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.

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.

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.

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.

I am currently in Lisbon for the SHiFT conference. This three day event saw a day of workshops yesterday, and today is the start of the conference proper, with about 50 presentations until tomorrow evening.

Feira Internacional de Lisboa: SHiFT venue

My contribution will be a 80 minute Knowledge Cafe on the cultural categories and concepts that need/are shifting because of the impact mobile communications and internet have as infrastructures on our lives and routines. Digital nomads have seen their perception of work-life balance, value, transparancy, privacy, information strategies, organisations, jobs, structures etc, change in the past decade. This means we are learning new boundaries, barriers and attractors to balance our lives, and are creating new meaning and language to express that. I think there is a real need for that type of redefining cultural concepts and creating new language. Simply because it is virtually impossible to express the new exclusively in the language of the old. By doing a Knowledge Cafe (apart from not having time to create the content for a presentation last week because I was ill) I hope to bring the discussion down from the abstract level into the individual context of the participants, where they are most likely to feel well equipped to reflect and exchange experiences and stories.

Hanging out with Henriette, Mark and Brian during the workshop day

Work Life Balance?
In the conversations during Elmine’s Birthday Unconference at the end of August we talked a lot about work-life balance. Basically I concluded some time ago that the whole work-life distinction has disappeared for me. I just do stuff. It used to be that work and the rest of life were separated by location and time. During work hours I would be at a certain spot, and when I wasn’t, I wasn’t working. That of course has all changed. I am somewhere, doing something, and time and location can no longer serve as boundaries to help me distinguish between aspects of my life in quite the same way.

Using our living room for meetings

The question became what kind of boundaries help me to be balanced in my activities and help me to experience flow (see how I avoid using work and life as opposites here)?
The week after Elmine’s Birthday Unconference I attended Dave Snowden’s Cognitive Edge seminar, about applying what we know about complex adaptive systems to organizational and work contexts.
There too boundaries are an important notion, next to attractors and barriers. Also in my work with the Future Workspaces consortium, flow and balance are frequently discussed issues.

Attractors, Boundaries and Barriers
So I have taken thoughts, questions, ideas and key words from the output of Elmine’s Birthday Unconference and sorted them into attractors, boundaries and barriers, and those that seem to fall between two of those categories.

The lists below are transcribed from this photo

Attractors (or things that I think will improve my flow):

Owning my learning path
Fun tools (flow is fun)
— Create my Digital habitat
Casual transparancy
Into productivity because I am lazy
— Planning is energy conservation
— Acquisition
— Production
— Development
Events/choosing events
— That inspire me
— That help me commercially
— That make me better visible to my network
Surplus energy
— Choosing where to spend it or not
In what places do I want to be? In terms of:
— Financially
— Bridging Academia and Business
— Recognition
— Research
— Physically
New routines
— Effect of complexity
— Information strategies

Boundaries (or things that I think help me to stay in flow):

Self reflection on current boundaries
Law of 2 feet
— On value
— On meaning
Value in my system
Places as boundaries
— where to work
— where not to work
Constraints for creativity
Knowing when to stop

Between Attractors and Boundaries (things that may be an attractor or a boundary):
Attention giving
Obligations outside-in vs quality inside-out
(Dis)connecting from spheres selectively

Between Boundaries and Barriers (things that may be a boundary or a barrier):
100% mobile productivity is a myth
— assumed expectations of others
What is it I get paid for?

Barriers (things I think impede my flow):
Blurred boundaries
Work as a job is a 19th century concept
Communication style resulting in more work/promises
Not communicating
— Boundaries, expectations, terms of acceptance
Hating must/should
Own thinking makes things urgent
Stress sources
— Macro / over contexts
— Micro / within contexts

Me working on the train. Photo: Elmine, license CC BY NC SA

This is thinking in progress so I am nowhere near conclusions yet. I have changed part of my routines already though. I have been playing around with place: not using my laptop for serious work on the couch. Only allowing myself to work on e-mail or simple stuff (like uploading pics) at the dinner table, all other laptop based activities taking place in our home office. But that’s just a piece of what might become a larger set of different notions about my activities.

Last year we used my birthday on May 12th to invite people from both our different on-line and off-line circles of friends and bring them together for a BBQ. We thought that worked out great!

This year Elmine turns 30 next week on August 30th. We have taken that as an opportunity to invite a broad selection from our friends and family. Just like last year, but bigger and better. To make a longer trip more attractive this year the BBQ will be accompanied by a 1-day conference on August 29th.

The BBQ will be about good food, but what will the conference be about? Both Elmine and I work in a networked world. Not only in terms of technology (though technology is a very visible aspect), but in terms of skills, attitudes, work forms, organisational forms and who our peers are (or our fellow global villagers as Gerrit Eicker put it in my last post). Though we often like to create models and use abstract terms to describe these changes, we think how these changes affect our day to day lives and work is often shared and shown too little. For the conference we would like to put those concrete changes in your and our own lives, little and big, in the spotlight. The format depends a bit on what the participants want, but will probably be a mixture of what usually happens at a BlogWalk and a BarCamp.

We welcome you to Twente University for the (un)conference day (photo by WJ Maaskant)

We therefore would like to invite you to share your stories on:
– what the driving forces are in your work;
– what you struggle with;
– what projects/things you’re working on;
– how you connect with other people and sustain these connections;
– what type of organisations, teams, settings you work in;
– how you take charge of your own life
– how you balance work and private life, or if that distinction still exists
– how your life has changed, or not, in the past years
– what your typical day looks like.
– how you create value for yourself in what you do

Or whatever story you would like to share to make what we often discuss in abstract terms more tangible.

On August 29th, some 25 of our friends and peers will come to the University Campus here in Enschede to learn, share and inspire. But this being the end of August means lots of you could not make it, due to vacationing. Nevertheless we would like to invite you to contribute to the event by sharing your stories with us on the topics mentioned above. Via e-mail, in your own blog (as Bev Trayner already did here, here and here), in the comments here, or on any other platform you think appropiate. Elmine and I would love to hear your stories!

Want to attend after all? Or come to the BBQ on August 30th? Well, sure you can! Send me an e-mail that you would like to attend. And read more info on what’s planned for next week in Elmine’s wiki.

We welcome you to our house for a BBQ party