Technology does not impact our lives immediately, but in stages. The internal combustion engine-powered automobile was invented in the late 19th Century, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the proliferation of automobile ownership resulted in droves of Americans moving to the suburbs. John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first transatlantic flight in 1919, but commercial transatlantic flight didn’t begin until about 20 years later. Streaming technology has existed since the mid-1990s, but the demise of video stores has been a slow process. The last of former video rental giant Blockbuster’s stores closed just two years ago in 2013.
Mobile devices have now been around long enough for the term “Blackberry” (once used to describe all smartphones) to have become nearly obsolete, yet the workplace is only just beginning to feel the impact of mobile technology and it is struggling to adapt to it. When I speak of mobile technology, I don’t mean just smartphones, tablets, and wearables; I also mean the information backbone that supports it, including access to WiFi and the increasing capacity of wireless networks.
Demand for wireless data is growing and shows no signs of slowing anytime soon. Our information, services, and devices—from cloud servers and apps to smartphones, tablets, and lightweight laptops—have become cheaper, more portable, and more efficient to allow for easier access. Smartphones and data package prices have declined without a decrease in quality (and will continue to do so) thanks to more viable hardware and a constantly growing market. Cloud computing, particularly within businesses, has also become far more prevalent. Cisco expects that cloud network traffic will triple by 2017. With the proliferation of wireless devices, the declining price of wireless bandwidth, and the migration of software to the cloud, we are able to utilize a widening range of software from a growing swath of the globe.
These changes have impacted the workplace in increasingly apparent ways. As constant connectivity becomes a more accepted and encouraged practice, there are fewer barriers between work and personal life. We are as accessible at the dinner table or at a birthday party as we are when we’re in the office.
Ironically, this increased accessibility does not always facilitate communication. As technology makes it possible to populate teams and build relationships across a wide geographic area, problems remain with coordinating people who work in different time zones and may have had very limited in-person contact with one another. Electronic media facilitates speedy correspondence, but it’s hard to have a substantive conversation via IM or text. Further, with an endless array of media to choose from, it’s easy for team members to be left totally out of the loop on important communications.
While organizations have efficiently adopted new technology, many have given scant attention to how this technology is changing business culture. Management ignores these changes at its own risk. Your business’ goals and values must drive how technology is employed. The responsibility for setting expectations for employees’ accessibility, forming collaborative teams, and increasing productivity cannot be ceded to the technology that your employees use.
There are, however, ways for management to combat, improve, and properly embrace the impact of constant connectivity in the workplace:
- Set clear policies for when employees must be accessible. Employees need to know when they are expected to be on the job.There can’t be “shadow” work hours and unwritten expectations that employees will respond to requests at unspecified times. If there is an expectation that employees will be available outside of the time they are in the office, make sure it is clear what those expectations are.Where a workplace is project-oriented, it may be that employees are expected to be online from early in the morning until late at night. If some employees are interfacing with European counterparts, they may need to be available early in the morning, but perhaps that means that they can remain offline at night. Putting in place a policy doesn’t meandefaulting to a 9 to 5 workday, but it does mean that each of your employees knows what is expected of them.
- If you expect a high degree of availability, provide appropriate benefits. If your employees need to remain connected all the time, treat their time holistically. An employee that is expected to be available most of her waking hours only has a finite amount of those hours to complete all of her tasks, both for herself and your organization. To allow these employees to manage their work time more efficiently, provide an assistant, access to a travel service, and onsite dining. But, don’t stop there. Saving any of the employee’s limited time will increase their availability and reduce the burden of additional responsibility. To save them time in their personal lives, provide childcare options, discounts at nearby gym facilities, and personal assistant services.
- Rethink your office and who should be there. The focus of the office should be on interaction and coordination rather than isolated work that can be done anywhere. As employees become more mobile and less tied to their desks, the room that employees need for working is decreasing, allowing for more flexible use of office space. To promote innovation and cooperation, many businesses have begun to embrace this change in office space mentality and have remodeled accordingly. By leaving behind high cubicle walls, harsh fluorescent lighting, and large unapproachable corner offices, businesses are turning their office spaces into centers for creativity and collaboration.
- Formulate a telecommuting policy. Once you’ve made the decision to permit workers to work from outside the office, you’ll need to develop a telecommuting policy to ensure that they meet goals, are accessible, and can provide information securely. For some guidelines on how to build an effective telecommuting policy, check out our previous blog here.
- Rethink when your employees work. The 9 to 5 day is an increasingly artificial construct, especially if people primarily do business with your company through your website or if your business partners are halfway around the world. Take a look at each of your business functions and figure out what needs to be done when.While some departments may need to keep 9 to 5 hours, other departments may only need to be available during portions of the day. These flextime policies may be particularly welcome among employees that have childcare obligations, allowing these employees to arrive at work early, leave early, attend to family needs, and then get back online in the evening.
- Decide how information will be communicated. Where employees are working virtually, decisions need to be made about how to facilitate communication and information sharing. Management will likely want to set periodic phone calls or video conferences to ensure that team members are working in concert with one another.Decisions need to be made about where information will be kept and how it will be shared. If information is stored in the cloud, folders need to be well organized so that all team members can locate all data relevant to their work.
These suggestions are a starting point for adapting your organization to a workplace that sprawls over physical boundaries. The increasing accessibility of data will continue to impact organizations in unexpected ways. Businesses must be aware of how technology is changing the way its employees do business and take steps to ensure that technology is used consistently with the business’ core values.