Special Report: If You Build It, Will They Come?

Sept. 1, 2005
By Robert Nieminen
Internet Home Alliance pilot research on mobile workers finds well-designed remote work environments are a viable business proposition.

If you build a public work space specifically to meet the needs of mobile workers— workers who use a PC at least 15 percent of the time and have the freedom to work from home, the office or some 'third place'— will they come?

According to new research from Internet Home Alliance, a network of leading companies doing collaborative research to advance the connected home space, the answer is yes. In addition, the research found that a mobile work environment was a viable business proposition, increasing the revenue of retailers in the area, prompting the pilot participants to keep the Plano, TX, test site up and running indefinitely.

In April of last year, a group of Alliance members—Cisco Systems, Cushcraft, Herman Miller, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Panasonic and Taubman Centers— came together to test in the real world what past Alliance research had found to be the "ideal" work environment for mobile workers: a broadband connection; a highly secure Wi-Fi network; business services such as copying, printing and scanning; business and news programming broadcast on plasma screens; ergonomic furniture designed specifically for a mobile work style; collaborative work areas; and food and hospitality services.

The Alliance set up this ideal environment in a 2,400 square foot space in The Shops at Willow Bend, an upscale shopping center located in Plano, TX, a Dallas suburb home to several Fortune 500 companies. Dubbed "Connection Court," use of the space was open to the public from April through October 2004 and free of charge.

"We believed this was a service we could offer our customers to enhance their shopping experience, and the feedback has been absolutely positive. Willow Bend customers use Connection Court and appreciate the amenity," said David Goldberg, VP, Marketing and Sponsorship, Taubman, one of the nation's leading real estate developers and operators of regional shopping centers, which furnished the physical space, related infrastructure modifications, space staffing and coordination of hospitality services.

Taubman was so pleased with the findings and by the fact that area retailers reported increased sales that they have decided to keep Connection Court up and running in The Shops at Willow Bend.

Key Findings
Connection Court was a very popular destination for mobile workers with more than 1,400 average sessions per month. Users gave Connection Court rave reviews for being comfortable, conducive to individual and collaborative work and for offering the right vibe or atmosphere for being productive. About 80 percent said they would recommend it to someone they know; this is strong evidence that Connection Court fulfilled the ideal among this audience.

In addition, users praised Connection Court for being free; people thought free wireless access in the mall was a great idea and were impressed that Willow Bend had the foresight to develop the space.

Compared to other possible work settings such as coffee shops, copy shops or airports, Connection Court was preferred because of its professional look and feel and all-around superior comfort for working. The primary alternative to Connection Court is a coffee shop that offers Wi-Fi, however, users said they preferred the size of the desks and the peaceful atmosphere of Connection Court. The airy, but enclosed, mall setting allowed users to focus on their work and then recharge their batteries with some people watching and shopping. The overriding perception among users was that Connection Court welcomed and supported professional business activity. In comparison, users felt that coffee shops offering Wi-Fi can defeat productivity with music, chatting and poor seating.

"Generally speaking, a new product or service concept has merit if it meets three key criteria— it's demonstrably better than the alternatives, it's compatible with consumers' lifestyles and it solves a significant problem," said Nate Chandler, Director of Emergent Business Opportunities, Herman Miller, makers of office and home furniture, which contributed professional design services, furnishings and work environments research counsel. "Most users indicated Connection Court met all of these threshold requirements for success, particularly in terms of problem-solving capacity."

Profile Of Connection Court Users
Connection Court users were definitely mobile workers. Alliance-sponsored research from 2003 determined that, on average, the U.S. workforce spends about 75 percent of the work week in a standard office or business location. In contrast, Connection Court users spent about half their work week in an office/business location and the other half in other locations, such as home (30 percent of the time), other stationary locations like client offices or job sites (12 percent), and/or traveling.

Connection Court users were predominantly male (68 percent) and younger than the average U.S. population as a whole. The most common occupations among Connection Court users were sales, computer programming, executives/business owners and engineers. The self-employed accounted for one-third of Connection Court users. This figure is twice as high as the number of self-employed nationwide (14 percent).

Connection Court users were wireless access users. About two-thirds get wireless access at places like Starbucks, Borders and independent coffee shops either occasionally or frequently. Most visited Connection Court by themselves. Men were more likely to use Connection Court by themselves, while women were equally likely to visit with or without others.

Connection Court Activities
Was Connection Court for personal use or business use? Overall, activity was split evenly between personal and business tasks. Most women (73 percent) characterized their use as personal rather than business.

When asked to pick one primary reason for visiting the space, the most popular answer by far was to check and send email, cited by about half of users. Other activities such as Web surfing (15 percent called it the primary reason) and working on a PC (12 percent) were named much less often.

Considering all activities engaged in at the site, nearly everyone checked their email and looked at the Web. Onethird said they did work on a PC (something other than Web and email), and one-third had refreshments from the nearby coffee kiosk. Not many participants used Connection Court to meet with coworkers or clients (12 percent) or to print, scan or copy documents (14 percent), and just a few said they watched the business programming on the large screen monitors installed above the coffee kiosk. Even though users clearly fit the mobile worker profile, most took advantage of Connection Court for the wired or wireless Web access, and fewer took advantage of the other amenities such as meeting spaces or printer/ copier services.

"Today's mobile generation increasingly looks for access to real-time information and resources—a clear benefit offered by Connection Court," said Ann Sun, Senior Manager of Wireless/Mobility at Cisco Systems, the worldwide leader in networking for the Internet, which provided network access, including the Wi-Fi implementation, configuration and integration services.

Among the other Alliance members that contributed products and/or services to the pilot were Cushcraft, makers of advanced antenna solutions, which supplied antenna equipment and integration consulting services; Hewlett-Packard, which supplied wireless printers; and Microsoft, which contributed Microsoft Office software that aids in team networking from remote locations.

For more information about these and other research
findings from Internet Home Alliance, please visit www.internethome alliance.com.

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