New ways of working and the personal – anywhere and anytime, but any thing left? / by Christoffer Andersson

“New ways of working” is a concept used today to summarize a new ideal of knowledge work centered around the flexible and cooperating worker, able to work and communicate from anywhere and anytime thanks to digital technologies – and empowered to do so by a management approach controlling work based on outcome rather than on hours spent sitting at a desk. When at the office, such a new worker is supposed to need flexible arrangements in time and space, enabled to work where needed and when needed. When outside the office, digital technologies connect this worker with work and coworkers. Office designers have thus seen, and contributed to, a surge for new or renovated offices based on flexible arrangements that provide the worker with a variety of office areas offering the proper environment for the task at hand, as well as ample possibility for interaction with other workers.[1] Activity-based offices are in Sweden nowadays, for instance, what many organizations are turning to.

When you enter an activity-based office, you enter an open space divided into different areas by means of furniture, plants, stylish or cool objects. The design is carefully planned, the colors chosen with purpose, the furniture designed – it is difficult not to find such spaces fresh and appealing, even though they all look more or less the same. Interestingly, a lot of care seems to have be given to the atmosphere produced through such spaces, provoking sensual and emotional responses in the employees. As Anna Alexandersson and Viktorija Kalonaityte of Linnaeus University notice, such office design mobilizes playfulness to shape a creative athmosphere: “Our analysis suggests that playful office design removes many of the traditional boundaries of the working life. For example, it builds in leisurely and private spaces into the office, makes it difficult to discern organizational hierarchies, and promotes collective forms of play and creativity.”[2] According to Bonneau and Sergi, the aim is not only to materialize creativity in this new kind of workplace, but also collaboration.[3]

As digital technologies enable mobility, such creative and collaborative spaces are spaces governed by hot-desk policies, with no possibility for the employee to create a personal space with one’s own objects, be them photos of dear ones or a collection of books. In this space for creativity and collaboration there is, in other words, plenty of space for the interpersonal, but no place for the personal. The only object the employees are supposed to carry around, and bond with, is their laptop. What they need for working is in the cloud. But the future may take this last personal object away too. We hear about concepts of future offices including laptops or touchscreens available around the office: you just need to login by eye-scanning or finger prints. While the total absence of personal objects and places may be common in other contexts, I think this is new in knowledge work to such a large extent.

The possibility to work anywhere and anytime thanks to digital technologies may on the one hand empower the worker to shape one´s own work, but it also separates the worker from work as we are used to conceived it. Work can in fact be understood as a material practice, including certain places and objects that become personal and an integral part of how we perform work. Work is not just writing words, inserting data or making a call; it is doing that in a personal way emerging from how one relates to, uses, works with places and objects that are re-shaped as they are used. Moving “work” to the cloud seems to result in confining individual work to the cloud, thus not only de-localizing individual work but also de-materializing it: all traces of work are digital. No more personal objects, no more personal spaces. The interpersonal reigns, as long as it feeds on the designed materiality of the workplace and does not leave any material trace in it – everything that is not designed nor digital is ephemeral.  

Anywhere, anytime but no thing left. Is that the future? The consequences of such a shift are still unexplored. We know that the introduction of flexible offices often encounters resistance. We also see examples of a more nuanced approach in which personalization is allowed or the philosophy of “bring your own technology” (that is, use your preferred private IT artefact) applied[4] – of course this may be more costly. We need to know more about what is happening with work and whether it is going to become virtual, de-localized and de-materialized.


[1] See for instance https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/sme-home/what-office-of-future-looks-like/

[2] https://managementink.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/is-play-the-future-of-office-space/

[3] Bonneau, Claudine and Sergi, Viviane (2018) What does collaboration sound and look like?
The reconfiguration of corporate collaborative spaces and tools in Montreal-based organizations. Paper presented at the 2nd RGCS Symposium

[4] https://www.kinnarps.com/knowledge/kinnarps-trend-reports/trend-report-2/download/?__FormGuid=71d5067a-a1e0-4b8d-b973-68bc8bb27a9f&__FormLanguage=en&__FormSubmissionId=5833536b-f0a0-41ea-a9ac-86698ecc3124