You have no idea how you'd get any work done on business trips if you didn't have a laptop. You can't remember quite how you lived without your BlackBerry. Your cell phone might as well be surgically attached to your ear, it's so crucial to your job. Then there's the Internet. It's hard to conceive of getting through the day without Google (GOOG)—or, if you're under 40, text messaging or even joining Facebook to stay in touch with your extended network of colleagues. In just a decade or less, technology sure has done a number on the way you work, hasn't it?
Well, brace yourself. Over the next decade, the relentless march of computer power and Net connection speeds will bring more profound changes to work than anything we've seen so far. Consider just a few of the breakthroughs technology visionaries think we're likely to see in coming years. Picture Apple's (AAPL) slick iPhone shrunk down to the size of a credit card. Then imagine it can connect not only to your contacts on the latest social network but also to billions of pea-sized wireless sensors attached to buildings, streets, retail products, and your co-workers' and business partners' clothes—all sending data over the Net to you.
THE RESULT: You'd have a way to track and manage more than simply static information. You'll also be able to track events in the physical world, from production on a factory floor to colleagues' whereabouts to how customers are using products. All that information will be much easier to view and analyze, using hand and arm gestures to control commands and viewing results with special glasses that make it seem as if you're gazing at a life-size screen. And you will be able to produce detailed prototypes of your product or design ideas via a 3D printer that creates plastic models from computerized specs as easily as a paper printer spews out reports today.
The ultimate productivity devices, right? No—much more than that. Whizzy new tools—all those and more that we can't yet picture—will go beyond simply making us more efficient at what we already do. They're going to change where we work, how we work, and even the nature of work itself. Already the changes are coming fast and furious.
Just ask Virtual Margaret. Margaret Hooshmand worked as an executive assistant at a Cisco Systems (CSCO) office in Silicon Valley until she decided to move to Texas. But her boss, Senior Vice-President Marthin De Beer, really wanted her to continue working for him. As it happened, Cisco also wanted to test its so-called telepresence systems, which feature life-size, is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex (IMN) videoconferencing. So today, Hooshmand sits in a Cisco office in Richardson, Tex., but also appears on a 65-inch high-definition plasma screen with full stereo sound that sits precisely where she did in her old office, facing De Beer's. She fields his calls, rerouted via Cisco's phone system; arranges meetings; and even can overhear his phone conversations to anticipate his needs. "Marthin and I haven't missed a beat," says Hooshmand, who can see into De Beer's office through her own screen in Texas. As she waves down another San Jose (Calif.) colleague walking by, from 1,600 miles away, it's hard not to believe her.
Even before these $80,000-and-up systems become standard office fare, other new technologies will reshape the workplace. The online virtual world Second Life, where people play using avatars (graphic representations of themselves), is starting to become a real workplace, at least for a few telesales agents at 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. (FLWS) The online flower vendor is experimenting with a "virtual greenhouse" in Second Life, where a dozen or so workers log in and interact with Second Life residents. 1-800-Flowers Chief Executive Jim McCann plans to use it to get customers to suggest new products—far more direct feedback than focus groups or surveys, he says. "The line between our customers and our staff continues to blur."
It's an emerging dynamic variously dubbed mass collaboration, peer production, or crowdsourcing. Whatever the name, collective efforts are exploding online—from the volunteer-written reference site Wikipedia to Google's search engine, which mines the billions of links that Web site owners make to other sites to produce its results. They are producing incredible value, even though they aren't traditionally considered "work." Says Thomas W. Malone, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management and author of the 2004 book The Future of Work: "Google and Wikipedia are just scratching the surface of whole new kinds of economic organisms."
And whole new ways of working. Researchers at Stanford University noticed that people in online role-playing games such as Star Wars Galaxies spend countless hours carefully doing what looks like a job—not only battling Empire troops but also building pharmaceutical manufacturing operations and serving as medics. Researchers tested the possibility of having players view real medical scans inside the game to find signs of cancer. They think groups of gamers could do as well as an actual pathologist. Says Stanford professor Byron Reeves, who is co-founder of Seriosity, a startup that's beginning to use game psychology in business applications: "Enterprises will steal sensibilities from games and virtual worlds and embed them into business."
Techies aim to deconstruct the machinery of work even further into its component parts. Amazon.com (AMZN) is experimenting with a marketplace it created called Mechanical Turk. Companies parcel out small pieces of jobs online, such as transcribing podcasts and labeling photos, to people around the world. The workers, who often do it in lieu of watching TV or fooling around on MySpace, process the tasks for a few pennies per minute or photo. The work of all these "Turkers" is reassembled into finished products, often within hours. In short, Amazon is creating an on-demand workforce for companies that can't afford to hire staff for such quick or ephemeral jobs.
Others aim to take that concept even further into the ether. LiveOps handles telesales calls for the likes of kitchen gadget merchant Ronco and pharmaceutical delivery service NationsHealth (NHRX), but has little resemblance to a typical call center. Its highly automated system routes calls to some 16,000 home agents—independent contractors, not employees—based on how well they've answered similar calls earlier. Lisa Hammond, a Wichita mother of three, says she's pocketing more money, after factoring in gas and child-care costs, working at home for LiveOps on her own time 15 to 18 hours a week than she did working more than full-time as a Wal-Mart (WMT) store supervisor. Compared with a conventional call center, says LiveOps CEO Maynard Webb, "this is a more virtual, self-managed ecosystem."
In a sense, then, digital technology will transform work into a global supply chain of talent to carry out carefully programmed tasks on demand. As technology allows the individual tasks of many jobs to be done independently, the traditional role of an employer is dissolving. "A job is a bundle of privileges and obligations," notes longtime technology futurist Paul Saffo. "Digital technology has allowed us to break up that bundle" and reassemble it into "mass-customized jobs," he adds, as they fit our skills, the work to be done, and the goals of the companies we're working for.
All that raises a fundamental question about technology's ultimate impact on workers. Will this be a new world of empowered individuals encased in a bubble of time-saving technologies? Or will it be a brave new world of virtual sweatshops, where all but a tech-savvy few are relegated to an always-on world in which keystrokes, contacts, and purchases are tracked and fed into the faceless corporate maw?
It's safe to say we'll see some of both. But perhaps we can comfort ourselves by realizing that, while technology will change the nature of work, it can't change human nature. "All of these technologies," says Charles Grantham, executive producer of the research group Work Design Collaborative, "aren't going to be a substitute for face-to-face interaction."
By Robert D. Hof