Sunday, December 18, 2011

Future of Work is here

Aeons ago (circa 2005) 3G was still just a concept, smart phones and tablet PCs like iphone and iPad were science fiction and broadband internet was a pricey reality. In those days (like today) every one got up early in the morning and commuted to work every day. Then followed the usual daily grind with the coffee to keep you awake through the day and then the commute back was unwelcome reality. Working from home or Telecommuting was a seldom encouraged option and stuff only meant for extra-ordinary circumstances. Most bosses would equate "working from home" to slacking at company cost.

In those days, I happened to be working at a client location in the US. The client - a reputed financial institution was experimenting with a concept they called "Future of Work". The guinea pigs of this experiment were a section of employees in the IT department of the company. I was in this batch of guinea pigs.

So what is Future of Work (FoW)?
The experiment was basically a specially designed workplace in a separate building and all of us who were part of this experiment were to be moved to that building. Each employee was given a laptop. Remember this was aeons ago in Computing terms... only people on the move (like sales) or senior managers were provided with company laptops. So for a ordinary software developer .. that too contractor, getting a company laptop was a big deal. Employees also got a blackberry. Again in those days having a blackberry attached to your belt was a corporate style statement which said - "I am important to the company". As a contractor I had to make do with only a laptop.
That was not all we were given a guided tour to the new working place. The new workplace was a fully WiFi enabled building. Most existing desktop computers then could connect to a network only using CAT5 cables so WiFi in the building could well be deemed as unnecessary cost. Each floor was a large open area with several rows of open desks instead of cubicles. The desks were spacious and each desk had a monitor, a phone and a laptop docking station. The obvious missing thing was a cabinet. We were told that we won't have fixed workstations but could occupy any available empty desk.

Days before the move we were handed the detailed briefing documents. Each of us would have a wifi enabled laptop (with VPN connectivty software), an extra set of laptop batteries, a land-line code and a land-line number. Besides employees would also have their blackberry. We were supposed to carry these devices with us like schoolbags. There were assigned cabinets for us and a few fixed corners of the floor where these cabinets should be put away at the end of the day. Remember none of us had fixed desks.
Each day when we entered the work area, we had a short drill. Locate an empty desk of interest, and dock the laptop. Punch the land-line code into the phone and it would immediately become our own personalized land-line with a fixed extension. Then for those of us who chose to leave any papers or stuff in the cabinet, we had to drag the cabinet to this desk. That's it.
Of course given WiFi, we could stay connected from the coffee break out rooms, meeting rooms or even corridors.

It was a paradigm shift in terms of a start of day drill. It felt as if we were all nomads and each day we were to pitch our tent so we could spend time in office.
The most interesting part was that the total number of desks were sufficient for only like 80% (may be even less) of the total staff assigned in that building. The theory (or so I heard) of the management was that on any given day about 20 % of the staff is not at desk due to leaves, work from home, meetings etc. This may have been supported by statistical data but seemed logical. Thus the company could potentially save about 20 % on recurring real estate and related costs. Of course if even 90% of staff did actually turn up to work place on a given day, there would be a serious space crunch. They even had a solution to avoid this problem. The company would pay for the broadband bills of employees so that they could be connected to the company network (via VPN over broadband). This meant that unlike past, bosses wouldn't mind if you were not in office - as long as you were reachable via email and phone and the work was getting done.

Now this being a new concept some people were not quite happy with it. A few days into this concept the early starters would show up and occupy their favorite desks and had converted those into fixed desks like the old days. So for some employees it didn't really matter that the company was experimenting with a new concept. They just wanted to continue with their old style of work. But there were others like me for whom this concept suited perfectly.

Lazy as I was, I would never wake up in time to start work at the 9 (official start time). In fact I would get up at about the time the office was supposed to start.
With FoW I wouldn't bother dashing to office in a hurry. Instead, I would camly open the laptop while still curled up in my bed, and connect to the office network. A quick check on emails and urgent issues and responses as needed were enough to give my boss the impression that I was already busy with work. Since there were no fixed desks, I figured if anybody wanted to meet me in person they wouldn't know where to find me and if I wasn't seen they would probably think that I was sitting in some distant corner of the floor. After my morning routines I would dash to office at about 10 - 10.30 am (or at the time of start of the first in-person meeting). Sometimes meetings were a boring affair where I was only present to provide input on a certain aspect and rest was just jibber-jabber. I would then multi task on my WiFi connected laptop and get some other work done.
After all daily meetings were done, I would leave office at about the time as the early starters (people who started office before 9) were leaving office. The idea was to avoid traffic of the late evening. I would reach home and finish off the day by responding to the last few emails of the day via VPN.
Often I would feel a little too lazy (i.e when there were no in person meetings in the day) and would just stay back home the whole day.

The flexibility that this FoW provided was like stuff of dreams for me then. That of course reflected in my next appraisal where the client had rated me highly and I got an improved overall performance rating. I was of completely surprised when it happened. While I think my room mates (who knew my real FoW drill) thought I was turning into a slacker, it actually had worked wonders for my performance. In retrospect, I believe without worries about work day and flexibility of both time and place of work, I could do the heads down work from a place of my comfort (home) at a time of my choice. Naturally when I did sit down to work, I could get more work done in same time as past.

Like all good things there was a flip side to this as well. Bad weather was no longer a reason to stay away from work. As long as there was electric power supply and internet at home I was expected to be able to get the job done.
Often during "production issues" I ended up working at weird hours of the night (not to mention while still curled up inside the blanket). In other words the laptop was always perched somewhere nearby my pillow. The distinction between work place and home, which I had always maintained quite religiously was getting blurred. All said and done, I thought it was a very interesting concept and really the Future of Work. In a few months, I moved on to another client and this experiment did not continue for me.

6 years later, now 3G is a reality, tablet PCs and smart phones are now everyday devices that even kids can use. Broadband prices have remained stable and speeds have gone up. WiFi is common not only in office buildings but also other commercial establishments (e.g. Airports, coffee shops). In short high speed internet connectivity can be achieved from virtually anywhere in urban regions. Networking socially has become an on-line affair in form of modern social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. Technology companies are now comfortable with a flexi-work ethic. In my last job as a pre-sales consultant, armed with a laptop, vpn connectivity software and USB data card, I could work not just from home, but literally anywhere.

This whole transformation makes me excited about the technology improvements that are to come. Being a technology enthusiast and believer in efficiency of machines, I dare to say the following. Fuel costs are rising and so are urban populations. Cities are expanding and pretty soon everyday travel to and fro from work will seem like an expensive (both on the wallet and mind) and avoidable drill in favor of using that travel time more constructively. This has already happened in large cities like Mumbai. Thus people will prefer "Working from home" over office, traveling only when the job requires face to face interactions. Perhaps even face to face interactions will move to use video conferencing. Thus what was seen as an experimental style of working a few years ago is getting wider acceptance and might soon become a reality. In that sense, the Future of work is here !!............isn't it ?

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