Jenkins Steel is a curious member of Firstlight PR. He’s short, at just 4ft 7ins. He’s seriously skinny and terrible with stairs. Jenkins is, in fact, a robot made of an iPad attached to a two-wheeled, self-balancing Segway vehicle.
Firstlight employees can control Jenkins through an online system, using the camera in the iPad to navigate. A two-way feed means Jenkins can be driven to find fellow employees and facilitate a “face-to-face chat”.
Bristol-based Sabrina Lee, an account director, uses Jenkins every day to talk to her London colleagues. She says: “I find that people respond differently to communicating via Jenkins versus the phone or Skype. Perhaps it’s because it feels more natural as the robot moves around the office and isn’t merely a face on a wall.
“It’s much easier to collaborate with the team in meetings and brainstorms as you can feel the energy from the room – so I’m more integrated and impossible to ignore.”
Pat Pearson, managing director of Firstlight, says: “There was no way I was going to lose such a valuable member of the team just because they were no longer able to commute. Sabrina is as much a part of office life as anyone else thanks to Jenkins – it’s absolutely worth the investment to have that real connection between colleagues”.
Bonkers? Maybe. But Jenkins is a sign of the hunger in companies for ever-closer collaboration.
Meeting that demand is big business. There is an abundance of collaboration tools. For document-sharing there’s Dropbox, Box, Egnyte, Google Drive and Microsoft One Drive.
For sharing messages Slack, Yammer, Salesforce Chatter and Huddle are mainstream tools. Slack is so popular an article in tech journal The Verge accused it of killing e-mail.
And what of the new tools?
Quip is worth a look, if only because of the people behind it. Bret Taylor was the chief technology officer of Facebook, forever famed as the man who invented the “like” button. His co-director is Google App Engine founder Kevin Gibbs. These guys could go to the cinema and investors would get excited.
In Quip, the duo has created a rival to Google Docs. It allows multiple users to work on the same files online – spreadsheets, word documents and to-do lists. Quip has got one over on its rival by offering an offline work-mode too. When the user goes back online the changes are instantly updated to the master version. Quip is the new kid on the block, but can cite CNN, Al Jazeera and Facebook as users.
Here’s another new product launched by a star name. Remember the film Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise? It was a sci-fi thriller. Cruise scanned through video and photos by swishing his hands around. Frankly, the interface was more memorable than the film. The inventor of that interface was MIT Media Lab’s John Underkoffler. Now he has created a comprehensive collaboration tool for enterprises called Mezzanine. It’s a collaboration tool with a big nod to his most famous creation.
Mezzanine uses HD screens and cameras to pimp your meeting room. You get banks of HD screens, combined with cameras – fancy video-conferencing rather like Cisco TelePresence. Then Mezzanine adds in voice, image and data-sharing across almost any device. Participants can display presentations on a screen, move it to another screen, then bring in video-conference footage from a team in another part of the world. The way different video streams can be summoned and dragged around is like a more practical version of the interface used by Cruise. Ad agency Dentsu Aegis Network is an enthusiastic user.
One of the merits of collaboration is that it keeps employees happy. No one likes working on their own for too long. WorkAngel takes this to a new level. It’s a social network for business, with praise hard-wired in. Employees can chat and work on projects together though WorkAngel. The real unique selling point is the ability to give a “virtual pat on the back” to colleagues. This recognition for good work translates to points and prizes. There are discounts for retailers such as Apple, Groupon, Marks & Spencer and 6,000 UK restaurants. Points can be tailored for each company, so they reflect corporate values.
Eccentric? Well, Tesco, Capita and payroll provider Ceridian use WorkAngel. Doug Sawers, managing director of Ceridian UK and Ireland, says: “While technology has provided a plethora of solutions for most aspects of business, to date very few have directly addressed the costly problems of staff retention and productivity. What WorkAngel is doing is incredibly innovative, and we’re very pleased to be able to use it within our own company and offer it to all our customers.”
Fleep is a new rival to Slack as an e-mail alternative. It’s produced in Estonia by some former Skypers. It claims to have an advantage over rivals – the ability to message people outside the organisation, who may not have the platform installed, and include them in the Fleep chat. Subjects are grouped by person, not topic, which is unusual.
With such a wide range of tools and services, what should you use? Here’s a bit of advice from outsourcing company Genpact. Gianni Giacomelli, head of the Genpact Research Institute, says: “The starting point to understanding and improving collaboration is establishing how teams communicate and collaborate. One method to do this is to use network analytics to decode hidden communication signals between people and larger groups within and outside the organisation. For example, it is possible to analyse the exchange of e-mails rather than the content of what is being written. We ran an analysis of our own employees and on average our employees receive 40 e-mails a day, an annual increase of 15 per cent.”
Mr Giacomelli says this data will tell you which teams are talking and the ones that ought to be working more closely together. The human element is so often overlooked. Software and hardware can bring teams together – and it can give them futuristic interfaces to play with. But working together well isn’t something you can buy off the shelf.