Jan 23, 2007

'Two Swipes And A Lunch' - Antiquated, Yet We Persist

Today on the bus to work, I was watching several young 'knowledge workers' stand in the bus for an hour, and thought, "They are all travelling tens of kilometres every day, only to converge in a place called 'office' where most will soon get buried in their own cubicles in desk work or telephone calls. After two swipes and a lunch that mark and measure this work-day, they will once again battle massive evening traffic only to reach home exhausted and frustrated. "

Doesn't this sound insane? After all it is a fully wired world now, with monthly broadband bandwidth costs approaching that of an evening's worth of fine dining. The productivity loss of two hours of a single day's commute itself could easily pay for an entire year's bandwidth and electricity costs required for 'work'.

Before the Industrial Revolution, business was accomplished in close-knit communities that used to work and live together. Industrialization in the last two centuries gave rise to factories which necessitated workers to come to the shop floor to produce goods on a massive scale. Soon by the early 20th century, optimisation techniques thanks to the likes of Alfred Sloan imposed a 'modern workplace' regimen on the shop floor, of work package - time slice monitoring and time punch. Now time punches have 'technologically advanced' to time swipes.

However today with distances having been conquered by waves of tectonic transportation and technology developments (the latest one being the Internet), this model needs to be turned on its head. Unfortunately old attitudes die hard, and this modern-corporate-commute practice owes much of its identity to the century old regime. Corporates like the power they wield over the cubicled masses, and losing it to telecommuting may not be appealing. And how can desi software service firms addicted to hourly wages prove their wage bills are right without timesheets to back them up?

The future will eventually be one where technology gets us back to the olden (golden) times where people specialise in specific skills, the change being we are now globally connected. So one can enjoy a home view in say, Araku Valley and still participate in a sophisticated global supply chain. Technology will also enable people to meet co-workers on-demand and not all-the-time. In fact most co-workers will live around each other, just like the artisan villages of the past. New business models will evolve that will set up such a collaborate-on-demand infrastructure.

Indian firms are still mired in the Industrial Age mind-set and one hears about no new thinking, except may be some startups before they don the corporate avatar. IBM has done relatively well in having 30% staff (all are not just sales guys) working remotely. Best Buy has already started on this journey with its wildly successful Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) initiative. Getting there needs conviction and maturity. Let us hope the rest of the corporate world sees the light.


Gotu said...

Had a few discussions on it in my company but the stock answer is "we are not ready for it" "it is a major step" etc etc

But some policy on working from home (for even a day a week) is long overdue in the Indian IT industry majors...

Anuradha said...

Ram, It needs to be a mindset change or rather a DNA change to have that kind of faith and trust in your workforce to let them work from wherever...but good to see a futuristic post.