This posting is part of a series of postings on how our understanding and interpretation of cultural categories is shifting due to our use of the two infrastructures internet and mobile communication.
This posting is about Workplace

Candle factory, 1919 (from Dutch National Archive)
Workplace Is All About Access
In order to be able to complete your tasks effectively and efficiently you need to be in a place that provides easy access to everything you need for those tasks. That means access to the raw materials, the means of production, the finances, the knowledge, the information, the colleagues, the clients, and any other relevant stakeholder or object to your business. In the pre-industrial era this meant that your place of work and your place to live would often be the same, that other people plying the same trade would be located in each others vicinity, as would others in your ‘chain’ of production. And it would mean that as an artisan you would be located in a city, as population centers have creating access to virtually anything as a primary role.
In the industrial era, with its large immobile means of production, people needed to live right next to the factories. Only there could they perform their tasks. Urbanisation, and ‘workers neighbourhoods’ right next to factories inclined steeply in step with each smoke stack that was build.
The 'cheap' part
Factory metaphor projected on the office: document conveyor belts
When our economy shifted to services more, and office ‘white collar’ jobs became more widespread, our behaviour didn’t change much. We built our offices just as we built our factories. Large buildings with machines replaced by large amounts of paperwork. Work processes were similarly arranged as in the factory, with typewriting rooms and long hallways of offices. And when computers (late 80’s) internet (late 90’s) and cell phones (mid 90’s) became commonplace in the workplace at first we carried on as before. But slowly more and more people are realizing that the fundamental rationale behind our work place organisation, access to all we need for our tasks, is being eroded.

Access in a Networked World
Internet and mobile communications are infrastructures with qualities that increase the accessibility of people and any digitally available artefact.
First anyone connected to these infrastructures has access to any digital artefact (albeit documents, pictures, video, music, data sets, maps, voice packets) that is shared anywhere else on that infrastructure. Anything that is shared is shared as a perfect copy, undistinguishable from its original. This removes any scarcity of important pieces of information, as Wikipedia has written as its mission on its banner. As librarians, music companies, teachers, book publishers, and archivists, have found out, it also removes the need for many middle men that see themselves as gate keepers around that scarcity, forcing them to reinvent themselves whether they like it or not. In short I don’t need to be in the same place as the dossiers, documents or other digital artefacts are stored that I need to do my work.
Second internet and mobile communications do not require a geographically fixed end point. Unlike with landline phone, railways, postal mail and other infrastructure, on the internet and mobile communication networks you are the end point. We are our own address. I don’t need to know where you are to reach you. You don’t need to be in a defined spot for me to have access to you. You don’t need to be in the next cubicle down for me to have acces to you. I don’t need to know where you are at all for you to be my colleague.
Afternoon office
A suitable workplace
So if work place is about access, and as a white collar worker I can access any relevant document or any other person from anywhere, or as an artisan I can have access to customers from anywhere, then my work place can be basically any place. With ubiquitous access any place is as suited as any to stay in touch, sync and flow with my environment. With Wifi and coffee you’re all set. And it is showing in how we are organizing our work, impacting us well beyond the technology alone. Some examples:

Units of Business, Wirearchy
When access to the things you need to be effective at your work is ubiquitous, it becomes a lot easier to self-organize or to form ad-hoc groups around more complicated or complex tasks. It cuts down on the need of large overhead and hierarchical structures. I am a one man business, and work in different project teams for different clients. Those project teams have other members that are one man business as well.
None of us have managerial overhead, except for what is needed for the tasks at hand.
In fact the number of one man businesses is rising steadily. In the Netherlands they currently account for 50% of all businesses registered, and the expectation is that it will be 60% in 2 years time. The rapid growth in the number of these businesses started in 2000, right when both mobile communications (65% of all those above 17yrs old that year) and internet (75% of all businesses that year, 50% of all households) reached high penetration in the Netherlands. That year was the tipping point for access it seems. These independent people collaborate heavily: 60% of them regularly work with other independents, and another 25% want to do so.

In these collaborative settings hierarchy is replaced by networked structures such as wirearchies. We take on roles and tasks. I may be the project ‘leader’ in one project, and the ‘subordinate’ in another, but it’s always a role not a function, nor something permanently ‘attached’ to me. Because none of us is gatekeeper to the means of production or the needed resources, none of us can claim to be the ‘owner’ of the work, employing the others. In these teams there is mutual interdependence because only as a group could we have taken on the project. It shows in the places we choose as work settings; it is negotiated usually each time to fit what suits all participants best in relation to other obligations that impact their flexibility and mobility that day.

Work-Life Balance

Work-Life balance, in itself a recent term, used to be defined extremely simple. When you were at work, you were working. When you were not at work, you were doing the other things that made up your life.
Elmine
A conference for my wife’s birthday. Work-Life balance?
Having a fixed location for your work, and other fixed locations for your other activities, there are very clear boundaries between them by the act of moving from one location to another. But with internet and mobile communications that boundary is blurring and disappearing. Reading work e-mail at home, booking your summer holiday over the office internet connection, different activities are now seeping and creeping into others.
Being used to link contexts to locations (because location meant access) since basically forever, we are learning to adapt to find a new way of balancing all our activities now that location as a determining factor is disappearing (because access is ubiquitous).
When you have access to almost everything from almost any place, your own priorities and the needs of those important to you are the only guidelines to strike a balance between your activities. I could read business e-mail during dinner with my wife, as could she. I could do some shopping in a meeting with a client, as could she. We couldn’t before, now we can, so we need to learn to decide to do something or not more often than we were used to. Those decisions are informed by the truely scarce things, such as face to face time with somebody, which requires you to really be in the here and now, or the things that still are actually bound to a certain location.
Internet and mobile communications create access where there was none, making forms of organisation possible that weren’t before, and decoupling the context you need for a task from fixed geographic locations. Because of it we are reshaping our work place, and our work place is shifting.
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One reaction on “Shifting Cultural Categories: Work Place

  1. In a recent course, my students and I came to a similar conclusion about the workplace. What my students found especially troublesome was the blurring of lines between home and work. This was especially evident in their determination that facebook book should not be used for anything but personal use (although some had initially suggested this a workplace tool).
    I think though, that those coming out of school today will have an easier time dealing with this new workplace (as some schools move towards this model) than those currently in the workplace.

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