Generation Mobile, Serendipity Corners, and the All-Wireless Edge

textingIs your network edge mostly wired, or has it shifted over to mostly wireless? If you think it is still the former, have another think: how many of the tablets and smartphones out there have Ethernet sockets? How many of your laptop users — especially the younger ones, fresh out of college — actually bother plugging into anything except a power socket?

At a recent event hosted for its Airheads user group by Aruba Networks, now the number two in enterprise Wi-Fi, chief executive Dominic Orr stated that the crossover has already happened. He says that 2015 will see the wired edge drop to just 20 percent of the total, and that 70 percent of IT professionals are under increasing pressure to deliver and support an all-wireless workplace.

He has a vested interest of course, and yet it ties in very well with what I hear from network managers — especially those in universities, where the next generation of technology users is getting ready to move out into the world of work. It probably ties in with your experiences too — who wants a desktop PC these days? In Europe at least they might still need a docking station plus a proper screen and keyboard for their desk, in order to meet health and safety regulations, but what they want is a laptop.

Chances are they will also want the ability to work via a smartphone or tablet — or quite possibly both. Even high school IT managers now specify their wireless networks on the basis of two or three devices per student, and some organizations are planning for more than that.

But if all you do is overlay high density wireless on your existing workspaces, that will not be enough. All this wireless mobility is also reflecting and enabling deep shifts in the way people work, where they work, how they collaborate, and even what they look for in a job.

According to Dominic Orr, this represents a generational shift akin to those that produced first Generation X and then the Millennials — although they can also be seen as a more up-to-date interpretation of the Millennials. He has labelled this shift Generation Mobile — along with the trendy hashtag #GenMobile — and sent researchers out to survey over 5000 people worldwide to find out what distinguishes Generation Mobile from its predecessors.

The report they produced (available online here) tells some interesting tales. GenMobile has a tendency for non-traditional work hours, it prefers flexible working to higher salaries, and it expects a reliable Internet connection, preferring Wi-Fi over 4G, 3G or wired connections. In addition, the research suggests that most members of GenMobile own three or more connected devices, and they feel most productive when working from home. However, while they rely on their mobile devices both at work and at home, they also still value downtime, when they can disconnect from being always available.

So, given that your organization has probably already recruited quite a few of these and will undoubtedly acquire more, what do you need to know — and more importantly, DO — about GenMobile? How are you going to get the best out of them and their new working patterns and preferences, and avoid getting the worst?

The first thing, clearly is an effective wireless edge network, which in turn means wireless that is integrated with the network and all its orchestration and policy enforcement, not merely an overlay. We are also talking about technologies such as 802.11ac, with its gigabit capability and more efficient use of airtime. And we had better understand and plan for the risks inherent in BYOD.

But we are also talking here about new office layouts and schemes, designed to improve productivity by supporting those new flexible working patterns. Why? Because it is increasingly clear that both home working and office working have their strengths, with each being better for some tasks than others.

Last year, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer pulled her teleworking employees back to the office. Once all the predictable hot air about ‘ignoring technology’ and ‘stepping backward’ had abated, some people started to look at the productivity issues more open-mindedly. They pulled in a Stanford study, for example, which showed that while some people work best at home, others work best in the office.

And they brought in things like Job Characteristic Theory which attempts to define which jobs or tasks will work best in which organizational settings. In particular, anything involving innovation and collaboration rather than workflow-driven productivity may suffer if the people involved all telework. There are also potential issues with loneliness, a blurring of the work/life boundaries, and with maintaining focus outside the office environment.

The reason I mentioned new office layouts above is that some of the most innovative organizations on the planet think they may have at least a part-solution to all this. It is something which offers that GenMobile flexibility and the ability to escape the distractions of the traditional office, yet without losing the undoubted advantages of having your people get together for at least part of the week, and it is the creation of notably different spaces within the office.

Architects of this new concept speak on the one hand of serendipity corners, frictionless open spaces, village halls and chance-encounter corridors, all designed to foster movement, interaction, and openness. On the other, they talk of digital crannies and private working rooms modeled on homes and pubs, all intended to foster concentration and productivity and give you somewhere private to go — other than home — when you really must meet that deadline.

In short, GenMobile is already in the workplace, and its needs and expectations are part of what is pushing us toward SDN, ubiquitous wireless, BYOD and more. But none of those technical innovations will reach its full potential if the physical working environment does not also evolve. In IT we talk a lot about architectures: let’s start taking that seriously.

Image credit: Jhaymesisviphotography (flickr) / CC-BY