The changing rhythms of work

The modern industrialised world was built on scheduled, organised, 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 we were required to be in a specific place and to use specific tools. It was a factory model; centralised and uniform, defined by both time and place.

When it came to the age of information workers, this approach continued. The tools we used for research were confined to specific locations, such as libraries, record rooms and clerk’s archives. We had to request access to information and physically go to where it was stored. Even when we started talking about “surfing the information superhighway” in the early 90s, 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 to the schedule. Where it was once the reason for our success, it’s now often the thing that holds us back. 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.

You only have to look at how we now experience media to see how our relationship with schedules has changed. We no longer have a need for a TV guide for example; 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 socialise 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 4pm”, it’s 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 predefined blocks, it’s “see you in 10 minutes” instead of “see you at 4pm”. This behavioural change is thanks to the connected device. As it’s always to hand we are always inside the information space rather than outside waiting for an opportunity to look in.

This new access and connectedness impacts us more than we realise. We are changing how we process information and in turn, that 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 organization 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 similar way to literacy 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; you can see this in the responses to Qlik’s recent survey. 85 per cent of respondents from the USA and 77 per cent of respondents from the rest of the world said they completed their objectives by using multiple devices spontaneously. This is accompanied by the belief that this improves productivity. Being able to continue to work on 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 work 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 for device for ‘interim’ activities. It’s always close to hand and serves as our primary access point both at work and at home. For many of us, smartphones also serve as our primary screens, with laptops and TVs viewed as secondary. It’s this personal, always-to-hand 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.

We now analyse data both for work and for personal reasons, such as our health. The tools aren’t that different and the devices we use are often the same. 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 ween us off our smartphones.

The range of devices and screens we have to hand will change and adapt as our behaviours influence them. Of course we aren’t quite free to do everything everywhere just yet, 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 the 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, creating exciting new ways to experience information.

Murray Grigo-Mcmahon, Design Strategist at Qlik

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