Here, there, doesn’t matter where – I am the workplace

By Kate Dobbertin, Communication & Collaboration Project Manager, Xerox Corporate Communications

At the end of June, I had the pleasure of attending the Future of Work Dreaming Session, which explored different perceptions of the ideal workplace and the future of work. Here is my summary of the conversation that took place in my group’s discussion.

“You’re looking at it all wrong.  I am the workplace,” said Steve Hoover, CEO of PARC, moments after arriving at the Future of Work dreaming session.  He had missed the 15-minute introduction and explanation of the task at hand, but it wasn’t important.  Everything he needed to know was staring at him from the giant white board with four headings:  Home, Travel, Remote Office, and Main Office.  “It doesn’t matter where I am; my work is always with me,” Steve said, tapping his smart phone.Future of Work Dreaming Session Team 2 Ideal Workplace brainstorm board

The intent of the workshop was to examine the challenges of “Today’s Worker,” then to propose solutions to said challenges.  The fairly obvious assumption was that most of these challenges would focus around tools:  email, voicemail, and various other technologies needing improvement or invention.  But Steve (along with the rest of his team) had a different idea.  “We talked about the tool problems, but we assumed they’d be fixed within the next ten years.  So we moved on,” explained Nicole Heinsler, who works in New Business Development at Xerox.

Instead, the discussion revolved around a different set of pain-points. There were some age-old complaints – such as the desire for meaningful work and a workplace that encourages a sense of enchantment – but there was another idea that was brand new to me. In an always-on workplace, group members were tired – not of answering email at 6am, 11pm, and on vacation, but of living a double life.

These contributors are not your average employees – they are the super-engaged, the mythical women and men who wake up psyched to go into work.  They fully embrace the integration of work and life.   They passionately love work (crazy as it sounds, would you question an opera singer who blasts Mozart 24/7?), but they hate the mess it creates – files stored on multiple devices, pictures uploaded to different cloud repositories, and a list of social media profiles longer than your arm. Should I tweet about a concert I’m attending, or is this handle strictly professional?  Do I let colleagues Friend me on Facebook, or only Connect via LinkedIn?  Moreover – if I’m expected to pick up work at a moment’s notice, why can’t I take more of who I am into work?

And here’s where we wrap back to the tools.  They desire a tool that manages the total me – work and play.  One inbox, one calendar, one task list, and – for goodness’s sake – one login for everything.  Transition between work and life should be seamless.

Technology should do the legwork, translating data into wisdom.  Forget inbox rules, think in terms of Ironman’s Jarvis – a personal assistant in digital form.  “I read probably 5% of the email that hits my inbox every day,” said Alexander Manu, Senior Partner at Innospa International Partners. He wants his digital assistant to help him with time management by providing only relevant data, queuing notes he’ll read and meetings he’ll attend and ignoring the rest.  “It’s Siri for business, plus the intelligence of IBM’s Watson.”

Steve chuckled at this request.  “We’re already doing that at PARC.  It’s called contextual intelligence.”  He described a system that learns from user behavior and presents email in order of importance based on the amount of time it’s historically taken the owner to respond to that type of message.

The team drew up a list of seven principles, features, and functions that could help manage work and life on a continuum.  Glancing over the list, one stands out:  “Evolve the workplace with integrity.”  It seems there will always be business problems we can’t fix with technology.  We can’t help the unengaged employees who view the workplace as (at best) a necessary evil.  But we can have a much bigger impact on their all-star colleagues.  Perhaps those superstars at PARC can build the tools to blend work and life as seamlessly as answering your phone, “Hello, corporate sales, how may I help you?” or “Hey, Honey, I haven’t forgotten the milk, just finishing up a presentation on the way…”

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  1. Markus Fromherz (Xerox employee) July 13, 2012 - Reply

    Thanks for the summary of this event. When I did research on the future of work, a realization I had was that we’re actually going back to an old model with the blending of “life” and “work”. In the age of agriculture and trades and family shops, there was little separation between work and the rest of your life. Also, humans generally worked at or very near the home. Last, most people worked for themselves. Then, in the industrial age, with the need to centralize work around places with expensive machines and immediate communication, people needed to leave their homes to work, and many people became employees. Today, when most work is knowledge work and communication technologies allow us to work anywhere and many people are working again for themselves (“free agents”), we are to some extent going back to the old model – with some tweaks (like, we’re not dependent on when the cows come home).

  2. Kate Dobbertin (Xerox employee) July 13, 2012 - Reply

    Thanks for sharing, Markus! The time when there was no difference between “work” and “home” actually was mentioned during the workshop, though you’ve gone into more depth in your comment. I love the idea that we might be returning to our roots. It will be interesting to watch the trends in this area.

  3. Cristhian July 19, 2012 - Reply

    Interesting view. Indeed, this seems to be the trend. Life and work, all mixed up together with no clear boundaries between them.

    But, is it something that everybody wants? Or is it something just for a few who work on things that might be “enjoyable” outside the workplace? Will somebody working at factory, or doing cleaning work, or doing customer service really get a benefit from this, or will they become “slaves” of their work because of it, loosing everything else that makes their lives enjoyable? Will this increase the stress because of that unbearable feeling of never getting things completely done in one day of work?

    I believe that some human activities can really benefit from an integration like this. But, I can only see creative work in this category. As for the rest, this might be a big trap, in my very very humble opinion.

  4. Cristhian, I definitely agree this is not for everyone. When my fiance read this, his initial reaction was, “That sounds horrible.” He strongly believes that work should take place between 8 and 5.

    I suppose one danger of enabling those who are highly engaged — those who love their work and pursue it willingly in their free time — is that it sets a precedent for all employees that they must be accessible 24/7. I think the point the individuals in the workshop were trying to get across was, “We already work 24/7 because we want to. We just want our companies to make it easier for us.”

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