Shifting the workplace ritual: A Q&A with IT guru Ondine Eaton

What does it take to manage facilities and technology across multiple sites to maintain a secure workplace? How can we shift the rituals around our work and workplaces in this regard?

A Senior IT Program Manager and technology consultant, Ondine Eaton considers these questions often, specializing in IT infrastructure, system design, integration, and deployment for data centers, facilities, and construction. With over twenty years of IT experience, Ondine helps organizations optimize their workplace technology footprint, foster innovation, and create productive cross-departmental relationships.

In her most recent assignment at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Ondine led the integration of new workplace technology designed to improve space utilization. This was achieved by providing a modern, mobile-first experience that empowered the hospital’s administrative staff with different workspaces that are adaptable to each team’s needs.

As a panelist on the Seattle iteration of our Leaders of the Workplace Experience speaker event series, Ondine shared how to build and maintain secure workplaces that work well. Wanting to explore these ideas further, I had the opportunity to chat with Ondine about introducing new technology and tools, how the IT industry has changed, and what she’s looking forward to seeing evolve in all things IT.

You have worked in the IT industry for over two decades. What led you to pursue IT as a career?

OE: I got into doing IT support back in college, I was supporting the geography lab there. I didn’t have a computer myself at that point, and supported the hardware for that department. I ran the geography lab and I realized I was actually kind of good at it.

After that, I didn’t just pop out of school and get a job in IT. For a while, I ran my own business, but there weren’t enough customers at that time. IT became a personal hobby rather than my personal income. After I moved to California, I ended up doing IT for a small architectural firm. Previously, I worked primarily with hardware, so working with software in that role was new for me. Then, I started a position at UCLA. My first job there? Replace green screens with PCs.

What was that experience like, working in a healthcare environment?

OE: There was a lot of social management to be done there. I spent a lot of time with the nurses who had been doing things a certain way for many years. Healthcare staff are working under extreme situations and typically in a hurry. They don’t want technology to get in the way.

That was my first exposure to figuring out how to manage a situation with users, my customers. I figured out how to explain why the new technology would make their processes better. It was a really good learning experience for me.

I can imagine catering to competing needs of doctors and nurses was a tall order! How did you handle this, and ultimately, ‘win’ the various hospital teams over?

OE: I spent days walking around the hospital and went to each nursing unit to say hello, talk to them, and learn their names. During this process, I asked about individual workflows and discovered many pain points.

IT took about two years to refresh the hospital and get rid of the mainframe terminals. Again, it was crucial to manage the socialization of the benefits of the new systems.

Have you encountered any obstacles during these implementation phases?

OE: The experience everyone has over the course of their day doing their job is important. This differs depending on the person. It’s important to be crystal clear on why you’re designing, integrating, and deploying products.

You have to effectively communicate why clients need new workplace technology, and that you thought about and considered what the benefits are––and you have to walk them through how it all affects them. This necessitates an open process, including asking them what they don’t like about it. That’s a huge part of my job; I get people through the, ‘I don’t like it,’ phase.

It sounds like you lean heavily on your customer service skills!

OE: Yes, it’s basically psychological triage on why the customer hates ‘the thing.’ The IT professional and the end user have to go through it together. And the ‘why’? It could be that you as product designer didn’t do a good enough job. Sometimes you have to turn around and go back to your team and say, ‘hey, we missed the mark. This feature isn’t working out, and we need to do something about it.’

You need to be able to knit everything together. The customer needs to feel like they’re being listened to, which you have to balance with making sure you respect the effort the engineers put into building the product.

What’s the secret to balancing customer ‘asks’ and requirements while ensuring the integrity of the IT infrastructure remains functional and secure?

OE: I joke that the first worst customer is IT. We are super picky and very vocal about what we want. Doctors are opinionated about how they do their jobs and how it affects the care they provide. They are constantly thinking, ‘How do I deliver better care to a human being?’ Telling them, ‘That app runs slow while you’re working in the room,’ they are going to respond with, ‘Sorry, that’s not going to cut it.’

“We all hate bad technology. Solutions shouldn’t be rolled out for no reason, or because someone decided in a vacuum that it’s what a customer needs.”

Ondine Eaton, Senior IT Program Manager and technology consultant

Can you share one of the most common challenges that arises during a new system integration? How do you troubleshoot and navigate that?

OE: Front-loading the socialization around a new product, whether it’s hardware or software. Speak to customers on a regular basis. This helps them feel like they are a part of the process. That way, at the end of the day, they are familiar with what’s coming. and it’s not a big reveal when you deploy.

What does a technology footprint consist of, and how do you work with organizations to optimize it?

OE: Part of my philosophical approach with technology has evolved over time. I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important thing is appropriate technology. It needs to solve a problem or make a process better.

All of this revolves around your customer. We shouldn’t add extra bells and whistles where they aren’t needed. In the physical space of IT, we tend to deliver things that are ornate, too overwrought––what I call ‘ornate technology.’

I like that term, ‘ornate technology.’ Why do you think this is?

OE: In today’s market, there are so many products competing for the attention of consumers. To differentiate, you have to come up with a new product that is brighter and shinier.

For example, a customer once requested a system to be installed to have the lights dim a few times to remind you to leave a conference room on-time. There was a lot of opinions on what should be automated in these rooms.

What was the ultimate decision?

OE: I told them to let me deploy the minimum software in a way that was very subtle. My target was to have the technology be as invisible as possible. It was the same color as the wall. You could book the room by walking up to the tablet and reading it. There were no room controllers, just simple room booking. All wireless projection, with hidden cables if you needed it––but it was hidden.

Sure, that makes sense: a functional yet minimal solution. What you do think about the idea of the smart workplace? Does this concept describe your vision of a minimally-invasive space that is still beautiful and delightful?

OE: Given that the current market is so segmented by product, there are lots of variables to contend with. No one company does it all. Maybe in 10 years we’ll have universal communication standards for all workplace technology.

Let’s say I want to have a video meeting; it’s important that it just works. I want to walk into the room, sit down, bring up my meeting, let people connect, and that’s it. If we could hit that target 100% of the time without problems, that’s advanced technology. 75% would even be a good improvement. However, there’s always something that goes awry, like wireless connectivity.

IT should be invisible and 100% reliable. I don’t want it in my face. I just want it to work.

This speaks to your motto about working at the intersection of art, technology, and common sense. Tell me more about how you apply this methodology to what you did at Seattle Children’s.

OE: We’re right on the cusp of a lot of companies coming to the realization that workplace experience is its own thing. AV has moved into a place to be completely intertwined with IT. It’s all merging together: environmental controls, it’s all converging and it’s all a big scrum. We don’t quite know how to do it yet. It’s an interesting and chaotic space, but it’s really important.

People expect the level of technology in consumer devices to be present in the workplace experience. They have high expectations for technology because it works so well at home, so why doesn’t technology work that well in the office? In my opinion, the frontier of technology is invisible and 100% reliable.

Let’s dig into the topic of mobile availability. Why is it important that Seattle Children’s new office technology be mobile-first, and how does this impact the workflows you set up there?

OE: We were a project team embedded within the in-house facilities team. There were no laptops for our team when I arrived. Only senior managers and a few others had laptops. These are people that go on-site, to physical places, to replace a generator or something––walking all over the place.

We tried to use thin clients. A thin client is a tiny computer that displays a remote session on a server for you. It’s showing you a picture of what’s running on a server. This works quite well for hospitals because whenever they need to go do something important for a patient, they need a computer right now, and they can’t have IT getting in the way––especially in a surgery room, for example. It’s perfect for clinical staff. They can log in, place medication orders, look at patient charts and it always looks the same.

However, if you try to use a thin client and try to use tons of different applications, it’s going to crash. I successfully lobbied our management to get laptops, remove unnecessary software, and get more useful applications on them.

Tell me more about the idea of human-centered design. How do you build this concept into your work?

OE: I picked this up traveling, reading about architecture, accessibility, and learning about human experience in different places and in different scenarios. The idea centers on the question of: is this the best we can do?

You don’t design a product only to hit all the technical marks. You look at the experience of the person using it, in the context they are in. For the workplace, it’s essential to define the best use of the space. We’re building this stuff for ourselves, and it needs to make our day more enjoyable.

Good design is good design, but we need to expand the boundaries to encompass our entire environment. Human-centered design is a way to do this, an interesting way to look at the workplace as a holistic experience.