Get ready for this. Email and desk phones as we know them are about to be relegated to the same league as the fax machine and telex. Instead, think of any device to hand: a laptop, a mobile, even your TV, could become the future working tool of choice.
When email came along in the early- to mid-Nineties, our working lives were never the same again. In the second decade of the 21st century, the workplace will become an internet-centric hive of activity, with cloud computing, collaboration and video conferencing at the heart of change and social media acting as the glue that will keep us focused and in sync with each other.
One of the ironies of the technological revolution is the fact that we are all actually working harder than ever before. Tools such as the BlackBerry and the iPhone have already converted many of us into 24-hour workers, whether we like to admit it or not.
No more office?
But going forward, perhaps the very notion of getting into a car and commuting to the office will become outmoded, replaced by social networking, collaborative tools and high-definition video conferencing. The recent ice and snow resulted in more and more Irish people relying on broadband to stay working, while already in the recession-weary corporate world, expensive air travel is unfashionable and unnecessary if tools such as video conferencing and webinars are available.
A recent Insight study by Vodafone into changing Irish work norms found that 31pc of the Irish workforce now use flexible working methods and see flexible working using converged fixed and wireless communications as a form of business continuity.
The study also found that the proportion of Irish workers who spend a quarter of their time working from home rose from 5.6pc to 7.9pc in 2009.
“The increase in mobile broadband speeds and coverage, as well as faster and faster fixed-line speeds, are encouraging people to work from home,” says Anne O’Leary, business and enterprise director, Vodafone Ireland.
“There has been a lot of talk about convergence of fixed and wireless communications, as well as voice and video communications in recent years, but now it has become a reality. The next two years will be key.
“In the enterprise space, there’s a lot of focus on unified communications and because of the business climate and the emphasis on cost effectiveness and efficiency, people are ready for it. You will see enormous change in the kind of propositions in the market in the coming years and how it will make sense for individuals and their employers. For one thing, work-life balance will be a lot more achievable.”
O’Leary says that in recent months, Vodafone augmented its Vodafone At Home and Vodafone Office products to allow fixed-line users to be able to be more flexible on the move by plugging in a mobile broadband dongle with a 1GB limit.
“More and more workers are flexible workers. It’s not just home working, but being able to work away from the desk, too.”
The necessity of having to be seen in the office on a nine-to-five basis will gradually be replaced by weekly or monthly meet-ups in the office, according to O’Leary, with the rest of the time being spent working productively from wherever is necessary, at home or on the road.
“Some industries require people in the office on a nine-to-five basis, but businesses themselves are realising that working styles need to change. We have a third of our workforce working flexibly and we see that expanding.
“Businesses will start to add up the cost of renting premises and realise they don’t need to have a desk for every employee, but for flexible working to work, it means firms taking a different management style that involves coaching, mentoring and managing people, while human resources staff need to instigate a proper training plan for managing and leading people.”
O’Leary says that Vodafone is expecting major changes in how companies will manage their communications, and says the move to webinars, video conferencing and tools like Microsoft’s BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite) will be key.
“At Vodafone this year, we will be rolling out a range of hosted applications and services that will allow businesses to host their data in the cloud and access it by any device of their choice securely from anywhere. We will have the new iPhone and we have a netbook strategy that will see us roll out a large number of netbooks.”
In recent months, leading internet giants such as Google with Wave and Salesforce.com with Chatter unveiled their visionary technologies that would combine social media with workplace communications and ultimately replace email.
Cisco, the San Francisco communications giant, which employs 200 people in Ireland and has a cutting-edge R&D operation in Galway, is to invest €400,000 to support two PhD researchers at the Galway University-based Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) in creating future workplace tools.
The €400,000 project will develop new ways for the “enterprise of the future” to integrate information and make it easily accessible for employees.
Work and home
Cisco is already aiming to make its TelePresence video conferencing technology available in every home and on every work computer and wants to combine the revolution in video with the revolution in other rich media content that social media has brought about.
Keith Griffin, a lead architect with Cisco who developed the ‘Enterprise of the Future’ project with DERI, says Cisco is already powering ahead with technologies such as Show and Share and its Enterprise Collaboration Platform.
“The Enterprise Collaboration Platform is effectively a social network for the enterprise. It allows firms to link data across the key building blocks of an enterprise – people, communities and information. These are the three most common properties of an enterprise and what we’re trying to do is semantically link that data.”
He says the growth of the internet is spearheading change in the direction of unified communications, allowing workers to collaborate and communicate across a variety of systems.
“The term we use to describe this important change is pervasive communications – users don’t always have to have a PC or a phone. Wherever the system surfaces, the user can choose how they want to talk to that person – whether it’s a voice call, an instant message or a high-definition desktop video.”
There are so many tools and systems on the web today that will eventually filter into the workplace. You can share video on YouTube, you can share content with people on Facebook and LinkedIn, manage your contacts, have video conversations and write blogs. But how do you put all this into a traceable working tool that ensures people are productive?
Griffin concludes: “The whole concept of Web 2.0 is great for publishers, but often results in information overload for the subscriber. These tools are generally great for creating more and more information, but how do you deliver the right information to the right person in a timely way?
“This is at the heart of the semantic web – what someone is looking for. Semantic technology can help users to refine that meaning by linking the results and suggesting to them what they need.”
By John Kennedy
Photo: Anne O’Leary, business and enterprise director, Vodafone Ireland