The Olympics changed how we work: Now let's decide the future of the office

The Olympics changed how we work: Now let's decide the future of the office

Summary: Office workers have abandoned London to escape the Olympic queues — but the decision to embrace flexible working shouldn't be temporary. It's time to rethink the way we work

SHARE:

After a week of the Olympics, London remains abandoned by its usual inhabitants, populated only by bemused tourists who poke around its famous streets like archaeologists exploring a long-deserted city.

The capital is in the midst of a gigantic working-from-home experiment: hundreds of thousands of office workers have retreated to the suburbs, scared out of the city centre by dire predictions of gridlock and internet outages. Whole office buildings are closed, or reduced to a skeleton staff whose steps echo round the empty cube farms. 

Empty London street
London is in the grip of a home-working experiment. What lessons can we learn from the Olympics?

Remote working makes you more effective — and richer. The technology to allow us to work wherever we want is stable and mature, and the advent of the cloud means we can access applications and data wherever needed. Cutting unnecessary journeys is good for the environment and makes our cities more enjoyable.

And yet, after the Olympics are over, my fear is that Londoners will resume their commute to the office as if nothing had ever happened.

A design relic

While the great Olympic working-from-home experiment should kick-start a rethink of how we organise our working lives, it won't. The modern office is a strange relic, an invention of the 19th and 20th centuries designed to allow managers to keep an eye on indolent staff.

Vintage office
Offices were designed for managers to keep an eye on indolent staff.

At the time it made sense: the tools of work — typewriters and adding machines — were wrought-iron mechanical beasts that no worker could afford, or would want to have in their homes. Later, the early computers could fill a room, let alone a desk.

Now all of that processing power fits in a pocket, and yet we're still working in the office pretty much as it was designed 100 years ago. Even the voguish bring your own device (BYOD) debate revolves around which piece of hardware you should bring to the office.

The implication: it doesn't matter what device you use, and who pays for it, as long as you are sitting at your desk where the boss can see you. And yet the very concept of work has changed.

Changing nature of work

There was a time when work was about focusing on one task or document all day long. But many of our working lives are now riven with and driven by interruption: as well as business usage of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, social media is being baked into the enterprise apps that we use.

With every advance, the demand that workers must be at their desks every day takes another blow. For many, the working day starts with checking email over breakfast and continues into the evening: the 9 to 5 is an anachronism, so the office has to change too.

This does not mean the end of the office, of course. For many, the idea of working permanently from home would be horrifying. Teams need to meet and work together, and there are still moments of serendipity that only seem to happen in a face-to-face environment.

But we need this grand Olympic remote-working experiment to jump-start a conversation around how we organise our working lives. After all, to spend an hour on a slow train with your face wedged in somebody's armpit, just for the privilege of using a PC half as good as the laptop you've got at home, suggests that we've still got some thinking to do.

Topics: Cloud, Olympics 2012, United Kingdom, Tech Industry

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

29 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Real choices mean real infrastructure too.

    Good as it is to have the option to work from home, on the move or elsewhere, we mustn't use the "good for the environment" argument to too strongly determine our the pattern our work lives , especially if it lets the government and business get out of improving transport services (faster and made less crowded by building more and longer trains and new lines. This would give us even more choice. Personally I like crowded London rather than and empty one over the deserted on.

    Secondly is it really just tech journalists who appear more productive through all the social media options now available to us? And I'm a hi-tec fan.
    preeves
    • Empty London

      I know what you mean about seeing London crowded, but there's something fascinating about seeing it emptied out, too.
      And yes, Twitter and other social media are very handy for journalists but the same things are being incorporated into enterprise tech - Salesforce.com's Chatter for example.
      Steve Ranger
  • business usage of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, social media

    I think you confuse your business with everyone else's. Most of the people I know do not routinely access the social media and call it work.. break, yes, taking a little personal time in the middle of the day, perhaps, but not work.
    My company even has it's own social media.. but.. most of us don't have the time to use it much, except to look up a document about one system or another that we need to work on..
    I have worked from home on occasion. and I can get most of my work done that way through the VPN.. but.. there are times I just have to lay hands on the machine tools or the PCs running them to get the job done.. so do I come in every day so I can get to these machines the few days a week I need to, or run in when I need to touch one? I can see that getting to where I drive more, not less..
    Putertechn
    • corporate social media is only for those who make more money than the rest

      most of what you have said echos with me; however, I can do my entire job remotely, as my company has separated touch labor from actual techs, 0% of the employees that do touch labor on the servers barely know anything about a computer beyond "how to turn it on" if I need anything else done when remote management systems have failed me, I have to create a document with screen shots, AND give verbal step by step information AND verification. there is only one touch labor person that I work with that even knows what the "control panel" in microsoft windows means. If you don't specify in minute detail, they will go look at the LCD display on the front of the server and say "there is an error code, do you want me to read it to you?"

      most of these people (guys and gals) are electrical engineers, and beyond having to use an application to draw diagrams, they send emails and that is the limit of their experience with actually using computers. (we do have a few non-touch labor employees that work in the building at least 3 days a week, in case something major needs to be done on site in a hurry that is beyond their experience; however all but one of those used to be touch labor employees anyway.)

      I have worked from home for almost 20 full months now doing exactly the same thing I was doing in the office the 20 months before, the only negative, is that I have gained 30+ pounds. And the only one I get to talk to all day is my dog. (annoys the crap out of my wife when she gets home, because I won't shut up!)

      AS for social media, we have a wiki system, a system that is a cross between a blog/sharepoint/facebook system, and I visit it about 2 times a year, when they tell me I have to go join some group, because it is mandatory. I don't have time to look at that information, or participate in anything events they have going on, I am lucky when I can finish my own work in under 60 hours a week, let alone see what some guy in Germany accomplished using two broken cell phones, a paperclip, and mission critical server that stopped working mysteriously in the middle of the night... Not to mention I am subcontracted to work for ANOTHER company for 99% of my work hours, and I cannot bill them for my time spent on the corporate social media system. That means any time spent on there cannot contribute to my 40 hours per week (HA!) that I am supposed to be putting in for the company my company has contracted me to. And I sure as heck am not going to participate on a social networking site, for people at my company only, during my personal time (what ever that is).
      aiellenon
  • The same debate is going on in education

    Classrooms contained the equipment of learning and the teacher. The teacher could watch over the students to make sure the students stayed on task. What is the reality now? The teacher and all the resources are online. The students in many schools are forced to step back in time and leave the rich modern resources at the school door. The students are required to work on the teacher's lesson even if they already know and can prove they know the lesson. My solution is my "One Room School." See http://marketplacemission.squarespace.com/
    henrythill
    • The bigge debate in Education i the Unions and bureaucrac Online education

      The problem is bigger, Her in Oregon the Online school innovation is being opposed by the teaches unions. The do not like competition that cost time jobs.
      Richardbz
  • Will it or won't it? Of course it will ...

    I love the way "journalists" write.

    In the earlier bit of your article, you say "While the great Olympic working-from-home experiment should kick-start a rethink of how we organise our working lives, it won't. " And yet you go on to show that it will. And of course, it must.

    Journalists DO love their hyperbole.

    I work in an industry in the US where, over the past few years, working from home has already become acceptable, and that was without the benefits of a public, live fire exercise like the Olympics providing living proof of not only the concept but the practical reality. Economics is always a huge driving factor in the adoption of new technologies, and where there may be hesitance to shift workforce from cubicles to at-home offices in the more sluggish firms of the world, the impact on the bottom line is already enticing lots of edgier companies to downsize their downtown office spaces and let more of their teams work remotely more of the time. The Olympics Experiment is bound to have an impact on those firms looking for workable ways to cut some of the overhead out of their cost structure.
    justin.donie@...
    • Should, but might not

      I guess the point I was trying to make was that the Olympics ought to make us rethink how we work, but many managers still enjoy the status quo. Even down to the trivial ego-stroking of being able to point to huge ranks of desks and say 'they work for me'. Institutional inertia is incredibly powerful.

      Making everyone work from one central site every day was a decision based on the technologies of the twentieth century - perhaps we need to rethink how we manage people, too.
      Steve Ranger
      • Perhaps I underestimate British resistance to change

        Well, you're there, and I'm not. Perhaps our cousins in the UK are more resistant to change that I thought.
        justin.donie@...
      • But I'll argue that the technologies of the twentyfirst century

        are not at the point yet where working from home for long periods of time is doable. For most things we'll still need teh majority of people working from a central site most of the time.

        Connecting exclusively by phone or emnail is not the quickest way to get things done.
        William Farrel
  • Maybe attendance policies will change

    I think as long as the work is getting done, done well and on-time- it shouldn't matter where the employee is reporting from. Plus, it's allowed employees to get their work done in their own element, how they function best without having to worry about the boss or coworkers judging how they work. Also, it's also kind of a plus that employees could watch live coverage of the Olympics while working too. I've been watching some live stream from my desk and http://olympics.postano.com/ for all of my Olympics updates.
    marciegio
  • You failed to mention: Discipline and productivity, which are always

    problems for people who don't know how to manage on their own. Most people lack the discipline to work at home, with so many distractions all around them, like TV and computers and chores around the house and children and many others. Then, with so many distractions with computers alone, like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and games sites, then, you can be sure that, a lot of people will consider going back to the office, or will get fired. Productivity will, undoubtedly suffer, not just because of the lack of discipline, but, because, many people need to have their hands held when doing a job. In Europe, where the 35 hour work-week is common, productivity is already lower than in other regions of the world, then with office-at-home, productivity will be even lower.

    With other regions/countries, where people are willing to get paid a lot less, while competing for the jobs from the UK and the US and other developed countries, office-at-home would seem to be a risky proposition.
    adornoe
    • work from home

      How about the distraction of reading all of these comments at work or at home. Sometimes you need the interaction with coworkers to get something done
      dhays
      • Interactions related to work, are not distractions,

        and, interacting via forums such as this one, is unnecessary for getting your work done, and, it would be just another distraction which hinders your performance.
        adornoe
  • I vote for working from home

    I would love to work from home, at least a few days a week.

    I had a work-from-home job once. I started out working from the office, but the 1.5hr commute in and then home again every day was a pain. I didn't need special equipment for my job, I wasn't working in a team, and my job wasn't customer-facing. Being in the office was just "the way it was". I decided to try and convince the boss that working from home was a good idea, so I reorganized the entire workflow from top to bottom. He agreed and we found that stuff got done faster and more efficiently. The company benefited from a better process and I saved 3 hours of travel a day.

    I just wish my current employer would come to the party - they have me firmly chained to my office desk.

    @steveranger Incidentally, I loved your last paragraph.
    47_praky
  • London Olympics were not the first to start the TeleWork Evolution!

    In 1996, a full 16 years ago, the same issues came up with the Atlanta Olympics! Organizers and businesses were wringing their hands about anticipate grid lock, and what a huge problem would be created if everyone came to work! So, Steve, what you see has happened in London in your today's experience has already happened, not only in the Atlanta Olympic experience, but once businesses better understood that they did not suffered massive dysfunction when people worked from home, the world did begin changing. But, with all due respect, I believe the TeleWork changes began many years ago in the USA from the same-type of Olympic experiment as you put it!
    Hemi426
    • Not the start

      Remote working has been around for a long time - but perhaps what is different now is that there are absolutely no technical barriers (which wasn't the case even five years ago). And yet - lots of companies still haven't made it a mainstream part of what they do. Attitudes are changing slower than the technology, which is often the case...
      Steve Ranger
      • London Olympics were not the first to start the TeleWork Evolution!

        Yes, remote working has been around for a long time, but not as accepted 16 years ago! What Atlanta brought to the forefront was the need for consistent tools and trust. HS Internet was still evolving, but became available at more affordable prices. And VPNs became mandatory for security. Phone and fax capability. Of course I have not sent a fax in about 4 years, so I/others do not even use that any more, as we just scan and email (easier to file also). We have added a company chat tool about 10-12 years ago, and there are some additional software programs to allow desktops to be shared for more hands on feel and dialog. All training is via on-line interface. Travel is more restricted, and truthfully not everyone needs to travel to attend and do a great job. Big companies re-organize, and organizations may have a boss in Atlanta one day, and the next day he/she resides in Berkley, CA -- over 2000 miles away. So, the traditional water-cooler is transformed a lot -- but very manageable.

        Steve, when you say that there were technical barriers five years ago, I am caught off guard to know what those are? I personally evolved beginning in 1996 from a one day/week, to three days/week, to a full time TeleWorker. Please tell us -- as I have been scratching my head to think what you mean. Maybe things have rolled slower in the UK? I think this is a good topic to explore further, you may be just a little surprised that the technical barriers have been down for a lot more than five years in my opinion (I think I have been full-time since ~2002), and the attitudes have had major adjustments at the same time, at least outside of the UK, perhaps.
        Hemi426
      • You'll be having this discussion again, 4 years from now, and 80 years from

        now (if you live that long), because, work from home won't be the way of conduction business of the future. Like I stated in my earlier post, most people don't have the self-discipline to work remotely without the distractions, and productivity would also be another casualty. Work at home may sound like a nice idea on paper and to many people, but, reality is a lot different from the idealism.
        adornoe
  • Well what I've noticed...

    Usually the accepted trade-off for getting the 'privilege' to WFH is it is assumed you will pay for your home internet and phone (to dial in to teleconferences) and that you are always (or mostly) available on the company's IM service and checking emails.

    Advantages are it's a cost saving to BOTH the employer and consumer. A lot of corporations are always short office space...it costs money to lease a building and have a service guy set you up a phone/internet jack, utilities, etc. I also find in my home office, a lot of times I can be more productive. I usually just leave my laptop or in standby if I know I'm WFH a few days. A lot of times, I will get this random spark or idea to try something and it's so easy to just walk over, sit down, and maybe do 20-30 minutes of work during off hours.

    Obvious consumer benefits, no commute thus extra sleep, don't need to get dressed up/groomed/showered (I'm not advocating you should lower your personal hygiene). You can see your kids off to school, don't have to pay a nanny (although watching the kids during the summer months might be annoying). It just makes for a happier employee.

    The only real disadvantage I could see would be data security, but I think that's a problem more based on the person, not where they are physically located.
    dtdono0