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Changing Rhythms Of Work In The Information Age

The modern industrialized world was built on scheduled, organised and quantifiable blocks of time. The Victorians were the masters of scheduling and many of the practices they instilled have served as the foundations for the way we work today.

Scheduling was essential when employees were required to be in a specific place and had to use specific tools. It was a factory model; centralized and uniform, defined by both time and place. When it came to the age of information workers, this approach continued. Research tools were confined to specific locations, such as libraries, record rooms and clerk’s archives. We had to request access to information and had to physically go to where it was stored. Even when we started talking about “surfing the information superhighway” in the early 90’s, we still had to access it from fixed access points.

It wasn’t until Bruce Sterling started talking about ‘spimes’ or artefacts located in space, that we began to think about the web of information around us and how we were a part of it. This helped us understand the nature of data, shake off the schedule’s shackles and demand things when we wanted them.

Access and Immediacy

The mass availability of smartphones and the rise of the connected world has changed our relationship with the schedule. Where schedules were once guidelines for workplaces, leading to greater efficiency through shared understanding of processes, they may be a hindrance in the digital workplace where information and communication are not bound by location.  Waiting for a report to arrive, or a meeting to happen, before a decision can be made, can break our flow of thought, or confuse the context of the issue at hand.

To understand how our relationship with schedules have changed, we only have to pay attention to how we interact with media nowadays. For example, television guides matter less in an age of streamed media; the ‘see it now or miss out’ impetus is gone and everything is there for immediate consumption. It now takes something increasingly special to force a ‘scheduled viewing’. Things can be picked up, put down, interrupted and consumed in fragments. It’s just as much about the ability to pause and postpone as it is about immediacy. Schedules are now purely self-imposed and we adhere to them or disregard them at will.

Even the way people meet and socialize has become mostly schedule free. A close friend recently observed, how his children don’t arrange to see friends in the same we did. There’s no prior agreement to “meet at the park at 4 pm”, it is more a case of simply reaching out or broadcasting availability to see who’s in, near or available now. Arrangements are now made in continuous flow rather than in predefined blocks, it’s “see you in 10 minutes” instead of “see you at 4 pm”. This behavioral change is due to the connected device.

This new access and connectedness impacts us more than we realize. We are changing how we process information and that in turn, changes us. As Kevin Kelly pointed out when referencing psychologists Ostrosky-Solis, Garcia and Perez; “the acquisition of reading and writing skills has changed the brain organisation of cognitive activity in general, is not only in language but also in visual perception, logical reasoning, remembering strategies, and formal operational thinking.”

Kelly believes that the internet and digital media is impacting us in a way similar to how literacy has impacted us and that the emerging practice of ‘reading the web’ is transformative. Having constant access to information has made us all analysts and ‘footnote’ chasers. We constantly check, cross reference and validate all the information we receive, whether that’s viewing real-time travel information, checking the latest sales figures or ‘just Googling it’.

New Rhythms

These changes have inevitably had an effect on our working lives. The rhythm of work has changed through the affordances of technology; productivity is no longer constrained by physical boundaries. Portable devices are powerful and versatile enough to be effective for work and may be integrated with other devices. This trend is only increasing, as Telsyte found the option for employees to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is now an option in more than 70 percent of Australian organisations. Being able to continue to work from a secondary device means there is no need to postpone work until the next visit to the primary device. Similarly, using multiple devices allows workers to continue to working on one, such as a laptop, whilst using another, such as a smartphone, for a short interim task.

According to the survey, the smartphone is the preferred device for ‘interim’ activities. It’s always close to hand and serves as our primary access point both at work and at home. For an increasing number of people, smartphones also serve as our primary screens, with laptops and TVs viewed as secondary. It is this personal, interactive screen, that creates a faster, more engaged and intimate rhythm. It’s also this, that helps fragment and break down what was once a clearly defined ‘work period’. Whereas work and play were once clearly defined, we’re now constantly crossing back and forth between the two.

Data analysis has increasingly become commonplace, having expanded beyond enterprise use into personal applications, to monitor everyday concerns such as health and finances. Increased data availability and consumption is possible because of the capacity of modern personal devices, which themselves are flexible enough to be used in the workplace. If anything, we have more devices and screens in our personal lives than at work. The interim checking, the snacking on content, the glimpsing (with the new smaller devices like watches), all reflect how we inhabit the information space, continuously reaching out and exploring the information around us. With these changing rhythms, we must make a conscious effort to carve out those longer focused periods, as the tools needed for ‘serious work’ are often still fixed to one device. There is even a new wave of products designed specifically to wean us off our smartphones.

The range of devices and screens we have to handle will change and adapt as our behaviors influence them. Of course, the information experience is not seamless, as we’re still limited by the way services and tools are designed. However, as we continue to embrace connectedness and ubiquitous computing, the things that hold us back today will disappear. We are beginning to see that with the birth of truly smart assistants from Apple, Google, and Amazon, and in the rapid growth of the artificial intelligence market. This shift from simple search and retrieval agents, to the creation of platforms that support a variety of interaction paradigms means that devices will no longer limit what can be achieved. We can create exciting new ways to experience information, our imagination being the only limit.