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."