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The revolution at work is here

Cisco Systems

Moveable furniture makes collaboration easier at Cisco Systems. The company is implementing measures such as this that are changing how and where people work.

The Internet bubble inflated during the late 1990s partly on the promise that technology would revolutionize how and where we work. More than a decade after the bubble popped, the workspace revolution is finally upon us, according to a technology company executive.

"As the world has progressed over the past 10 years, pretty much everything has gone towards an IP-based way of doing things," Rick Hutley, vice president of global innovation at San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems, told me in a wide-ranging interview Thursday.


IP stands for Internet protocol and is the way devices speak to each other on the Internet. Phones are IP based, video is IP based, we can even control our office lighting via IP. Futuristic workspaces, Hutley said, consolidate these mechanisms onto a single IP-based network.

The result is smaller, more efficient physical office buildings and a workforce that is able to work anywhere in the world, anytime they want as long as they have a gadget that's connected to data and software stored in the cloud.

"There's a degree of re-enacted hoopla," Hutley acknowledged as he talked about the workspace revolution, "but it is fundamentally changing now, there is no question."

Smarter real estate
One place the change is taking place is the Connected Workplace at Cisco, a concept that evolved from the realization that offices and cubicles were empty two-thirds of the time on any given workday.

Instead of a traditional office building that caters to a philosophy of work as a physical place people go, tack up photos of their kids and perform their assigned task during a 9 to 5 workday, these buildings have few assigned offices, Hutley said.

Open, common rooms are full of desks and chairs on wheels, conference rooms and individual offices line the periphery for use by whomever whenever they need it. All a worker needs is a tablet that serves as a phone, video screen and computer that connects to data and software stored in the cloud.

Cisco employees carry around the company's Cius tablet, though Hutley said the same principle works with other popular gadgets such as the Apple iPad.

"I don't need anything in a workspace per se other than connectivity and then the network gives me access to everything I need from there," he said.

The result of this transition, which has occurred for 10 percent of Cisco's workforce, is a 40 percent increase in workspace utilization. Essentially, more workers are able to use the same space, meaning the company has to spend less money on real estate, building office buildings and paying for their operation and maintenance.

Workers set free
The workspace revolution also caters to a fresh interpretation of what a workplace means. Hutley uses a definition as a place where people come together to collaborate, share information and build a community. Thanks to advances in technology, this can all now be done virtually.

In fact, he said, today's globalized workforce demands a functioning virtual workplace. At Cisco, this is facilitated with a software platform called Quad, which provides profiles on employees, the documents they are working on and the communities they are tapped into.

So, for example, a worker might recall that so and so was working on a document that they themselves want to access. They can't remember the document's name, but know the person. So they look up the person and find the document. Then they learn that document is connected to a handful of other documents that feed into several communities in the company working on a similar issue. In this sense, the person has gone from a person to information to communities.

Hutley said he's able to do all this without actually having to speak or exchange emails with anyone. And that's important, he said, in a company that has offices around the world.

This virtual office also means that workers can tap into this network of information from their own homes or a coffee shop – they don't have to physically commute to work in an office building.

"Those collaboration solutions are accruing in this past year a $1.4 billion net benefit to Cisco," Hutley said. Savings include $560 million in reduced travel costs and a further $150 million from telecommuting.

"Cisco is saving a great deal of money and we're very happy about that, but so are the employees because it fundamentally changes the work-life balance," he said. Internal studies show that telecommuting employees give Cisco back 60 percent of the time they save by not driving to work. They use the other 40 percent to bag a few extra zzzs or take a coffee break.

"Everyone wins," he said. "$1.4 billion to our bottom line and a better work-life balance for our employees."

What do you think? Is technology finally ushering in a revolution in how and where we work? Is this for the better? Feel free to weigh in with your comments and examples below.

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com.