Business Management

Kathryn Cave (Global) - The Great Productivity Divide: 47 Years of Office Progress

IDG Connect research shows 60% of US IT professionals surveyed bring their own device to work; 95% believe it positively improves their work/life balance and 73% think it enhances their colleagues' productivity. Kathryn Cave, Editor at IDG Connect, discusses holographic bosses, offices of the future and the next phases of BYOD. What does the move from 9-5 to 24/7 really mean for your workplace?

In Alan Bennett's 1978 television comedy "Doris and Doreen" the two main characters are typical 9-5 workers; their lives wasted in paper shuffling and lethargic work avoidance. Desks are piles high with ignored files; deadlines can be missed by a week because, as Doreen puts it, "you've got to be in the mood for pink forms". Productivity, progress... and computerisation are the nemeses of these characters' lives.

How different is today's computerised office? In September, the BBC reported that new research conducted by an expert panel (including Imperial College London, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Washington and other key academics) paints a picture of the workplace by 2025. It forecasts a death of the "physical" environment and highlights a future where we will be able to "conjure" workspaces out of thin air using interactive surfaces. Holographic bosses will materialise on surfaces digitally enabled with "smart" paint, whilst numerous virtual objects will pop up at your command for easy printing in 3D.

It all sounds a bit incredible! But whether you're convinced or not, how can any of this guarantee productivity? The ability to work anywhere and pick up skills online is already a reality. Recent research by PriceWaterhouseCoopers shows that the number of host locations a company uses will increase 50% by 2020. The concept of hot-desking; the "Regus" office and ability to purchase "office space in a box" from your local newsagents are all part of the status quo. Now anyone with internet access can publish information online, ‘eLearn' new skills and ‘eLance' their talent in the global market place. However, you can't help but suspect individuals like Doreen and Doris would be ‘striving for the minimum' whatever the set up.

Hollowing Out, Globalisation and Transnationals

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice and Director of the Future of Work Consortium, believes the way technology is changing the office space will impact us all in three ways.  She describes these as the "hollowing out of work", "globalisation" and "transnationals". In practice, this suggests the further widening of the gap between skilled and un-skilled; motivated and demotivated. It means the creation of an "uber workforce" who can cherry pick the best jobs from a global pool.

The trend is best described as follows: the "hollowing out" of work is the disappearance of middle-wage, middle-skilled jobs; these roles can either be outsourced to a region with lower wages, or they can be replaced by technology. "Globalisation" allows those with the right experience to find employment anywhere in the world. This in turn results in the rise of "transnationals". Gratton sees these as a worldwide group of people who are able to relocate at any time, selecting opportunities based on global employment and investment opportunities.

In reality, this highlights a growing dichotomy between the office-bound Doreens and Dorises of this world, and a virtual workspace populated by extremely motivated employees with a 24/7 approach to business. Maybe this split in attitude is best demonstrated by the rise of BYOD? Recent research we conducted to our US audience showed that out of a study of 198 senior IT respondents, 60% did use their personal mobile for work. This trend reflects a blending of work and personal life never seen before. Perhaps when understood in conjunction with new developments in office culture this could highlight the "next phase" in BYOD.

Next Generation BYOD

Mark Heraghty, Managing Director at Virgin Media Business, believes the changes we're seeing now could result in "mobile phone, and eventually goggles and active contact lenses, [becoming] the gateway to virtual work spaces and collaborative projects." This means that one blink and we will be virtually transported into the office. "There will be no need to even worry about bringing your own device if that just means bringing yourself. The blending of devices for work and for personal use will be taken to the nth degree."

Whatever way you look at it though, offices run on people. Most of us have experienced environments stuffed full of characters who spend all day wasting time on Facebook. It doesn't matter what you do to the workplace; you simply can't make people work. Yet it is the attitude which really appears to be in transition. In a recent press release from Future Office, 42% of executives polled said they believe employees will be working more hours in the next 10 to 15 years, on top of which 86% will be more connected to the office while on vacation. 

More interestingly still, our own research into US respondents shows 95% of those surveyed think this "always on" culture does positively impact their work/life balance. But fascinatingly, a significant 27% do not think constant connectivity makes their colleagues more productive. Is this a case of "selfish mobility"? Are workers pleased with the ability to shoot tasks rapidly off their own (virtual desks), while doubting the efficiency of co-workers who sacrifice their own communication by spending 24 hours (nominally) on the job?

It is hard to know what the answer is, and impossible to tell what office spaces will be like by 2025. But I do wonder how different office reality can ever really be? Motivation lies at the heart of the workforce. Maybe tomorrow Doreen and Doris would be "hollowed out"? Or perhaps computerisation would just make it easier for them procrastinate...

By Kathryn Cave, Editor, IDG Connect




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