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

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“New ways of working” is a catch-all concept used to describe an emerging model of knowledge-work centred around the need to accommodate flexible and collaborative workers and working patterns. A workforce employing this model work and communicate from anywhere and at any time, enabled by digital technologies. Organisations are increasingly looking to accommodate this new model, controlling work and workers based on outcome rather than on hours spent sitting at a desk.

On the occasions such workers are present at the office, a common perception is that they require flexibility in terms of time and physical space, enabling work to be undertaken whenever they wish and in a physical environment suited to the task at hand. When outside the office, digital technologies are employed to connect the worker with their work and their co-workers.

Office designers have thus planned and created increasing numbers of new and renovated spaces built on a need for the ultimate in flexibility. Known as ‘activity-based’ offices, such buildings provide the worker with a variety of areas offering an appropriate environment for whatever task needs to be completed, as well as incorporating the scope for interaction as required with other workers. Here in Sweden, such activity-based offices are increasingly common.

When you enter such an office, you find an open space divided into different areas by means of furniture, plants and a variety of other cool and stylish objects. The design is carefully planned, the colours chosen with purpose, the furniture carefully matched to both function and aesthetics. Such spaces are undoubtedly fresh and appealing, even though increasingly they all have a similar look and feel. Close attention seems to have been given to the atmosphere and ambience created by these spaces, undoubtedly designed to evoke an emotional response amongst employees.

In researching this new style of office Anna Alexandersson and Viktorija Kalonaityte of Linnaeus University noted that such designs attempt to engender a greater level of creativity.  They suggest that ‘playful’ office design removes many of the traditional boundaries of working life. Further, by building leisure and private spaces into offices, organisational hierarchies are expected to disappear which in turn encourages collective forms of play and creativity.”[2]  In further research by Bonneau and Sergi, it was suggested  that the aim of such working environments was not only to drive creativity, but also to encourage collaboration.[3]

As digital technologies continue to enable greater levels of workforce mobility, such creative and collaborative spaces are likely to be governed by hot-desk policies, with no possibility for the employee to create a personal space with their own possessions, be them photos of friends and family or a collection of books.

Such locations, optimised for creativity and collaboration, offer plenty of space for the interpersonal, but no place for the individual. The only item the employees are expected to form a personal bond with is their laptop. Everything else they need to do their work is available in the cloud. The future may even be about to take this last personal object away too. In articles conceptualising future offices it is suggested that laptops or touchscreens will be permanently located within the building to enhance security, with employees logging in via eye-scanning or finger prints. There will therefore be no need to bring any personal objects to the office at all. While the total absence of personal objects and places may be common in other contexts (for example, in assembly line work), within the knowledge work sector, this is a new development.

The potential to work anywhere and anytime thanks to digital technologies may on the one hand empower the worker to shape their own patterns of work, but it also separates the worker from the workplace. Work traditionally could be understood as the process of using ‘things’ to achieve our task, with certain places and objects becoming personal to us and an integral part of how we perform our tasks. Work is not just writing words, inserting data or making a call; it is doing that in a personal way emerging from how we relate to, use and work within places and with 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-localising’ individual work but also de-materialising it. All traces of work in the future may therefore be purely digital with no more personal objects and no more personal spaces. The interpersonal will therefore reign supreme, so 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.  

A future allowing work to be undertaken anywhere and anytime but with no personal things seems to be where we are heading. The consequences of such a shift are still unexplored. We know that the introduction of flexible offices often encounters resistance and hybrid scenarios are emerging where organisations offer a more nuanced approach. In these instances a level of personalisation is allowed or the philosophy of ‘bring your own technology’ (that is, use your preferred private IT artefact) applied[4]. Such approaches may be somewhat less secure, more costly for the employee, but may ultimately prove the most productive.

Before we sleepwalk into a new era of radical office design we need to know more about the impact of such changes and we need to establish whether the arrangements described above are beneficial. The open-plan office revolution of the late 1980s was supposed to drive creativity and communication. It undoubtedly achieved this, but unintended consequences were problematic with workplaces becoming noisier and more stressful as a result. If work really is going to become virtual, de-localised and de-materialised then is the workforce really going to thrive?