June 2, 2015
Over the decades designing productive spaces for work has focused on redefining the corporate office and its surroundings. While there are examples of quality design in buildings around the world, there is a growing movement that challenges the presumption that work should always be done “at work”. If we aim to allow people to be at their best, develop and nurture creativity and maximise quality output then we must ensure the place where the work is done is outstanding. Sarah Kathleen Peck of ‘It starts with’ summed it up when she wrote “There are people, places and things that make me feel like I’m building my energy stores, that rejuvenate me, and help me to do my best work. Likewise, there are also people and places that zap my energy; that leave me exhausted; that make me feel as though I’ve waste my time and my energy – and my day – without getting anything useful done.”
Millennials, or Generation Y, are the first group of workers who naturally and pretty universally assume that mobile communications is the norm. As Baby Boomers reach retirement age the X and Y generations make up an increasingly large percentage of the knowledge workers around the world. They don’t think work is 9 to 5, nor do they worry about work spilling over into evenings, weekends, or even holidays.
Paul Miller and Elizabeth Marsh, authors of the recently published ‘The Digital Renaissance of Work’ discuss the latest developments they describe as “work not place, freelancing in a world of work but not jobs”, the death of the weekend and crucial issues such as trust, privacy and team working in a widely dispersed workforce.
There are four trends that characterise the fundamental shift that is underway in work:
- Device independence,
- Seamless ubiquitous networks,
- Generational refresh,
- Security and Privacy.
These interact with Corporate Strategy which, however fleet of foot, is burdened with the weight of real-estate and support contracts that can only make sense if city-centre buildings are occupied at high density.
Before exploring in more depth the technologies that enable us to work remotely – let’s look at the ways they enable us to work just about anywhere.
Work is not about place
The best place to work depends on many factors. How easy is it to get access to the information we need to progress, how can we collaborate with our co-workers and others to get things done?
Work does not stop in the 24/7 world. However much I think about a dinner engagement with my wife in London my partner in San Francisco has just started his day and wants to press ahead. I have to decide whether it is with me or without me. Life is a beach – mine is in Wexford, Ireland and is the longest continuous sandy beach in Europe, a short distance from our house, and often deserted, especially early morning when this picture was taken. Trust me – if you want to think large thoughts, consider the world view of a strategic set of options, then sitting or walking on a beach like this gives you a whole different perspective at 8am as compared with arriving at the office in the City of London after a crushed commute, a queue at the coffee shop and a wait for the lift.
But it does not have to mean being out of touch. My son works in Sydney in the same business as I do and as a Generation X he is heavily into life balance and technology. At 8am in Sydney he would have been swimming at Bondi and drinking coffee before a short ride to work in Surry Hills. But at 6pm Australia time he is in the office and FaceTime from the beach gets an immediate response. He provides links to key references for this piece which arrived in clickable form via Messenger in no time. And I can send him the draft article, get his comments and update it right there and then.
The beach is not always ideal, face to face contact is crucial for first meetings at least, and when there is an imminent disagreement. Location is still not an issue, because I go to the client’s office – still in touch with the world, often more than he or she is even when at their workstation.
And this sort of location independent knowledge work has been around for decades. In 1996 the Daily Telegraph in the UK profiled my working situation, when I was working in four different roles, including lecturing in Facilities Management, running an Emerging Technology Assessment unit at Bath University, consulting for several clients and acting as a non-executive Director. That’s pretty much how it’s been for the last 30 years, and the only thing that has changed is that technology is making it easier and cheaper – no office, no overheads.
The fear and distrust of the workforce
So why did Marissa Mayer CEO of Yahoo tell all her remote working employees through her HR chief Jackie Reses to start working from a Yahoo office or quit? The reason given was that “being a Yahoo isn’t just about you day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible at our offices”. Reaction has been quick. Jennifer Owens of Working Mother Media described the move like this. “It comes from fear. Fear that if I can’t see you I don’t know what you are working on. It’s a distrust of your own workforce”. But Mayer may not see it that way. A Yahoo spokesperson said “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home – this is about what’s right for Yahoo, right now.” Speculation is that Mayer is really about cutting a lot of fat from an organisation that is overloaded with staff due to historical factors. In fact this process could lead to Yahoo becoming much leaner, more focused, and more likely to engage staff in flexible remote activities as and when they know they need them.
As far back as the late 1980s I recall flying from Texas to California on business and being massively impressed by a group of six PeopleSoft employees who were sitting around me – they were all going to work for a new client, had never met each other, but were completely on the same page on both the project in hand and on everything going on in their company. PeopleSoft worked hard at using software products such as Lotus Notes to share absolutely everything about the business, with all their employees working remotely. The employees in turn had a strong bond with the firm and with every other employee they met. It takes effort to create a team culture over a wide geographic area, but my experience is that it can work well.
In today’s emerging technology environment there are clear signs of a robust set of solutions to support more and more effective work that does not take place in a single office in long rows of identical desks.
The reasoning behind offices
Don’t get me wrong, I get the reason for offices, as a focus for the customer and competitors as much as for the staff. The architecture, design style, ambience, location all say a lot of very valuable things about a company and if they are consistent both in the message they send at every location, and with the intended personality of the business then the whole thing works to create a strong brand and identity.
Remote work, either by employees or by freelancers, can be a major enhancement to any business, improving the working lives, productivity and creativity of the individual while reducing real estate costs and overheads for staff employed on tasks that external professionals can do better and cheaper. Work is not about place any more, and it’s not about being paid to put in an eight hour day whether anything is achieved or not. It’s about recognising and rewarding value and commitment wherever it is given.
The message must be that work that is not tied to a desk can be more productive and enhance individual’s lives. But the organisation only gains significant benefit if there is deep understanding at senior management level of how to motivate and manage a distributed workforce and make available a set of secure, auditable tools that bind the remote employees together for the good of the business.
From here on in we get a bit technical, but the analysis (above) should serve to underpin my certainty that there is now a means of achieving the benefits of supporting employees in working in the way that makes them most productive, whether that is in the office or not.
Place is no longer the key determinant of quality knowledge work
The value of a single corporate device policy married to strong privacy features made Blackberry a highly prized corporate tool, but should the security aware organisation continue to commit to proprietary devices that offer tight security in a closed environment?
The world has moved on. Android 5.0 (Lollipop) will support multiple personalities on one mobile device including a guest mode that does not tamper with the original owners’ setup. Security is more robust, encryption is the norm, and user accessibility is balanced with security, through continuous facial analysis and paired device “smart lock”. Apple’s iOS shares the increasing sophistication and simplification of continuous security protection and these features will become ever more effective, robust and tightly integrated, with an enhanced and pain-free user experience.
Wherever the creative knowledge worker finds themselves, they will be increasingly comfortable that their mobile device will not be the restrictive element of a seamless place-neutral working environment. So much so that BYOD (Bring your Own Device) will replace the personal interaction element in the physical workplace as well as on the beach.
Of course 5-inch diagonal screens with limited keyboard capacity do not replace 30 inch diagonal screens with multiple windows and economic keyboards, but in most situations it will not matter. Voice access is so common on mobiles (Siri, ‘OK Google’) that whatever comes after Generation Y (my 5 year old grandson) already takes it for granted. By the time he is in the workplace (will we have to change that word?) simultaneous translated conversation together with onscreen text translation will remove the need to learn another language or to remember telephone numbers or email addresses.
One device accessing anything anywhere sounds pretty scary. How can the organisation ensure that data does not get lost, or worse, compromised, without any audit trail?
Seamless ubiquitous networks
Microsoft has announced a tie-up with DropBox – offering free Microsoft Office on mobile devices coupled with tight integration with DropBox, which is used by so many individuals for their personal data. DropBox for Business addresses the immediate concerns of corporate IT and Audit – security, audit, sharing and multi-factor authentication. 300,000 plus third party apps supporting everything from signed PDF documents to sharing in web conferences.
I lectured in Emerging Technology in the 1990s, including in Manhattan. I vividly recall presenting a scenario to a public class I was teaching – Teledesic was just about to launch a Near Earth Orbiting network of satellites and one of its key investors was Microsoft. I remarked that we could even consider the possibility that some time in the future software for functions such as word processing would no longer reside on our local computers, nor would the files we would create; every full stop and semi colon would wing its way to the satellite, down to Redmond to Microsoft central, and the resulting change would appear on our screen and that of our collaborators in no time flat. At coffee break I was surprised to be button-holed by two very sharply dressed young evangelists from Microsoft who were attending the class; they suggested that I should not joke (I wasn’t) about such potentially mould-breaking changes.
Suffice to say that today many, many, tens of thousands of knowledge workers spend their day working on collaborative documents with no knowledge of the physical location of their collaborators, no desire to know where the actual data is being stored and manipulated, and no fear that the whole thing will collapse at any time. From Mind-Mapping to complex interactive design the tools exist and are being used.
A generational refresher course
I am a Baby Boomer. Not necessarily typical, having spent 45 years plus in high tech environments and continuing to pretend to be 25 online even though I am on my way out to the long grass. I see colleagues who have never kept up with technology trends, do not want to and may even actively avoid some of the more intrusive (in their view) aspects of social media.
Not so with the Millennials (Generation Y). If you were born any time after 1975 then you know what I mean. Y takes ubiquitous instant communications for granted. Y individuals expect to live differently. Draves and Coates in their prescient 2004 book ‘Nine Shift: Life and Education in the 21st Century” suggested that nine hours of our day would be spent differently in 2020 than in 2000. Nine major shifts in a transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age and Work and Place, and the way we interact with them were front and centre in their proposition that:
- People work from home
- Intranets replace offices
- Networks replace pyramids
- Trains replace cars
- Dense neighbourhoods replace suburbs
- New social structures evolve
- Cheating becomes collaboration
- Half of all learning is online
- Education becomes web-based
These challenging assumptions of a world already shifting without its older population even noticing is looking more and more right on the money. Deloitte predicts that this year we will send 50 billion MIM (mobile Instant messaging) messages from WhatsApp and similar, compared with ‘only’ 21 billion through traditional text messaging. Text Messaging was only invented in 1992, and now it’s on the decline. In 2012 12-15 year old sent an average of 193 messages a week according to Ofcom and this was double the number of just one year earlier.
As the generations refresh and the proportion of generation X, Y and then Z enter the workplace it will be the norm to communicate with friends and family throughout the working day, and unacceptable to be forbidden.
Security and privacy
It used to be pretty straightforward. If you needed to reference a key document you went to it – Magna Carta was signed in 1215; the copy used for consultation by parliament is a 1297 copy that has been housed in the Guildhall in London since that time and has only left the building four times – to avoid the Great Fire, the Blitz, during the renovation of the Guildhall and on November 9th 2014 in a carriage during the Lord Mayor’s procession. High security combined with a single reference copy ensures the primacy of this fundamental record of liberty.
The liberties enshrined in Magna Carta are with us today, but liberty and freedom are expressed in a different manner when it comes to online access. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has campaigned for many years to ensure that the internet remains neutral, allowing all users equal access, together with a reclassification of broadband networks as a telecommunications service. In November 2014 President Obama agreed. By applying the techniques and mechanisms described here a free open internet can also be a secure, collaborative workplace for the Millennial company and any other that chooses to support knowledge workers to work in the way that works for them, wherever it is.
This feature appears in the current issue of Work&Place
Paul Robathan has been a technology strategist for over 40 years, specialising in the intersection between technology, buildings and people. He has worked in this context in the banking, telecommunications, health and housing sectors. He was the first Chairman of the European Intelligent Building Group and is still associated with the CIBSE hosted version of the same body. firstname.lastname@example.org.