2006-03-04

Will work be mobile and free?

Asher Moses writes in the above C|Net article: "rather than obliterate our social lives, always-on connectivity and the increased flexibility it brings will allow us to break free from the office and actually socialise more." Work will be freed from the constraints of time and place.

While the technological capacity for this exists, I don't think our companies and employees are quite ready yet. For example, it has been possible to work from home for quite a few years already - we have DSL, cell phones, etc. Still this is not yet happening, and the utopians have a job of explaining why. There are psychological factors: it is easier to work if you have people bustling around you, doing similar tasks and bringing you to focus time and again by asking stuff. At home, it is easier to relax if there is little to remind you of work. There are cultural factors: the 8 to 4 office work is the traditional pattern of our society, and is what many employers expect from their workforce. They like the aspect of control, as they can - in theory - always easily check if a said employee is actually present and doing her job. They expect their employees to be available at set hours, either for contact by customers or to support the other employees who might need some help with their tasks. All this of course is nothing new, since the issue of cultural lag is well known to social scientists. For example in Marxist social theory one of the key tenets is that technology triggers the advance of society, but it takes time before the conditions of production and ideology adapt.

There are some workers whose productivity increases dramatically from mobility: reporters, inspectors, administrators that have to support multiple sites... However for most people to benefit from mobile technology, we have to change our way of how we view and structure our work. In my experience it is easy to get distracted working from home, meaning that it's hard to put in a full 8 hours day. However you may be able to concentrate better, meaning that you could achieve the same productivity with just 6 hours. Will employers agree to a 6 hour work day, would they not rather have us working the full 8 hours at full productivity? Certainly there already are forces that are pulling to a change in our models of work. There is outsourcing, freelancing, project work, temporary work contracts... All this means that man-hours become less important while the employee will assume more responsibility of her productivity. Perhaps the culmination of this development will be an anarchistic society where money is less important and work is voluntary - meaning that if somebody works, she is actually motivated for the task? Consider for example many free software developers - people who do not expect to be paid for their work - and p2p file sharers - people who do not expect to pay for various content.

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