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Being digital: the rise of activity based workingDecember 2014

Written by Philip Ross, Founder and CEO of UnGroup and Cordless Group

New digital technology is emerging that will change the nature of how, why and where work is done. The rise of a new breed of technology is not just challenging the world we live in, but is also beginning to redefine the very construct of the organisation. Becoming digital will change that equilibrium, resulting in a new relationship between ‘man and machine’, between city and suburb, and between employer and employee.

Being analogue wasn’t much fun. For the past 120 years office workers have been tied to desks, tethered by the heavy, cabled technology that enabled their usually repetitive work to take place. Taylor’s time and motion was the predominant view of efficiency, and ever since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the 1870s, people have been tied to furniture for work and communication. The desk and private office became synonymous with status, territory and belonging in the organisation.

But slowly things have started to change. In the 1990s, email, the laptop and the cell phone became the tools for a new mobile elite. This was followed by the growth of the internet, with its redefinition of telephony, networks and collaboration. Then we witnessed wireless networks, mobility and ubiquity. Now we have digital flow, data centres and the cloud. Digital technology is re-writing the rules.

So far these rules have applied to the edges of corporate life: Better ways to communicate, mobile email and the Blackberry revolution, multimedia and multifunctional devices. Faster connections and speed of communication have changed how we work to some extent. But now, the opportunity exists to look at ‘digital’ as the enabler for a different way of working; one where people do not have to commute in to a ‘dumb container for work’. The digital office is being defined.

The break between work and the desk can now be established, and with it the allocation in a workplace of one person to one desk. Obviously, this creates the necessity to change the way technology is presented to, and accessed by, the individual. Nothing is personal at the desk. Technology is either place independent and mobile, or fixed and shared.

The digital world assumes that you can connect from anywhere. Today from a laptop, tablet or ‘smart’ phone; tomorrow from any device through a browser. The combination of wireless network connectivity, high performance mobile devices, high speed networks, the cloud and new, software-led connectivity and ‘unified’ messaging tools have in effect sounded the death knell of the ‘desk phone’ and the desktop personal computer.

The biggest technological barrier had been paper, but even here its half life is diminishing and while people will always use paper, it need not be stored and certainly not kept at the desk. But paper is also threatened as we become digital. The previous IT revolution was basically to take paper and turn it digital. And this meant that what you viewed on screen could then be re-output to paper. No longer. What is displayed is now a mix of media, with flat, two dimensional text juxtaposed with video and Uniform Resource Locators – the url links that help us navigate the internet as well as hover or hidden information. What you print no longer represents what is on the screen.

Now digital technology will take that data and applications out of the office altogether. The rise of the corporate data centre will now be superseded by cloud computing, as applications, processing and data are managed via the internet in anonymous grid or utility computing farms managed by the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon and HP. The efficiency of these spaces with their ‘blades’ and shared resources through ‘virtualisation’ techniques, will challenge any corporate solution on cost, efficiency and green credentials. Offices will cease to house the servers and so the power and cooling requirements, fire suppression and voids for cabling all begin to disappear as we head towards a ‘thin building’.

And so the digital revolution will take almost everything out of the corporate office. In the future we will in effect, occupy from a digital perspective, an empty building, devoid of the computing power that keeps the corporate pulse. And with the migration to the cloud will come the realisation that work will increasingly be done from anywhere, at anytime. Software as a Service will lead to Workplace as a Service… as people begin to consume ‘places to work’ on a need basis. The necessity to co-locate in a down town office building, sitting adjacent to departmental colleagues to carry out a task will be seen as yesterday’s approach to work in the
analogue era.

So with mobility and new devices, digital flow and the cloud, what is left for the office? The rise of digital does not mean the decline of bricks and mortar. People will still need to work, and will need a place for work that is not the home. Collaboration will require people to co-habit. And there will always be the need for a narrative environment.

With digital comes choice for both the individual and the corporation. For the employee, a range of work settings that suit the different tasks that all employees are required to carry out presents itself. Specialised areas that are suited to particular activities, with appropriate technology and other tools, can be created. Highly energised collaborative spaces with intelligent surfaces, embedded video conferencing and mobile connectivity can be provided as well as ‘phone free’ zones for contemplation, writing and thinking. Digital redefines the office as a series of zones that are suitable for different tasks, with appropriate technology, connectivity, power and peripherals.

And as digital develops, the technology becomes embedded within buildings so that they become real time assets, allowing utilisation to be fine-tuned and controls managed to offset carbon and achieve sustainable best practice. For the company, this approach can not only allow the best star ratings but remove costs in both
capex and opex from the business.

The digital revolution will not slow down. New devices, city wide networks and a host of other innovations will continue to allow innovation and change. The next step change will see location aware systems and services which combine with knowledge management software and real time buildings to actually bring people together when they are in the same space and have something to talk about. Engineering the chance encounters in tomorrow’s digital organisation will not only remove downtime but also become the catalyst for an acceleration of the speed of corporate activity and human interaction.

Philip Ross is Founder and CEO of UnGroup and Cordless Group, and is a specialist in workplace and technology futures.  He has written a number of books on the future of work and the workplace including Space to Work. philip@unwork.com

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