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Office space gets new meaning at NEC in Japan

A copier for every 200 employees and face recognition log-on for employees? It's part of the office of the future in NEC's vision.

TOKYO--NEC envisions a world without walls, and not many printers or chairs, either.

The Japanese computing giant has launched a strategy to employ technology to reorganize how work gets done in the modern world and is exploiting its own offices as a showcase.

In a working 500-employee demo that's part of NEC's broadband division, there are no chairs in the conference rooms: Standing cuts down on meeting length. Rather than pass out memos or draw on white boards, employees examine and manipulate documents with collaborative software on plasma screens, which also function as videoconference systems.

Conference "room" is also something of a misnomer, as there are no fixed walls to define the area. The 500 employees who work daily in the environment don't have permanent desks, and copiers remain scarce--there's one for every 200 employees.

Phones have also been banned. Employees place voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls through their laptops, linked to a headset.

"Some people like the traditional handset, so we have a USB handset," said Hiroo Ichii, manager of NEC's second enterprise communications solutions division. "It does take time, but people get used to it."

Like Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and other companies, NEC is deploying these technologies to cut costs internally. Partly because of the results seen at the broadband center, NEC plans to put 30,000 employees on VoIP phones and has a goal of getting 80 percent to use just such a "soft" phone in a laptop in 2005. Overall, the company has more than 100,000 employees.

Additionally, the company believes it can capitalize on its experiences to sell products. The VoIP system runs on its own telecommunications servers, while NEC laptops serve as showcases for security and video applications developed at the company.

Out the window, Ichii pointed at new Sony and Canon office buildings that NEC had outfitted with some of the products and services on display at the center. "We want to introduce new innovations in the workplace," he said.

Broadband bedrock
The potential popularity of the new office concepts is largely based on the ubiquity of cheap broadband connections. Even during the lengthy recession, Japanese companies continued to replace older districts with shiny new corporate centers, so the computing and communication infrastructure is continually being upgraded.

At home, nearly 70 percent of Japanese Internet users have broadband connections. A 40-megabit-per-second line in Japan costs about the same as a 1.5mbps line in the United States.

IP telephony also got a boost last year, when the Japanese government began to issue licenses for the service. Dialing "050" before a phone number allows a user of a VoIP-enabled phone to conduct a call over IP wires rather than over regular lines. Roughly 70 percent of NEC's telecommunications equipment sales involve traditional PBX switches, but VoIP equipment, like the Univerge SV7000 switch, could account for half of sales in three years, Ichii said.

Besides VoIP equipment, the company is pushing laptops, document scanners and middleware that can be sold as a package.

For instance, NEC is selling a desktop interface called the UnifiedStar Excellent, which features windows for calendars, videoconferencing, messaging and other functions. Up to eight parties can videoconference simultaneously on the system, while 50 others can participate in listen-only mode. A large import-export company recently adopted the system.

Another product coming this month--which combines NEC switches and NTT DoCoMo handsets--will make it easier to switch from using third-generation, or 3G, channels on a handset to an integrated Wi-Fi connection, which will cut phone bills. Global Positioning System modules will also allow dispatchers to track field representatives.

The company is also developing security-themed products for the office of the future, such as more accurate fingerprint sensors. One application, a facial recognition and authentication system called NeoFace, automatically locks down a computer (equipped with a video camera) when the user gets up from his or her desk. It won't log on until the person sits down again. If an interloper sits at the desk or tries to log on to the computer, an alarm sounds and the camera snaps a picture of the person, too.

While most NEC customers are in Japan, the company reorganized its North American divisions in April to boost its overseas presence.

Numbers to back it up
On statistical grounds, the organizational ideas embodied in the center seem to work. Paper costs are 20 percent lower than those of other NEC groups of comparable size, thanks to fewer printers and copiers, and greater reliance on collaboration software.

Conference room time, measured by the number of hours employees reserve, is down 70 percent, while the average length of meetings has dropped 20 percent. Travel expenses are down 15 percent, in part because of videoconferencing.

Besides the direct cost savings, reducing travel likely cuts down on carbon dioxide emissions, an overall goal for many companies in environmentally sensitive Japan.

Another big cost savings comes in office space. Although 500 employees work in the center, there is only desk space for 400 of them. The desk space, often a section of a larger table, comes on a first come, first served basis, and no one has an assigned, permanent desk.

"A 30 percent office space savings--that is big in Tokyo," said Tomoaki Ikezawa, assistant manager of the international sales department in the second enterprise communications solution division.

The deskless 30 percent aren't tapping in from their kitchen, he added. The work-at-home concept is still not big in Japan. Instead, the lack of space is prompting sales representatives to visit clients more often, he said.

Sun has deployed a similar strategy. Employees at Sun put their personal possessions in a locker; NEC gives its employees a bag. And as at Sun, Ikezawa acknowledged, some employees do try to outsmart the system and maintain control over a piece of real estate by leaving equipment in a spot overnight.