Posted by: Peter Quirk | August 16, 2008

On shared workplaces for workers at home

There’s a strong push in the IT industry to enable employees to work from home if it makes sense for both the employees and the employer. The pros and cons have been discussed in many places, so I won’t go over them here. Suffice it to say, EMC has embraced the concept for a while as a decision made between a manager and the employee. Recent increases in the price of energy and personal transportation, coupled with a new focus on sustainability, have moved the program into a higher gear.

One of the disadvantages of working from home is that the employee is seldom the beneficiary of a serendipitous visit by a colleague, a vendor or anyone else related to work. The work-at-home employee is invisible in the cafeteria, the hallways, around the vending machines, the ATM and the coffee stations. Moreover, the various “badges” we wear to communicate social connections and status such as the photos, posters, trophies and other indicators of our interests, successes and relationships are no longer visible to other employees. Even the car you drive or the clothes you wear to signify your practicality or aspirations become invisible. This loss of social connection works both ways of course.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was working on two virtual world projects for EMC’s Innovation Conference. One of them, focused on creating a sense of place and team membership for workers at home has been selected as finalist for the competition. Over the next two months I have to build out my proof of concept for a shared workspace for a small team that works from home. I’ll be looking very closely at my physical surroundings to understand how the paraphernalia in people’s offices and cubes helps to define them and create social glue for team members. The presence of a Red Sox poster invites a conversation after a notable game the previous day. Pictures of family members prompt team members to ask how they are and what they’re doing at the moment. Photos of motorcycles, cars, boats or holiday cabins generate conversation from people with similar interests. My colleague Candi’s brilliant paintings of baseball players is a starting point for a wide range of discussions about art, creativity, and work-life balance.

Of course these personal items communicate social information to more than the team itself. One of the people I’m working with is part of a team that supports a worldwide community of thousands. We’re planning to build out a virtual workplace for him and his team that sits in the middle of a much larger space, somewhat like a library, where the community can come for answers. These throngs of users, should they choose to get their support through the virtual world interface, will get to see aspects of the support team that they would normally never experience in the world of phone, email or IM-based support. It will be really interesting to see if they exhibit different behavior than the disembodied customers using the phone, IM or email.

We already have a strong social networking platform which enables people to discover others with shared interests in an asynchronous way. I’ll be looking for signs that the space is generating serendipitous encounters between users or between the support team and other EMC employees who wander in to have a look.

I’d love to hear from anyone who is working from home in a virtual world and has some suggestions on how to build effective shared workspaces.


  1. You are probably already thinking this, although you didn’t articulate it – I think it’s important to follow the lead of many of the commercial virtual worlds that give users both a personal space they have power over and can decorate to replicate the personal space of the apartment/teen’s bedroom/office/cubicle, and common and communal spaces, including formal spaces such as presentation, demonstration and discussion areas, and informal spaces like cafes and tiki bars that create opportunites for “water cooler” conversation.

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