Saturday, 2 May 2015

Workplaces are stuck in the past despite tech innovations

This is what my home office looked like when I was freelancing and pitching stories to magazines published in cities around Australia. You can see the PC on the right sitting on the desk, the view out the window to the park, and the TV on the left swiveled so that I could see it while I was busy attending to social media. In fact I took this picture as part of the post-2015-Queensland-election coverage. The photo I contributed on Twitter and Facebook. Some people commented.

The reason I refer to this scene is because of a story that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald today about the future of work. In the story there are people talking about how the future working environment will be quite different from how it looks today, and the discussion reminded me of a famous piece of TV in which science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke predicted, in 1972, the World Wide Web and its impact on work. But having lived through that moment in history - the Web emerged in 1995 although the Internet appeared first in 1969 - and having freelanced myself for a period of three years - pitching story ideas to magazines, researching stories, doing phone interviews, transcribing, writing the stories, and submitting them to editors then working with editors to complete the stories - I can confidently say that the future work environment as envisaged in that SMH story is still a ways off realisation in our decade. Despite what Mr Clarke said in 1972.

When you freelance you have to be at your desk at the same time as the people you need to talk with are going to be at their desks, for a start. This means being at your desk largely from 9am to 5pm. Any time spent outside those hours on things that do not require a personal conversation is just time you put in to complete the work. But if you want to speak with George and you make an appointment to do so at 11am then you have to be at your desk at 11am in George's time zone. If George is in the US and you are in Australia that might mean calling him well outside the regular 9-to-5 slice of daylight. But regardless, you have to make that call at the right time otherwise you won't get to speak with George.

This kind of limits you as a freelancer because it means that your hours of deskwork depend to a large degree on the hours of deskwork of the people you come into contact with during your day. Another thing that will influence the way managers run their businesses in the future is the business's social media policy. In many workplaces social media is still not tolerated or is tolerated mainly by ignoring the extent of its use. However social media is also an essential part of the professional toolset for many workers. Employers must embrace its use and encourage people to become proficient in its use otherwise they will lose an important corporate function. That could become costly but many people with influence over corporate policy will have to change their way of thinking about social media for it to become accepted as a tool for workers.

There are other tools that can facilitate remote collaboration and these can loosely be labelled live video applications such as Skype or Google Hangouts. Another tool might be Periscope, since it can be used to steam video. But employers must be awake to the relative advantages of video conferencing over person-to-person meetings as these kinds of encounters can radically reduce the amount of time spent travelling from place to place.

In general I think that workplaces in Australia are largely inimical to remote working of the kind that we associate most readily with freelancers. Managers want employees to be at their desks at certain prescribed hours and available for discussions and meetings, regardless of the advantages to be gleaned from operating the business in a different way. We have become so used to people turning up for work and being seen to be at their desks that any other way of operating is impossible to conceive, at least for most managers.

To change the way we think about work will need a new generation of managers, and they will have to be largely digital natives. The current crop are still stuck in the past.

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