Constant Connectivity: The Way We Work Today

What Is Work in 2011?

It’s a commonly known fact that over the past 40 years the number of farm and manufacturing jobs in America has declined while the number of service jobs and knowledge workers has grown. It’s equally obvious that information technology has played a key role in enabling and leading the transformation of everyday work. For example, traditional farm and manufacturing jobs use IT to provide workers with up-to-date information about weather conditions, irrigation needs, stock inventory, etc. The cabs of many tractors and harvesters have been transformed into instrumented cockpits, with GPS locators, onboard navigation, PC displays, and intercom capabilities to ensure that their operators are constantly connected to job-critical information.

At the end of the day (and at the beginning), workers at home employ another assemblage of technology to stay connected to a world that is increasingly of their own making. Wi-Fi provides Internet access throughout the household and can be used for stock trading, vacation planning, gambling, retail purchases, video gaming, or Skyping with friends. Tweets, texts, e-mails, and RSS feeds provide a steady stream of information — some for entertainment, some for education, some for work, and some for pure serendipity. (Let’s face it, sometimes it’s just plain cool to look up an arcane baseball statistic, find out what was served at last night’s White House state dinner, or see a real-time video display of Times Square during a snowstorm.)

In any given 30 minutes at work, I might read e-mails from my desktop support team in Frankfurt a distressed sales rep in England, the leader of one of my application support teams in Bangalore, and a note from my wife reminding me I need to leave work early. I might schedule a four-person teleconference for later in the week, select a hotel for a business trip to New York, review my son’s resume and provide some tips, update a PowerPoint presentation, issue written instructions about the format of an upcoming operations review, review stock analysts’ reports on a technology company whose products are of potential interest to us, check on snow conditions in Park City (in preparation for a ski weekend later in the month), and adjust the duration of my last meeting of the day to ensure that I’m complying with my wife’s instructions.

Following dinner at home, I might go online to review my late-day e-mail traffic from work, check stock prices, see if I’ve been upgraded on the flight to New York, briefly run through the slides I intend to use at my 9 a.m. meeting the next day, and make a dinner reservation for the weekend.

Any reader of this article could easily substitute his or her own sequence of activities, but the point is this: When did work start and when did work stop during this hypothetical workday? The simple truth is that the Internet and the devices we have created to access it have removed all physical, temporal, and spatial boundaries from work. In fact, work can pretty much happen in any setting, anytime, anywhere a work-related thought crosses your mind. An inconvenient consequence of this simple truth is that the employees of most American corporations expect their IT groups to supply them with the data and applications they require to act upon their work-related thoughts in any setting, anytime and anywhere.

In his book The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, Mark Twain made this observation: “In America, we hurry–which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us.” In his worst nightmares, Twain never could have imagined how we have transformed our obsession with work into a 24×7 addiction through the use of modern information technology.

Here’s a story that supports Twain’s observation: In my recent travels, a fellow CIO told me that his network team had discovered a sharp secondary peak in daily VPN traffic, extending roughly from 8 p.m. to midnight on most weeknights. Thousands of this company’s employees were logging back onto the company network every week at night to check e-mail, access SharePoint files, surf the Internet, etc.

The CIO ran a simple Zoomerang survey to determine why this traffic was occurring. There were two predominant reasons. The first was that people wanted to “get caught up” from the previous workday or “get a head start” on the next day. This would appear to be a perfectly logical and reasonable explanation.

The other dominant response was, “I log on because it’s a more appealing use of my time than any other activity that is available to me.” I personally find that response to be a little disturbing, but truth be told, I’m probably guilty of it myself.

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