The New Age of Work
It’s 4pm, and so far today I’ve worked from 3 different locations. And while at this 3rd location, a coffeeshop a block away from where I live, it suddenly hit me that we’re starting to enter a new age of work. I’m not exactly sure when the movement started, but there’s an overwhelming number of people that are working remotely or for themselves nowadays. And just like the industrial revolution gave children more free time, I think the Internet revolution is giving everyone more free time.
Let’s take a step back and examine how this all came about. In the pre-industrial revolution era, the majority of the population started working in the fields when they were children and pretty much did the same thing for the rest of their lives. Then science came in and gave us all these great inventions that reduced the amount of physical work we had to do for the same amount of output, if not more output. Once these processes were refined and cheap immigrant labor was introduced from new forms of transportation, the children were no longer necessary in the fields and the birth of the “teenager with nothing to do” was born. But machines that do our work for us is only the beginning of the story.
There has also been the rapid development of new methods of communication, and each new method allows us to reach farther and farther away with less and less time. There have been traditional messengers for centuries, but the revolution really started with the introduction of the telegraph, which transmitted letters across wires at very slow speeds by today’s standards, but very fast for back then. Then came the telephone, which allowed near instantaneous transmission of voice, albeit at a lower quality than being in the presence of someone. Fast forward to the technology of today where we have live videoconferencing to anyone in the world, crystal-clear voice transmissions and instant delivery of digital text. We now live in an on-demand world where you can see, hear and write to anyone in the world pretty much instantly. What does this mean?
It means that we are no longer bound by geographical constraints. I can brainstorm on a virtual whiteboard while seeing 3 other people at the same time in iChat. I can play a game with all of my friends from my living room while they play from their living rooms in various other parts of the world. Right now, one of my coworkers is working from Australia and videoconferences in for the whole day. His face just appears on a monitor and we can talk to him as if he was sitting next to us.
This begs the question, “What is the future of the office?” I think that they still serve a practical purpose in many ways because it provides a common gathering place for brainstorming and great ideas. But really a good coffeeshop or trip to a foreign country can provide that. And as a necessity to get the actual work done, the office is becoming obsolete now that we have portable computers, phones and the Internet. The office is really more of a social tool than a work tool. This can be seen by the proliferation of coworking facilities across the country, which provide the social aspect of an office, minus the coworkers.
So what does the future hold? A recession for office space and a boom for coffee shops, mobile devices and the travel industry? A return to traditional stay-at-home parents that can still work while staying at home with the kids? The death of the dreaded cubicle? Or perhaps a more dystopian scenario where everyone works alone in their apartments and has no true social interaction with others? There are so many possibilities.