Work/life balance: Do we have the tech, but not the will?

Improving the work/life balance makes employees happier and more productive. Clock on will be replaced by log on -- but are we really ready for the work anytime, anyplace culture?

Batteries are hardly the sexiest technology on the block -- yet advances in power consumption for mobile devices hold an important key to ushering in a new order of work in the 21st century.

We are approaching a key milestone -- the ability to use a notebook for a full day's work (eight to ten hours) from a battery. Beyond this point gas-driven batteries and nano-generators will drive mobile devices for even longer periods between charges.

The technology industry is moving inexorably towards a mobile device that connects seamlessly to the Internet from anywhere on the planet. The high-bandwidth connectivity will enable a new generation of Web services -- making it possible for the device to do much more than simple browsing and email. It will connect securely with all business-level applications that the user is authorised to use. It will know where the user is and its operating system will have a concept of time, place and context.

The hardware, software and networks to support this next generation of portable computer have already been designed -- and will be in production before the decade is out.

This new generation of portable computer will have a far more profound impact on the world of work than anything we have seen so far. Its impact will go far beyond the office -- it will impact transport systems and the holiday home market; it may reinvigorate the telecommunications business; it could be positive for the environment; and above all it will impact on the individual who needs to spend several hours a day in front of a computer to do a job.

This technology will render commuting a thing of the past for many information workers. The 9 to 5 culture will be replaced by the "work anytime, anyplace but make sure you get the job done" culture. Travelling to the office each day will soon start to be seen as a waste of time -- not something you do every day, but only when there is a specific reason for you to be there. This will be good for businesses and individuals who grasp the opportunities -- but threatening for those who bury their heads in the sand.

This is a glass half full, or glass half empty situation. It is going to happen, so your attitude to it is all. In many organisations the revolution has already begun -- with forward-thinking companies already allowing employees to send out a short email informing colleagues that they have decided to work from home today.

We have come a long way already. But we need to go much further. We need to reach a situation when a worker feels it necessary to send an email to peers telling them that she will be working in the office today.

There are many potential negative impacts of the work anytime, anyplace culture. Will it really help to improve the work/life balance -- or will it add to the pressure and anxiety among knowledge workers. Many fear that the new work order will undermine the haven of the home and deny the right of workers to 'not take it home with them' -- a rule that previous generations of workers tried to live by to protect their family life.

Another potential pitfall is that a lack of trust will lead some employers to apply Gestapo-like HR practices for monitoring the performance of nomadic workers -- overcompensating for the fact workers no longer 'clock on' and can be seen working away at their desks during the managerial walk around.

Managers need to take a cautious line here. The new work order will take time to bed in, and several years for working conventions to adapt properly. Enlightened management already plans for 'down' time in the office -- the fag breaks, the banter. It must apply similar latitude for mobile workers.

Office architects and commercial property developers need to respond quickly to the needs of the new work order. It is hard to see how mega office blocks -- filled with floors and floors of work cubicles -- are appropriate.

Economies will only be won if firms take the opportunity to design smaller offices. Smaller, but better and more appropriate. Why not use the space for more and better equipped meeting rooms -- presentation suites where clients can be entertained as well as presented to, cybercafes for work and play, a health suite or a crèche. There should be some payback for employees who allow their home to be used for work.

Employers will need to find additional reasons for workers to attend the office. In the future, team-building social events, or the pursuit of a work-based social project might be the main reason for attending the office. In a world in which communication has become a more or less exclusively electronic experience -- an office designed to encourage social interaction could have many benefits.

You may think I'm a dreamer -- but in the words of the song, I'm not the only one. The information technology industry has done its part. The technology to support a mobile workforce and an improved work/life balance are now in place. It is now up to the employers, the trade unions, and the government to have the imagination to put these technologies and working practices to work for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders. A world freed from the 9 to 5. I feel sure John Lennon would approve.

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