Embrace the cloud employee and the office hub

The cloud employee

The analogy I’d use is that of cloud computing. The remote worker is to the company what cloud computing is to the desktop.

On a desktop you have complete control over your files; everything is regimentally organised, you know exactly which folder you put the files in, you’re the only one using them and so you know no one else can edit them, although many files haven’t been touched for years and you’ve probably forgotten they are there. Crucially, use and utility of these files are completely dependent on you being in the same place as your computer, and your computer being in good working order.

The cloud, however, allows for the use and utility of your files to be resistant to changes in your location and resistant to desktop break downs. The cloud also allows more than one person to use a given file, eliminating the constraint imposed by the desktop’s design as a one-person machine. Cloud computing shifts the focus from the hardware to the actual file.

Applying this to the office environment, the current desktop model sees office space regimentally organised with each employee assigned their desk, and left there. They are for the use of their department, in some cases for the sole use of their boss. Many haven’t seen any significant change in their environment (role, desk, colleagues) in some years. Crucially, their utility to the company is seen to be largely dependent on the amount of time spent in the office.

The cloud model would see the office as the cloud; the hub of business activities where people come to share use of the same information and resources. Employees are not neatly stored in a regimentally organised seating plan and anchored by cables and telephone lines. Rather, the office space is available to multiple users at once, who can all use the various resources, locations and equipment in working order available in the office (that is, the cloud) to complete the tasks at hand. 

The boss doesn’t have sole control over the employee, instead having responsibility solely for the outcome of his projects/function. This allows the boss to collaborate with other employees who are not “under his command”, but who have the skills necessary to achieve the project’s/function’s objectives, just as it allows other bosses looking for specific skills to approach employees working largely with one project/function manager; employees don’t get left untouched for years having been forgotten by their sole user, as they can approach other users to offer input.

The new project manager

You may well comment that we already have project/function managers. I would counter that these project managers often get given the team or resources with which they are to work with. The cloud model would flip that, seeing those project managers themselves go looking for what they determine as the best available resources and people for the project. I use the term “available” as the most productive 20 per cent, famously accounting for 80 per cent of the output, will presumably not be waiting around for someone to approach them. They’ll already be busy. However, ensuring that the remaining employees are sufficiently capable is a challenge we’ll assume HR will have met and be meeting.

But even if there are current examples of project managers who have the freedom to determine how to use what resources, the point here is that the cloud model of the office shifts the focus from the amount of time spent in the office to the quality of the employee and his output or utility to the project/function. The “file”.

The cloud model would see the office as a hub that can be connected to and utilised as a resource pool to draw upon when needed, rather than an anchor to which resources, employees included, need to be tethered.

We’re heading to the cloud

I don’t see the cloud model taking off just yet. There are still problems to be addressed, with security and keeping data within the organisation being two that spring to mind. However, with mobile phones, Wi-Fi, 4G connectivity, ever smaller and lighter laptops, tablets and smart phones, chat and video calling software and of course, cloud computing, the technologies already exist to allow business to anchor employees a little less tightly to the office and to their desks.

And there could be considerable benefits: reduced office cost through a downsized hub to accommodate average use on demand, rather than an office to house all staff at all times; a wider potential employee pool if geographical limitations are no longer relevant (the files become the focus); wider knowledge pool (if employees believe they can collaborate across the whole organisation, not just in their department or team).

In fact, given the role technology can play in enabling the more flexible, productive cloud employee around a core hub, it does seem odd to me that Yahoo!, a once pioneering technology company, has taken the regressive step of anchoring employees to it’s office.

Matthew Maxwell is currently working in brand and reputation consultancy with Reputation Institute in Madrid, though he regularly returns to the UK to fulfil his duties as a member of the board of trustees for the West Sussex Mediation Service (charity).

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