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Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Power of Collaboration

Citizen Space bills itself as ‘a nice place to work in San Francisco’ – and for many of the people who take advantage of its central location, it’s also a free place to work. Espousing the principle of ‘co-working’ – where self-employed people come together to exchange ideas and enjoy the community aspects of a traditional office – it’s one example of a new approach to working practices that’s gaining ground in the US and to a lesser extent, around the world. For some businesses, it holds out the promise of cracking one of the toughest challenges of workplace management – balancing the upsides of remote working, including employment flexibility and cost control, with the social and creative benefits that come when people get together and interact.

Remote working has become much more of a viable option for businesses over the last few years. In part that’s down to improvements in broadband connectivity and wireless coverage, which keep people connected whether they’re at home, at an airport or in a coffee shop. In part, too, it’s down to the plethora of web-based collaborative tools that have emerged under the banner of Web 2.0. It’s now possible to run your company with a combination of traditional PC software and shared applications accessed over the web, avoiding all the hassles that come with running and maintaining office servers.

Webster Buchanan Research does just that, connecting employees, contractors, partners and even clients together from their homes or offices around Europe, the US and Hong Kong. We collaborate on research documents, media plans and sales forecasts using Google Docs and Spreadsheets, a ‘hosted service’ that’s run on Google servers and available over the Internet to anyone we give access to. We store documents and manage projects with a hosted application from Huddle, a UK-based company that’s participated in the g2i programme (see Huddle case study). We use web-based email systems, and we’ve experimented with hosted customer management systems to track sales and marketing activities. We’re hoping to persuade at least one of our accountants to convert to hosted services as their favourite software packages are converted to the web. We even use an outsourced receptionist service in the UK, Moneypenny, which takes calls via a London number and reroutes them around the world.

In Silicon Valley, where vast numbers of technology entrepreneurs are looking to take advantage of Web 2.0 as a business opportunity, this kind of approach raises few eyebrows. While the first dot com boom was all about flash office space and indescribable wealth, the second mini-boom is a much more measured affair. Home-working is de rigeur - angel investors and VCs are much happier to see their funds spent on product development or sales and marketing than sunk into office rent, and many customers also buy into the argument that they’re getting a better deal if the bills they pay go towards knowledge, skills, services and products rather than fixed overhead.

With every new initiative, however, there are always downsides, and remote working has plenty of its own. Professor Timothy Golden, from the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently published research in ‘Human Relations’ ( showing that the greater the percentage of telecommuters in a workgroup, the less satisfied their office-bound colleagues were. Golden explained to the Wall Street Journal ( that this was partly because people miss the social interactions with their remote peers, and partly because of the greater logistical challenges of getting hold of people who are out of the office.

For remote workers, meanwhile, life can get lonely. It’s not just the idle chatter that people miss over coffee – it’s the chance to vent when sales calls go badly, bounce ideas around, find things out and benefit from the general buzz that comes from impromptu conversations.

That’s what Citizen Space and other similar organizations are setting out to change, creating a space that combines office with coffee shop. Regular visitors can pay $350 a month to rent a desk – but if you’re just looking for space on a casual basis, you can simply drop in and use the facilities for free. The venture is built around the core principles of collaboration – working with people to share skills and knowledge – community and openness. “In a world where people are free, but ideas are not, only a few benefit,” says its website. “When ideas are free, everyone benefits. Therefore, we encourage open spaces and discussions. Sorry, no NDAs allowed.”

This kind of service is likely to become increasingly common as more entrepreneurs look to encourage home and remote working, particularly as the potential business benefits become clearer. Cost is a big driver in a tightening economy – the fewer people you have in a traditional office set-up at any one time, the less desks and floor space you need. But letting employees work remotely also allows you to tap into non-traditional talent pools, hiring people whose family or other commitments make daily commuting an unviable option. If you encourage these employees to seek out coworking set-ups, you’ll help to provide some of the social and creative infrastructure they miss out on when they work from home – and if the collaboration with strangers really works, you may even be able to tap into valuable knowledge sources without paying a penny.

By Keith Rodgers, Webster Buchanan Research