How Technology Is Changing the Twenty-First Century Workplace

By Geoffrey James

According to the market research firm IDC, half of all Internet-enabled employees access the Web while at work for personal tasks, such as reading the news (81 percent), personal email (61 percent), online banking (58 percent), travel (56 percent) and shopping (52 percent). As a result, an undeclared war exists between the management and the employees at many firms, with almost two-thirds monitoring workers’ Internet connections and one out of two storing and reviewing employee email.

This represents a major disconnect between twenty-first century technology and twentieth century attitudes about what makes a workplace productive. In the twentieth century, the office workplace was seen as just another kind of factory. In that environment, work life and personal life were entirely separate and crossovers violated the rules. Employees who made personal calls were stealing from the company; managers who demanded longer-than-normal hours were expected to pay overtime.

In the twenty-first century, by contrast, online technology has blurred the line between work and personal life beyond all recognition. This creates a choice for today’s management: either use “big brother” tactics to squelch activities that are not work related (and pay the price in productivity-killing resentment) or embrace the fact that work and leisure are so intertwined that any attempt to separate them is doomed to failure.

The challenge for today’s management won’t be to force-fit the twentieth century notion of “office as factory” into the online work environment. Instead, what will be needed is a way to meld the employees’ personal lives with their work activity so that employees can move seamlessly between the two. At the same time, work must become more entertaining and engrossing, so that employees are motivated to complete their work in spite of all the online distractions.

To keep workers productive in the twenty-first century, companies will be forced to borrow and integrate those elements of non-work online life that employees find so attractive. For example, since employees are clearly drawn to online news sources, companies will need employee portals that present a snapshot of what’s going on inside the corporation, along with links to recently published articles that mention the firm. The idea is to focus the “news browsing” activity on work-related information rather than general news topics. Similarly, companies will need corporate blogs where key employees interact with other employees, and even customers, with the goal of creating a stronger sense of community and shared purpose.

Similarly, Web casting is another technology that engages employees by entertaining them. Web conferencing, with its instant polls and viewer feedback, already bears a strong resemblance to television shows like American Idol, where viewers participate in the decision making. In fact, the most sophisticated Web conferences incorporate professional moderators not to mention corporate videos with professional-grade production values. Some companies are even experimenting with using custom-built video games to train management personnel.

In the new work environment, knowledge workers won’t be treated like factory workers. Instead, business applications will co-opt common online leisure behavior and gently redirect it back to the workplace. So get ready for a future where consumer electronics and business computing are essentially a shared experience.

The above is based largely upon comments provided by well-known high-tech pundit Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the The Enderle Group.