by Ken DeMaria
Professionals in the Information Technology (IT) sector are typically charged with developing and maintaining an IT infrastructure for standard corporate offices. But the IT systems required by coworking spaces can be pretty different. In building out the IT infrastructure for ATLAS Workbase, we had to develop our own approach, one that may be useful for other coworking spaces and shared workplaces.
Flexibility is key
The guiding principle of a coworking-centric approach to Information Technology is flexibility. From an IT standpoint, we need varied and flexible solutions that accommodate the diversity of a coworking customer base. While one member may only need a good WIFI connection, another might need higher levels of security and inter-connectivity within its team of workers; another may need teleconferencing, and still another may just need help downloading a new app. The coworking context has unique implications for IT infrastructure, network security, inter-office communication, IT staff hiring, and training and education of coworking members.
Here are some key things to consider when creating a coworking-centric approach to Information Technology.
A responsive approach
The IT team in traditional workplace is often the one driving technology standards that company employees have to adopt. That approach is somewhat reversed in the coworking context, as it’s the members and their needs that drive what IT must provide.
The IT team at a coworking space can’t create standards that suggest everyone in the space use a MacBook, for example. Coworking spaces can’t force uniformity, which means IT needs to anticipate working with a wide range of users and technologies. Moreover, in a coworking space, you can pretty much guarantee that clients will bring their own devices (BYOD). The job of IT is to set these people up for success regardless of the technology they bring to the table.
A flexible infrastructure
A flexible infrastructure should accommodate the varying needs of teams and anticipate changes that may come in the future.
Paramount to this is the ability to quickly create and deploy new WiFi networks and secure network segments on a per-customer basis. This will allow users to have many of the same network features they would have in an on-premise enterprise network while still enjoying the general flexibility that coworking offers.
A coworking space needs to create multiple networks with varying levels of security and segregate their users based on what they require. Installing threat detection systems and keeping them maintained is key. As networks grow, new systems must be put into place that inform users of known issues and protect them from those threats in the first place.
Likewise, in the specific case of bring-your-own-device, the first challenge is to ensure BYOD devices are not bringing malware into the space. So first and foremost IT staff must educate members about what security means and train them on safe security via seminars, in-person/one-on-one training, and comprehensive resources like FAQs.
Communication that fits the coworking model
With increased flexibility and responsiveness comes an increased need for IT staff to communicate and interact with coworking members. But the old stereotype of the IT guy who never comes out of his back office isn’t going to cut it. More than anything, coworking spaces excel in front-of-house service, and IT needs to match that every time they interact with members.
Whereas a corporate IT team would likely communicate with the rest of the company via email, the gold standard at a coworking space is friendly face-to-face communication. The best way to integrate this into your IT team is by selecting for it up front when hiring. This might require a recalibration how potential candidates are evaluated.
On our team, customer service is the most important element in our hiring process. We need strong, technical people on the back end that can provision networks and work on detailed infrastructure problems, but we also know that the technical team will spend a majority of time teaching people how to help themselves. That is a relational skill and it’s best to seek candidates who have it, and train them on the knowledge component if need be.
When hiring for customer service skills, some clear traits to look for are responsiveness and empathy. The prospective employee’s responsiveness in the hiring process provides a good indication of how they’ll respond to clients. Their ability to get into the other person’s shoes will allow them to navigate problems in a way that alleviates the client’s stress rather than adding to their frustration.
The right IT team will ensure an effective balance of both education and security. This can be as simple as having different WiFi networks with differing levels of firewalled security, or as complex as having a dedicated centralized Threat Detection System, but regardless it will include holding classes or trainings for coworking staff and members.
Specialize in what’s important
A coworking workspace resembles a typical corporate workspace, but it does not need all the file servers, email servers, and backend IT infrastructure of a traditional office. From an IT standpoint, this simplifies things. Our IT team is free to focus on being an internet service provider and a technical customer service provider.
High quality, high speed, high bandwidth networking is hugely critical for coworking spaces. At ATLAS, we purchased access points which support 802.11 AC Wave2, which most laptops do not yet even support. Even still, we ensured that those access points would be easily replaceable with whatever is the next latest standard for networking.
As for coworking management software, focus on that which yields the best customer experience. The infrastructure and management software for coworking spaces is still very nascent. Be careful to choose simplicity over complexity at this point in time.
Bringing it all together
Bringing it all together, the end goal is an exceptional customer experience that goes beyond just Information Technology. The vision is to offer a palette of seamless services, so any user has the ability to move from phone to laptop to conference room, and any company can scale up as needed. This approach facilitates the ways in which we work together and seeks to integrate IT into the essential fabric of what a coworking space is and what it can be.