Wi-fi hot-spots are popping up in coffee bars from Greenwich to Glasgow, and more and more homes have wireless internet. But what does the technology mean for the office?
The office of the future will be either like the Hilton or a satanic mill." That's the view of Steve Gale, an architect and MBA who investigated the impact of wireless technology for a report called Wireless Technology and Offices over the Next Five Years.
Whether you get the luxury hotel or the hellish sweatshop will depend on whether occupiers adopt wi-fi, aka wireless technology. Wi-fi allows you to transport your office around with you wherever you go, keeping in near-continuous communication with colleagues. It enables open, casual working environments, full of light and space. This kind of office, Gale is convinced, is going to attract the best and brightest people.
There will be other bonuses, such as saving on the cost of cabling (see "Cutting cables", overleaf). Developers could also benefit by eradicating the space wasted on raised floors and expensive fit-outs. Yet Gale could not find a single developer creating a wireless-centred building. "Investors are not interested in the future," he says. "They want what sells today."
Most fall back on the excuse that no matter how mobile the workforce, buildings still need power and therefore space for cables, says Jason Turner, design director for interiors at architect Swanke Hayden Connell. He, too, has not come across any developer building for wireless. "They won't change until occupiers force their hand," he says. "Tenants are the real driving force."
Simon Rawlinson, partner in cost consultant Davis Langdon, agrees that tenants are the key: because developing for wi-fi was more likely to increase tenants' fit-out costs than the price of the base building. "We don't believe there would need to be changes to the building fabric, but there may need to be enhancements to the screening from building services installations," he says. "Any impact on clients' fit-out costs may be offset by omissions in the costs of IT cable."
Tenants, however, also tend to be wary of change. Fears that wi-fi data can be intercepted are proving difficult to overcome, despite the fact that several big names have taken the plunge. Reuters deals in highly sensitive data, Allen & Overy is bound to protect legal information, while the patient records at University College London hospital are as secret as any national defence document - yet all three have adopted wi-fi.
Swanke Hayden Connell recently fitted wireless nodes in the ceilings of a Land Securities building in central London for 3i, which aims to gradually switch over from cables. A few more big names and developers may be forced to respond. More pressure could come from staff demanding the kind of wi-fi facilities increasing numbers have in their homes. "Concern for visitors is also making occupiers rethink," says Turner.
The demand has already spilled onto the streets. "Hot spots" for wireless connection have sprung up in pubs and coffee bars across major cities but these still leave vast blank areas. Canary Wharf decided to cover its whole estate by bringing in wireless specialist The Cloud to create the largest public access network in Europe last summer. George Polk, chief executive of The Cloud, says: "The Canary Wharf deployment offers public wireless internet access to 75,000 workers and thousands more visitors and will effectively turn public spaces into one large wi-fi zone. It will provide public access both indoors and out."
The Corporation of London will launch a similar system in the next few months and virtually all the Square Mile will be covered by the end of this summer. The network, also run by The Cloud, will be installed in street furniture including lamp-posts and street signs, allowing workers and visitors with wireless-enabled devices to access the net on streets and in open spaces.
Michael Snyder, chairman of the Corporation of London's policy committee, said: "This technology is vital to maintain our position as the world's leading financial centre. City workers and visitors will be able to use wireless broadband to work more efficiently; staying in touch with their office via hand-held devices while on the move."
The Cloud's open network concept means any service provider can be used for applications including high-speed internet access, email, music and video.
Other local authorities are following suit, sensing that wi-fi access could be a potent attraction for new businesses. But many would prefer to see a free service. A new system called WiMax is being developed with a range of up to 30 miles that could help fulfil their ambitions.
Although work is no longer confined to rooms, this does not mean the end of the office, merely a change to how those rooms are organised. Many staff may be using wi-fi to work from suburban front rooms, but they still need somewhere for face-to-face contact. This is no more than what is already happening within buildings, as desks are replaced by coffee tables and sofas. But make no mistake: the cappuccino society is hard at work.
Wireless Technology and Offices over the Next Five Years, commissioned by the British Council for Offices, is available from the website below.
Skyline May 2006
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