When Shaw Industries held weekly staff meetings in the past, employees would travel in for 90-minute sessions and sit together in a room where they often lost focus and weren't inspired or motivated.
Something had to be done, said Jim Nielsen, manager of enterprise technology architecture and planning for the Atlanta-based carpet, flooring, and tile manufacturer. That's when the company started to look inside the new Google Apps suite that Shaw had brought in for 10,000 of its 26,000 employees this past March. There they found the tempting Hangouts component of Google+ and an inspiration was born for how they could get their employees started on better collaboration inside the company.
Google+ Hangouts are a consumer technology, meant to help groups of friends get together virtually from wherever they are located, to talk, to share a televised football game, or to conduct all kinds of activities. Corporate staff meetings were probably not high on the list of possible uses when Google's engineers dreamed it up. Its promise, though, was compelling.
"We were in one of our planning sessions," said Nielsen. "I've had a desire to try to bring in products like this in the past, so I raised it with our team members. I asked, 'wouldn't it be great to just have it part of the environment and use it?'"
Since it was already included in the cost of using Google Apps, Shaw's team chose to make it available to employees to see if they would want to use it and to see how much traction it would receive. They had no idea about the reaction they soon experienced.
"It's become the thing to have for anybody in the company who is working with other team members," said Nielsen. "It's grown on its own a lot more than I thought it would. There has been an excitement around the possibilities it brings and a growth on its own that we did not have to push. That's very contrary to typical technology deployments where we have to push new things across all boundaries. We had people clamoring for it." So much so, in fact, that people had to be turned away.
Shaw's staff could see the possibilities almost from the start. They envisioned how it could keep people more focused on the meeting compared to a traditional web or telephone conference call because in Google+ Hangouts, up to nine participants are on the session, each using a webcam that lets everyone else see what each person is doing. All participants, up to nine at present, are visible simultaneously on the Google+ Hangouts screen, with video and audio feeds, as well as document sharing capabilities. By seeing each other and talking back and forth, the staff meetings now have a more "live" flavor and keep participants focused better on the proceedings on the calls, said Nielsen. That cuts the meeting times down dramatically.
"You can interact," he said. In the past, participants would get together in a meeting room on Monday mornings for 90 minutes and others would join in via conference call. Often the remote workers would ask for information to be repeated because they weren't paying attention at that moment, having been distracted by something in their remote offices. "That's how conference calls can be," said Nielsen. "You're not as productive, so it takes longer."
Those problems go away using Google+ Hangouts because participants are all paying better attention, he said. "That presence kind of brings with it a responsibility to participate in the meeting because you are being watched."
The system isn't perfect, though, said Nielsen. For one, there is some degradation of the video when nine users – the maximum number who can participate so far – are online. Nielsen said he's hopeful that Google will continue to improve the Hangouts to allow many more participants at once.
"I want 50 people," he said. "The desire is that we want to do more with it."
When the staff meetings are larger today, they use alternatives for the meetings, including traditional conferencing tools such as Cisco's WebEx, which accommodates up to about 150 people, he said.
The other features of Google+ have also been a big hit with workers inside Shaw, said Nielsen. "People want their workplace to be fun, they want it to be exciting. The old ways of doing things are not energizing for anybody."
Using Google+, Shaw employees post ideas about a myriad of topics, from industry events they want to attend to discussions of web-based reporting tools that they'd like to see developed to world issues that impact the carpet industry. People can make their posts internal to anyone inside the company or private to their own circles of contacts at Shaw. Workers have a set of policies they must follow to protect the company's information and security.
"I think that most people understood that this was a really big beneficial change and they wanted to take advantage of some of the new features because they get that the old products were stodgy and keeping them back, keeping them from being more efficient," said Nielsen.
He has been so enthused about the project that Nielsen recently wrote a post about Shaw's experiences with the Google Apps suite on the Google Enterprise Blog.
"One responsibility in my job is to find ways to help our teams be more productive," wrote Nielsen in the blog post. "That can be challenging in a manufacturing company where the majority of users aren't necessarily tech savvy, but with Google Apps that doesn't matter because the products are intuitive. They are now able to do things themselves, and we have wanted to allow them to be self-sufficient for a long time. After just a few months of using Google Apps, I'm inspired by the way our teams are working together and finding faster, easier ways to work."
Because Shaw was bringing in Google Apps to replace Microsoft Office and IBM's Lotus Notes for 10,000 of its workers, they brought in a Google partner, Cloud Sherpas, to help with all the complex changes and transfers that had to be completed to make the transition seamless.
"We would never have been able to do this on our own," said Nielsen.