What Does the Future of Work Look Like?

Credit: Plantronics PR via Flickr

Users increasingly come to the office clamoring for the same functionality, utility and speed that they enjoy on the devices they have at home. This is profoundly affecting the future of work (and the future of IT) in four key ways.

With Microsoft moving into a "mobile first, cloud first" world, an Apple smartwatch coming any day now and everyone else buying into the cloud computing hype, it can be easy to lose sight of what all of these developments do: Drive business forward by enabling employees to be more productive. Essentially, it's about the future of work.

But what might that look like? Travel into the future and take a look at what the future of work will look like. It's all about four key areas.

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD What is going wrong with BYOD? +

The Future of Work is Device-Agnostic

In a results-oriented world, what comes out at the end is pretty much the only thing that matters. You hear bosses say, "I don't care how many hours a day you work; I care about the fact that your work gets done." Users feel the same way, only it's about their tools rather than their subordinates.

Users can get work done on a variety of devices. They want to use their personal devices, with which they are already familiar. Witness bring you own device (BYOD) programs. They want to use a tablet when they're consuming more than creating, they want to use email on a smartphone to stay on top of their inbox between meetings, and they want to be reachable via voice, text, email, video chat and the like on any device, no matter what's in their hands. In the future, users will have less and less patience at seemingly artificial restrictions on what device can't support getting some piece of their daily grind accomplished.

[ Counterpoints: Mobile Workers Saying, 'I Want My BlackBerry Back' and IT Groups May Not Be Ready for BYOD Security Challenges ]

The takeaway for CIOs? Think hard about how your services and your infrastructure can support all devices, not just some. Also, reconsider any plan that throws up artificial barriers to using certain devices. Recognize that this isn't always possible in highly regulated fields, but also know that this is a worthy goal.

The Future of Work is Location-Agnostic

Today's employees are mobile, even if their current jobs and roles don't require travel. For most knowledge workers and white-collar professionals, work is no longer a 9-to-5 engagement. You check email on a weekend. You finish a spreadsheet at night after you put the kids to bed. You comment on documents on Yammer or SharePoint first thing in the morning after colleagues in a different time zone have had a chance to get their hands on the work and iterate on it.

It’s unclear whether IT has kept up with this style of work. Sure, you see SSL VPNs in big companies that purport to make it easy to connect from home, but is that really the case? Are you really enabling a frustration-free experience by giving your employees laptop computers that take three minutes to fully boot up through the security checks and decryption process – and then making them connect through an SSL VPN just so they can download email? Is that truly the best you can do?

[ Related: 5 New Threats to Your Mobile Device Security ]

In the future of work, apps and operating systems will light up scenarios such that, whatever device you use, it's the functional equivalent to being on the corporate network. We saw some of this with the DirectAccess feature that Microsoft enabled in Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, but this now extends in Windows 8 and beyond. No more user-initiated tunneling. No more clunky laptops trying to boot up. A user will take a computer, unsleep it within a few seconds, and use it like he or she is on the corporate campus.

The takeaway for IT? Make the boundary between your network and your users as transparent as you possibly can. Look for ways to securely remove from the user any perception that his or her services are degraded because they're away from the office. Make your network always on, anywhere, everywhere.

The Future of Work is Workflow-Driven

Checklists, when consistently followed and applied, reduce the amount of errors and ambiguities in all sorts of high-pressure places, from airline cockpits to hospital operating rooms. The concept is fairly simple: There are lots of little details to check and aspects to consider, so keeping them all in one place in a consistent way builds a path for success. The pilot or surgeon (or whomever else you'd like to involve in this analogy) can truly focus on more important, more valuable tasks like actually flying the plane or removing the tumor, not obsess over details.

The future of work is already moving in this direction, abstracting away all of the IT detail from a user's perspective and just getting their work in front of them. We already see a lot of this happening with the Office Graph that Microsoft has introduced. The system looks at your colleagues, your mail and what you're working on, then does computational analysis and machine learning to automatically pop up relevant documents and conversations in one place. You don't have to track where certain pieces of work are located, who has access to those pieces, and where the related conversation thread about that piece of work product is located and archived.

[ Features: 10 Web Services and 8 Gadgets That Improve Productivity; Plus, How to Work Seamlessly Across Multiple Devices and How to Integrate Cloud Storage With Your Workflow ]

The future of work will involve IT, systems and devices taking care of the details of where things go and how to put them there. It will, in other words, take care of workflow. The future of work is about elevating the level of work so that the true thoughts, the true development and the true driving forward of business can be done by knowledge workers without making them also fuss with the details of their systems, their networks and their organizations. At last, freedom from the pesky details of making your IT work. This is what users want. The test of a good IT service organization is how transparent it can be to users – and the future of work will make this goal and objective all the more important.

The Future of Work is Service-Oriented

In IT, you used to get all sorts of kudos and accolades if you were responsible for developing and delivering a service oriented architecture. This meant you built services that could be accessed by other services — an architecture where services could talk to each other, consume whatever the other was offering and, in general, link up in a standards based way. (This is still a good thing, by the way.)

[ Commentary: Lessons on the Future of IT From 'Future Shock' and 'The Singularity Is Near' ]

Come up a few thousand feet with me, though, and look at today's landscape. We live in a world where most of us don't necessarily want products. We're more interested in experiences. We don't necessarily crave one-time transactions. We're looking to develop ongoing relationships. For example, we use our smartphones, but what do we do with them? We connect them, via apps, to services on the Internet.

Getting work and getting things done will move in the same direction. To do work, we'll need to connect to different services. We'll expect availability to be constant and never interrupted. We won't want our systems to give us information just one; we'll want our systems to deliver information to us over time. Finally, we'll want our systems to predict what information will be useful to us, at what point that information would be useful, and then push it to us in a useful, non-intrusive way.

This story, "What Does the Future of Work Look Like?" was originally published by CIO .

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