Recently, I had a chance to visit the Aruba Networks headquarters in Santa Clara, California. Aruba is a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and provides wired and wireless network solutions that are only second in market share to Cisco in the wireless space. This wasn’t my first visit to the Aruba as I had attended an IT educational summit around a year ago when the campus first opened.

Aruba likes to brag about the fact that their campus is a completely wireless workplace, and on closer inspection, you would see that there are no Ethernet wall jacks to be seen throughout the entire building save for the engineering labs where products are tested. We were allowed into their IDFs, the place where switches connect the wired and wireless network, and sure enough, there were about ten percent of the cables one would expect in such an enormous facility. Employees at Aruba are also not assigned an office space or desk. They are free to choose where to work, whether that is in an isolated pod or among the communal congregation of open desk-space on each floor.

What I first noticed about this arrangement was that it seemed to facilitate collaboration in a natural way. Aruba utilizes Skype for Business as their unified communication platform, which allows their employees to message each other, make phone calls, video conference, and reserve meeting places for face-to-face sessions when needed. Although email is the traditional way for inner-office communication, unified communication provides real-time communication that can provide a substitute for face-to-face conversations and allows for messaging when others may be on a call. This allows for quick responses among team members that eliminates the sort of interruptions barging into someone’s office might bring. The infrastructural design at the Aruba headquarters is fine tuned to allow this communication to work without any hiccups. From what I saw, Aruba had perfected the concept of a mobile workplace, and with the amount of new and exciting products the company keeps bringing to market, I would say they’ve been relatively successful with this approach.

Witnessing this made me wonder how this open Silicon Valley practice might work in a university setting. First, there would certainly require a cultural shift to eliminate the insistence on everyone getting their own office or cubical. Despite this, I wondered if one could successfully work using wireless throughout my work campus. I was soon given the chance to test this out. Due to being overrun by insects in my own office, I was forced to work elsewhere for an entire day. My first inclination was to work from home, but after thinking about what I had observed at the Aruba headquarters, I thought I’d give the mobile workplace a try. I worked in one our STEM building lobbies for three hours and took a few calls with my isolated headset. Since it was a nice day, I moved outdoors to a wooded area that had power outlets and adequate wireless coverage. Finally, seeing as the day was getting warmer, I moved indoors to the coffee shop where there was air conditioning.

For the most part, I was able to take calls, participate in video conferencing, and continue fulfilling my network administrator role as if I were in my office. Like Aruba, my employer uses Skype for Business as its phone and unified communications platform so I was able to communicate with others as if I were at my desk. I did miss having my usual 4 monitors, but I was able to get the job done even if it required tabbing back and forth between applications on the small screen of my Microsoft Surface Pro. Despite the success of this day-long experiment, I wonder how well the experience would have been if school wasn’t out for summer. The wireless network typically sees around 2000-3500 simultaneous users at any given time during regular school sessions, but during the summer there are only around 500-700 devices. With that many concurrent users and devices, challenges such as interference, wireless capacity, and bandwidth all come into play when determining wireless quality of service. As I know many of the pain points of my employer’s wireless system, I would venture to guess that voice calls might not be so clear during regular school session.

I had a few employees try to come by my office and then message me asking where I was. Often, I get random visits to my office that interrupt the workday. Being physically removed from my desk actually meant that my coworkers had to either contact me via our messaging tools, or put in a request via our ticketing system or by email. I prefer these methods as it documents what the request is and requires others to think out requests before submitting. It’s not that I don’t like to help, but there are always a number of projects going on simultaneously and every interruption has a consequence to keeping things on schedule.

Here are just a few things a mobile workplace promotes:

  1. Saves the business money on wired cabling refreshes due to reliance on wireless.
  2. Promotes a culture of collaboration by creating communal areas for face-to-face sessions while communication tools allow for more efficient sharing of ideas.
  3. Breaks up the monopoly of office space dedicated to individuals to make more efficient use of space.
  4. Pods or small conference areas can provide a private place for meetings or a quiet area to autonomously.

So what does this mean in a classroom context? I believe that these improvements to the workplace can also translate to the classroom. With flexible seating classrooms can morph into what is needed for any given lesson. Pods can be used to distribute groups of students across the room where they can work and collaborate together. In the online or hybrid classroom, educational tools built for mobile use can make for more efficient communication among students and with instructors. Connections to outside resources can be made instantaneous and more meaningful collaboration outside of the classroom can take place. However, none of these changes can occur until classroom design moves away from the static rows we’ve become accustomed to for the past hundred and fifty years, much like the trend to move away from static workplaces is required before the mobile workplace can truly take form.

Challenges

First and foremost, an organization’s network must be up to snuff both on the wired backbone and in regards to wireless. Providing wireless capacity for the communication tools necessary for this change is the first hurdle. This involves adequate placement for coverage and proper consideration of capacity by choosing the proper equipment as well as isolating wireless coverage so that access points are not overwhelmed by an excessive amount of connecting devices.

Organizations must also decide on what communication tools they’ll utilize. If all employees use their own preferred tools instead of those mandated, adoption rates and knowledge on use will suffer. One tool usually won’t tick everyone’s boxes for functionality, but some effort should be made to narrow the amount of tools officially sponsored by the organization.

Conclusion

These were just some of the thoughts and musings that went on in my head this week. As a student of Educational Technology and an IT professional, I often try to make the connections between technology and professional practice and pedagogy. Sometimes the connections I make are nebulous or without substantive evidence. However, it does seem clear to me that as the digital revolution has transformed society it will soon permeate our office and classrooms and irrevocably change how we work and learn. As such, there will be a need to get the workplaces and classrooms of the twenty-first century up to snuff regarding wireless infrastructure before any changes to practice can be implemented.

Additional Information

Aruba – Smart Digital Workplace

What Will the Workplace of the Future Look Like?

Forbes – Workplace Trends You’ll See In 2018

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