THE BLOG

When Work Isn't a Place Anymore

02/02/2015 03:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015
Ken Wramton via Getty Images

Are you drowning in email? Torn between working from home or enduring rush hour to get "face time"? Tired of using "productivity" tools that are hard to use and make you want to bang your head against the wall?

For too many people, today's work experience is defined by frustrating experiences like these. Decaying infrastructure has hurt our competitiveness, a point underscored by President Obama in his State of the Union address. "Twenty-first century businesses need 21st century infrastructure -- modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet," said the President.

Every part of business is being rewritten by technology -- from go-to-market models to product design and delivery. Today, in fact, technology has become the business in many industries. But what about work itself? How are we doing at rewriting that? Perhaps not as well if we look at today's work experience.

Technology has led to an increase in work volume, but has not always led to better work quality. There's a backlash from employees who feel that work intrudes too much in their personal lives via their always-connected devices. As a result, there are increasing problems with burnout, emotional fatigue and depression that have led over the past decade to rising health care costs and higher absenteeism.

But it doesn't have to be this way. As I participated in a working session last week on technology and the workplace at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, it occurred to me that work probably isn't going to be a "place" at all in the future -- it will be more of an "experience" mediated and delivered by software. But companies must make sure that experience is both rich and consistent across office, remote or on the road locations.

In short, we need to revamp our workplace tools and culture to drive higher and healthier productivity. Command and control is out. Performance-driven cultures where management seeks high productivity but gives employees more freedom to determine their schedules and location is the way of the future in an increasingly complex, always-on and stress-filled world.

First order of business should be making our business tools look and work more like popular, intuitive consumer software, a trend known as the "consumerization of IT." That means employing strategies like "mobile-first," as well as self-serve, social and collaborative solutions on employee systems and devices. Refreshing that age-old connection between technology and employee engagement is now in the hands of next-gen IT departments. Far from resisting change, IT in many organizations is now leading the charge to modernize.

Collaboration tools, for instance, are seeing rapid innovation and can help create a more seamless experience between office-based and remote work. New programs like Slack, Trello, GitHub and many others connect workers in different locations and give them a unified view of communications, project management and software development work. You can be out of office, but feel like you are in the office, contributing and communicating with your fellow workers in real time.

Instead of people spending hours in their cars, trains or buses stuck on long commutes, such technologies that foster a better and broader remote working experience can relieve stress both on employees and our planet and maintain or raise productivity.

Down the road, personalized big data solutions along with context aware computing and machine learning can help us to start relieving some of the email overload and also reduce that pressure. Google Now, self-driving cars and IBM's Watson computer are early examples of this coming wave of cognitive computing.

Culture is critical. A company can provide all the great tools it wants, but if management does not visibly support the idea of a performance-driven, flexible workplace, then workers will shy away from taking advantage of the technology. If so, work-life remains out of balance, and the productivity gains will be left on the cubicle floor.

Companies are innovating on culture, too. More corporations are creating innovative employee programs. New York product development start-up Quirky recently started a "black-out" program where a few times a year the company gives its entire staff a week-long mandatory vacation. Employees can clean their apartments, visit doctors, explore unfamiliar territories or finish that creative side project

There will always be times when face-to-face communication is necessary. But in age where Internet broadband, mobile devices and sophisticated software become commonplace, workplaces need to continue adapting to the more experience-based future.

Going forward, good work experience management will become a fundamental condition of the success of any business, indeed any society. If we do this right and make it a priority, technology coupled with good management can play the role it has always aspired to: that of liberator, creator and enabler.

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