Brave New World of Work

Dan Rasmus has seen the future.

In fact, as Director for Information Work Vision, he spends his days looking at global trends and emerging technologies and exploring the challenges and possibilities that lie ahead.

The up-shot: our working lives are going to become more flexible and more fragmented and we're going to need to get very good at balancing.

More control, more responsibility

As technology develops, businesses are going to be able to use software to amplify the impact of their front-line staff. And as employees, we're going to be empowered to take more control. So when, for example, an investor calls a trader or a call-centre worker is talking to a customer, they will have immediate access to all the information needed to improve the quality of service provided. This has the potential to dramatically improve the experience we get as customers (imagine, no more "press 1 for sales, press 2 for accounts") but will also radically challenge companies to trust their staff.

We know more than we write down

The flexibility and freedom inherent in this change to how we work is also going to help connect people beyond the formal structures of the workplace. Technology is going to link people together faster and more effectively. So the GP you visit in your local surgery might not directly know, for example, the alternatives to a traditional course of medicine but they can quickly contact a specialist who does.

This concept of social knowledge means that social networks are going to become increasingly important.

Facebook might be here to stay

Partnerships -- or who you know -- have always played a significant role in competitive advantage (whether for companies or individuals) and technology can magnify the impact of this. For the millennial generation, this is second nature, but older workers may need to adapt.

Already our workplaces are becoming increasingly virtual, with teams incorporating colleagues from around the country or even world. The boundaries are going to get more blurred as social networks infiltrate the workplace. Reactions to this are already mixed: some companies see the benefits of colleagues discussing work outside the workplace and view it as informal market research which helps drive and inspire innovation; others have a more traditional view, muttering darkly about corporate confidentiality and looking for ways to prevent these conversations.

History suggests that the traditionalists' days are numbered.

The always-on world

Even in the last 10 years, our lives at work and home have undergone a vast transformation. The internet has shifted from an intriguing scientific project to pervade every aspect of our world. For many of us, we can view our personal email or online shopping details at work as well as having access to our business email at home.

Many companies have recognised the benefits of this flexible world and, to a greater or lesser extent, now allow employees to choose where and when they work. The upside for employees is that it is much easier to get time during the day to take care of a child, visit the doctor, or attend to other personal tasks. The payback for companies is that they can expect employees to work outside core hours if needed.

This flexibility reflects the reality of twenty-first century life. Consumers don't operate in a 9-5 world (because so many of them are at work!) so companies need to be available outside these hours to maximise their business. Internet shopping has given us ongoing access to the retail world, while 24-hour news channels ensure that emerging problems can't be "switched off" after 5pm.

Finding the off-switch

But as individuals, switching off is going to become an ever more important skill if we're not to be overwhelmed by the increasingly pervasive nature of work. Just because we can check our email at 11 at night or from our holiday sun-lounger, doesn't mean we should.

Sometimes, as one of my colleagues argued this morning, it's less stressful to deal immediately with a problem than return after a few day's off to a deluge of emails. And ultimately it's going to be our individual responsibility to protect our personal time and make sure we spend our time in line with our priorities.

Resistance is futile

This brave new world isn't going to be music to every company's ears. (I'm thinking in particular of those companies that remove CD-ROM drives and block up USB ports in an effort to control the flow of information.) But disgruntled or duplicitous employees will always find a way round even the most tightly-controlled organisations and the benefits of flexibility and freedom are too big to be ignored.