without wrestling with a tangle of cables and HDMI ports.
In other words, technology must be seamless to bring true collaboration to the workplace and its breakout areas. “If you can achieve that, then it energises the entire workspace,” Freeth added.
But the concept of accessible yet secure wifi brings challenges to operators, depending on the type of office occupant. If you are a guest or a member in an office space you need to be able to verify that person’s identity. While a member’s device could be stored and identified to automate wifi access, a guest’s device cannot, for example.
“The key component is not the technology, but the linking of a person’s identity with their device. That’s the real challenge,” Freeth added.
One of the main issues is that users do not rely on one device. Look around your desk. There’s probably a laptop, smartphone, desktop computer, tablet, etc. Until relatively recently, cross-device identification meant linking all of your devices. But with the advent of the Internet of Things and its ability to automate connectivity across multiple devices, the concept of cross-device identification could include anything that gives off a signal.
“5G will be a key enabler as we cannot recable entire buildings for the IoT. The winners will be the people that bring access points to office spaces,” Freeth added.
Such IoT-based identity automation is a nascent concept and other solutions are starting to appear to facilitate collaboration. Cisco’s Spark collaboration product portfolio, for example, has a range of tools including a touchscreen board where you can showcase your work across devices. The board promises to replace your conference rooms’ presentation and video screens, phones, whiteboards, cameras, microphones… and all of those cables. And you can easily screen grab a presentation onto your device and move to a breakout area to further discuss your ideas.
Truly breaking out
The Serendipity Machine takes things one step further. This technology takes your identity and links it to your device and to your coworkers in a quite extraordinary manner using an AI-based algorithm.
Using the Serendipity app, you create an account and describe your skills and interests. The app will then match you to relevant people based on what you are working on today. It’s the ultimate icebreaker, and allows you to search for the skills you may need to source for a particular job or project.
Lenneke van Rossum, international relations manager at the Serendipity Machine, explained: “Nowadays, we rely more and more on powerful and (above all) inspirational encounters at our workspace. These encounters help us to create new collaborations and a sustainable value network.”
The system is also a pretty useful check-in tool too, which can further enhance collaboration, as Van Rossum explained: “Visitors present themselves (who they are, how long they are staying, what their expertise is and which subject or project they are working on) as part of the seat booking process, or when they check-in upon arrival. The algorithm makes an analysis of the data and starts matching the booker or visitor to others. If people want to initiate such a meeting (using the app) they can invite others for a cup of coffee or just start a chat-conversation.”
As such, this technology could be very impactful for shared office breakout areas as it fosters increased collaboration. Serendipity also comes with a messaging tool so you can chat with or interview a person without a face-to-face meeting. “The algorithm is offering relevant connections between people, people who don’t know each other,” Van Rossum added.
It’s an interesting concept that addresses the balance between worker identification and collaboration that many workspaces want to achieve in their breakout areas.
Because the times are changing and it soon will not be enough to just provide your workers with a good wifi (or mobile data) connection in a breakout area. You will need to provide them with technologies to allow them to connect and work before, during, and after they step into the breakout space.