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November 23, 2007 » 10:39 pm

Cisco’s Workplace of the Future

I’m a big fan of Cisco Systems. Sure, they’re a $200 billion behemoth. But they don’t act like it (not in an anti-competitive way, at least). They make quality products, they acquire great companies for good reasons, and they seem to generally care about bootstrapping and collaboration. My colleagues at MGTaylor and the Value Web have done quite a bit of work with Cisco and John Chambers, and they’ve only said good things about them. Cisco also used to have an internal research group focused on collaboration that was doing great work, although I don’t know if it still exists.    (MPX)

A good friend of mine works there and had been promising me a tour of its “workplace of the future” for quite some time. A few years ago, Cisco designated one floor in Buildings 11 and 14 as experimental spaces, designed to be a more collaborative environment in today’s network world. My friend had spoken glowingly of portable workspaces, movable walls, and open space, and I was excited to see it for myself.    (MPY)

This past Monday, on my way down to Southern California for the holidays, I stopped at Cisco for my promised tour. As we walked over to Building 14, my friend told me that employees who worked there had complained about the space, particularly the lack of private space to get work done and a “home base” they could call their own.    (MPZ)

I got my first experience of the “workplace of the future” in the lobby, where a virtual receptionist badged me. The space was like any receptionist area, except there was no receptionist. On the desk, there was a badge machine, and behind the desk, there was a large LCD screen with a camera. We pressed the button, and a person appeared on the screen. My friend identified herself, explained who I was, and out popped a badge. It was cute, but gimmicky. I’d be curious to know how much money they save (if any) by doing this.    (MQ0)

Then, the coup de grace: the space itself. The first thing I noticed was the eating area, an enclosed circle at the center of the space. “A Watering Hole, positioned nicely,” I thought. Next, I noticed rows and rows of lockers.    (MQ1)

Then I noticed the cubicles. Rows and rows of cubicles. “When do we get to see the space?” I asked my friend. Then I saw the look of shock on her face, and I realized that we were looking at it. Cisco had given up. They had listened to the complaints and had replaced their experimental space with cubicles.    (MQ2)

My friend felt really bad, but I wasn’t disappointed, not by the tour at least. (Not that I passed on the opportunity to poke fun at her and Cisco. “So this is the workplace of the future?” I asked. “Looks an awful like the past to me.”) There were some great lessons to draw from the experience.    (MQ3)

First, designing effective spaces is hard. It’s one thing to design an effective collaborative space; it’s another to design an effective work space for lots of people. You have to account for the Intimacy Gradient, and if there’s cultural change involved, you have to decide whether the cultural shift is actually desirable.    (MQ4)

Second, good companies aren’t perfect. I need to find out why exactly they changed the space, but the fact that they reverted to cubicles disappointed me greatly. It’s one thing to make a mistake; it’s another thing to give up entirely. If any of you know the story behind these spaces, I’d love to hear it.    (MQ5)

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