Office work in the smartphone age

An office worker speaks on a mobile phone in a London office. Matthew Lloyd / Bloomberg
An office worker speaks on a mobile phone in a London office. Matthew Lloyd / Bloomberg

The way we work is changing. Technological innovations embodied in smartphones and the ubiquitous nature of email has resulted in an “always on” work culture around the world. However, more tools don’t necessarily translate into better office productivity – as we have seen in a series of reports published this week in The National about office culture.

Among the litany of annoyances for workers were time-consuming commutes, long hours and the sedentary environments that define most offices. Of course, there are several small measures that office employees can take to improve working conditions. Standing up and walking around the office, for example, is one proven method for getting the blood and ideas flowing.

There is a larger issue underlining the state of office work. Globally, we are redefining what being productive means. Traditionally, office work took place inside the office. An eight-hour workday ended when an employee went home in the evening. The demarcation between work and life was clear and relatively uncontestable. Now we are always reachable thanks to smartphones and it is common for many of us to receive emails from colleagues or superiors at all hours of the night.

Economists and philosophers have long argued about the best way to achieve maximum productivity in the labour market. ­David Ricardo, the English political economist, wrote in the early 19th century about the drift towards a minium wage necessary to sustain workers. Implicit in Ricardo’s argument was that more work didn’t necessarily translate into more productivity. This idea remains relevant to the modern office. We can adapt a similar approach to contemporary office dynamics. Better connectivity, whether in the form of always being on email or never really being out of the office, will not necessarily translate into better work. The German carmaker Volkswagen has even prohibited out-of-office emailing for this reason. Ultimately, there is a conversation to be had, that will be unique to every office, about the right way to achieve maximum productivity.

Published: September 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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