• Written by Mark Charmer
    18 September 2013

I’ve been talking this week with people about the way we wire up our Akvo offices. Thomas is especially keen that we really nail this – internet connectivity at each Akvo hub should be outstanding – no wifi glitches or speed issues. And we should be able to maintain very good quality conversations with colleagues around the world, with the ability to interact, record and publish key things we choose to.

People should walk into any Akvo hub around the world and experience high quality communication technology infrastructure. They should think, “Wow, these guys really get this stuff.” But right now walk into our East Africa hub and there’s no sense that this is the same organisation as the one in Amsterdam, or Washington DC, or London. I’m not singling anywhere out (Luuk!) – it’s the same issue everywhere right now.

Photo above: Since May I’ve been experimenting with featuring Akvo.tv content in the Amsterdam office area, where people arrive. Kathelyne found a nice “headset” that looks like an old phone receiver and we have it linked to a Mac Mini that I switch on each morning and point to one of our video playlists. A lot of the best content comes from our East Africa team, as here.

Last night Adrian Collier and I concluded that as communications director, perhaps I should also take responsibility for designing, speccing and refining communications infrastructure – so computer systems, screens, mikes, recording equipment, that relate to how we communicate internally. Basically communications hardware. This isn’t the same as running “IT” (servers, laptops, etc), and I’m certainly not getting involved in running email servers. It’s just the built-in systems around the offices, that make it really easy to interact well with colleagues in other places around the world.

We have a really interesting and flexible working environment here in the AmLab, the former West Indische Pakhuis, especially considering it was built in 1642 (yes, you read that right). When our new upstairs office space was fitted out at the beginning of this year, we put in lots of white boards, which are great – this was a previous Thomas requirement (tick!). Software developers need white boards – don’t argue with this. However, we’ve not really got the video link thing working as well as it could do. I mean it’s okay, but it could be a lot better. And there’s lots of opportunities to experiment, and use the office space in interesting ways (I’ll be forever grateful for the designer Julian paying attention to my “Going to work” blog from July 2011, where I wrote about my ideas on progressive use of office space (this place is the closest I’ve ever had to that vision).

One of the things I’ve realised since I started working from the Amsterdam HQ early this summer is that most people don’t really know how to get the best out of modern computers in creative working environments. We’re so conditioned to gather at meeting tables but we don’t really know where to place the people who are connecting in from, say, Delhi and Washington DC. This isn’t surprising. IT is in the middle of a gigantic revolution away from desks, but offices are still organised around desks.

Here are some things I’d like to see, in each location:

1. Well designed location and arrangement of equipment used to support video meetings / chats. This includes screens, microphones, lighting. We should also make sure the acoustics are optimised, too. And the backdrops should look good too.

2. The ability to interact on a shared “whiteboard” between multiple locations. I have no idea how to fix this up yet, in a cost-effective way.

3. Large wall screens in at least one location in each hub. In the Amsterdam location we should site them in two spots, one near the kitchen / welcome area, one in the communications department. These are used for prototypes of Akvo DASH (Display Amazing SHit). These will be ambient but interesting displays, showing activity and key facts from around our network, and inviting the opportunity of interaction and exploration.

4. Video feeds that feature content from around our network. We already run an ongoing video screen in the kitchen area at the Amsterdam office, featuring content from Akvo.tv or one of our side projects such as www.watercouch.tv or WaterCube.tv

5. Attention paid to lighting and acoustics. So people look good – what’s the point of having people on a video link if they’re lit like they’re in a morgue? This involves making some changes to assumptions about how to light meeting rooms, or position cameras and computers in them – often they’re lit for showing Powerpoint in the dark, rather than for lighting people’s faces so we can see their expressions. So we need to have presentation and interaction screens that are still bright in natural lighting conditions. 

6. Tablet PCs around for people to use for demonstrations. These tablets should begin to become interfaces to control what you see on the big walls.

7. Internet / wifi connectivity that just works and doesn’t cause speed issues. It needs to be strong enough to support several video feeds coming in, while various staff are also using the internet for ongoing office activities (including Skype video chat).

8. A team of people who all understand why the systems were designed as they were, so they use them well.

They’re my initial thoughts. I’m looking forward to talking to everyone about this.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo.

Updated  23 September – revised points 3 and 4, following input from Thomas Bjelkeman. The main shift is to keep video feeds separate from Akvo DASH content. “We want to avoid making the mistakes of Bloomberg, who just present noise”

Co-founder and communications director.