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How technology will change the way we manage

Ten years ago, who could have predicted the way we work today? Broadband speeds have revolutionised the places we work and the way we think. E&T reflects on how we were, and looks at where we are going.

In contemplating the next decade up to the year 2020, we’d better be as clear about one thing as we can. If we’re going to wring even half of the potential we can out of mobile technology then it’s not the technology that needs to change, it’s the way we treat the people. They need to be treated as adults who can be trusted to perform the tasks allocated to them, rather than as kids who need the boss standing over them in case they should go off to watch the television.

Okay, let’s backtrack a little and talk about the technology first. It’s not unalloyed good news. Up to and including 2009 it’s been accepted by more or less everyone that the Internet will get faster and technology will get smaller and perform the same tasks. It’s true; if we compare the current moment to 1999 - leaving aside the paranoia about how the computing infrastructure was going to collapse when the date changed to 2000 - the techno-landscape is all but unrecognisable. Ubiquitous broadband was a pipedream, we were going to believe it when we saw it. The idea that people would carry even 50 CDs’ worth of music around with them in their pockets to play at will - and combine these with a phone that would also carry documents, diaries, contacts, games, newspapers and goodness knows what else - was all a bit ‘Beam me up Scotty’. And only one actor had played Scotty.

Well, you can now buy a smartphone that will do all of those things and plenty more in a technical specialist haven called ‘Tesco’. For something that advanced to become that commoditised in such a short time shows how far we’ve come.

Taking progress for granted

Of course, people are expecting the same rate of progress to continue - but can it? Let’s consider one or two facts. First something that’s common knowledge: as I type (December 2009, I know, how last decade) the UK is still in the grip of a huge recession. Retail sales are picking up somewhat but the UK is still expecting to borrow a figure equivalent to over 12 per cent of GDP in 2010, and if it was in the Euro and couldn’t hedge this by dabbling in cheaper currencies it would probably have its creditworthiness downgraded.

This is relevant because it’s likely to push taxes up during the first part of the decade and this in turn will limit the freedom of private business to upgrade the infrastructure so that it can carry a faster network - existing copper wiring having reached the end of its capacity to be upgraded. The UK Government, meanwhile, even if future administrations think Internet is a worthy use of public money, is going to be hamstrung for the first few years of the decade in terms of the money it can actually spare.

This isn’t a unique analysis. Axel Pawlik, managing director of RIPE NCC, confirms the infrastructure issue: “The surge in mobile Internet access will put heavy strain on the global Internet infrastructure. Every device linked to the Internet, from computers and Internet-enabled mobile phones to netbooks, has been assigned a number to enable it to connect with the rest of the devices on the network. These numbers, or Internet protocol (IP) addresses, are critical for the operation of the Internet,” he says. “Yet, the rapid adoption of networked digital devices, and the explosive growth of the Internet worldwide, have led to the depletion of the current form of IP addresses, IPv4.” We need to be at IP version 6 to accommodate current levels of growth, he says.

Others find different practicalities thrown up by the growth in mobile data. Carina Hoogeveen, territory account manager at Keynote Systems, points to IDC figures suggesting there will be a billion mobile Internet users over the next four years. “Such growth is presenting serious challenges to all involved in the mobile industry as they struggle to keep up with demand, and monetise their offerings,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges - and one that is only set to grow as more new smartphones and operating systems make their way onto the market - is how to ensure that mobile content is available at all times and optimised for multiple devices, browsers and networks.” Any web designers or other web masters watching will almost certainly have to consider how their site will look on multiple screen sizes - including phones.

If this isn’t depressing enough, it’s worth considering data from Jupiter Research which is no more optimistic. Its predictions only go as far as the end of 2010 but they’re as good an indicator as any of what’s going to happen for the rest of the decade. Mobile data traffic will expand and lead to an overhaul of 3G pricing, the research organisation says; by the end of 2019 we might be talking 8G but our hunger for data won’t have abated. More positively it says the mobile ecosystem will start to go green and mobile will head for the clouds, with app stores all around, augmented reality on the smartphone, new categories of ‘smartbooks’ (yes, we’d heard the rumours about an Apple tablet too).

Other experts offer other projections. Robert Epstein, head of small business at Microsoft UK, points first to the technology: “The continued improvement in both quality, speed and availability of fixed and mobile Internet access and the integration of communications technologies will allow us to go further with our move to a mobile and flexible work style. This will enable rich collaboration and communication by everyone using video, voice and data conferencing from a variety of locations and devices,” he says. This sounds like the standard ‘more of the same but faster’ response, which is no less pertinent for its ubiquity. He offers some more interesting insights, though: “Whilst the technology will improve, many of these capabilities have arrived over the previous 10 years and what will be interesting to watch unfold is the cultural impact this will have on people and the workplace as they become better and more widespread over the next ten years. It has the potential to significantly change where and when we work as well as how.”

That is an important statement. In those few words, Epstein has hinted that working practice as it is known at the moment will be turned completely upside-down.

Freelance revolution

This process is being led by the freelance workers. Let’s take a simple example - the writing of this very article. It started by email: the editor asked me if I was interested in writing about the subject. I’m a home-based freelance and considered the piece from that location and as a sole trader; I don’t work on the staff of the IET. Neither does my editor.

That’s four entities at work already - the IET, its editor and me - all legally defined as separate. We had our discussion; the editor asked me to write; I’m doing so; I’ll submit by email and the piece will appear.

The most interesting thing about this from the ‘futures’ point of view is that a number of questions have not arisen, specifically because neither of us are staff members.

Firstly, the editor didn’t ask how long it would take me. He told me when he needed it, and wasn’t concerned with whether I put it together in a day or in a week as long as the end result was readable, informative and relevant.

Secondly, he didn’t ask me where I would be writing it, and didn’t want to  keep an eye on me.

The corollary is that he is paying solely for output and results and has adopted a culture of trusting the freelance to deliver what is needed in a timely manner [you’re a day late and don’t think we haven’t noticed -ed]. He will put his section together and get it to the editor-in-chief and the whole magazine will eventually be delivered to the printers after the sub-editors and designers have applied their skills to the product.

Things we have eliminated include: the need to travel in to an office (although taking the laptop and phone down to a local coffee shop with Wi-Fi is an option if I get to the wall-climbing stage); any question of ‘face time’ because the editor doesn’t have it either; and, any question of paying staff while they’re not actually producing anything. We are both paid for our output rather than our time.

It has always been this way for freelance workers of course; a business calls them in when it has a short-term need and has no obligation to use them again. But what if the whole economy were to work that way?

Granted this isn’t going to happen because there are some industries that need people on site. Anything producing physical goods rather than intellectual property needs delivery of materials and skilled people on the spot. Presenters and actors can’t just phone their performances in. But anything that involves sitting at a desk and typing, designing, laying out, number-crunching... does it strictly speaking need an office?

Shared office space

A related subject is a visit I made a year or so ago to a small organisation called The Werks in Hove, Sussex. The idea is simple; you can hire desk space by the hour if you want, or by the day, or get an office if you need it, and you use their Wi-Fi, bring your mobile phone and you work in a shared environment. They’re keen on the collaboration this brings about and this and other hubs around the UK can become havens for self-employed and start-up businesses trying to keep office costs down.

The most interesting part of my interview with them, though, was when they mentioned that a director of Microsoft would turn up and work there from time to time. He isn’t a shareholder - he is absolutely part of the community - but he benefits from time spent away from the office, when nobody is going to walk through the door and ask him something important. People will think more carefully about picking up the phone to talk to you than they would about walking through an open office door when they can see you. In practical terms, by logging on to the Intranet through a virtual private network, he is much closer to the office than he is physically - it’s in Reading, he’s 70 miles away in Sussex.

This means a senior director at a major, major corporate is behaving in many ways like a freelance - working where he chooses and getting trusted to perform the required tasks without a line manager sitting on his shoulder. Once this is possible the question of why it shouldn’t be done more widely and by more companies of all sizes arises.

And this, I suggest, is where mobile technology is going to take us over the next decade. It won’t work for everyone, but moving from a location-based, face-time-based economy to something structured on people’s personal and corporate productivity seems to make a lot more sense than the ‘how-much-can-we-borrow’ system of the last ten years. As I said at the outset it requires a shift in culture and the ability to treat employees like adults. The old-school employer who believes in close supervision and micro-management isn’t going to adjust to the idea readily, and someone whose concept of a service or product’s value is solely concerned with the time it takes to make or prepare is unlikely to welcome a results-based model.

These people are likely to go away and/or retire, though. The manager who trusts people to fulfil their responsibilities and values them for it is the one who will prosper. Running a business is about responding to change rather than resisting it; 15 years ago people were asking whether they needed a website or disregard it as a fad, they’re now doing the same with social media and remote working and ignoring the fact that there’s a generation growing up that seems to think texting or tweeting during a corporate presentation when everyone else has their phone switched off is a human right.

The workforce is changing around the technology that is facilitating mobile working as a mainstream style of employment rather than a side issue for most. Everyone can see this; the real meat of the change is going to be the culture that goes around it.

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