Is Distributed Business Good for the Workforce?

I caught an interesting headline the other day announcing a December 9 one-day event produced by GigaOm – “Is a Distributed Workforce Good for Business?”  As I read the headline, the opposite question immediately came to mind as one of equal importance: “Is a Distributed Business Good for the Workforce?”

Because as technology has enabled work to become more mobile, its impact on individuals and larger society must be considered.

At least partially, I hope this is what is meant in the description of the GigOm event, called Net:Work 2010, where it sets the agenda as exploring “…the enormous opportunities – and myriad challenges – presented by the new culture of work that we call the ‘human cloud.'”

At a certain level, these myriad challenges – i.e., the pros and cons of an increasingly mobilized, distributed business environment – haven’t changed much over the course of the past decade. If anything, we just know more about them.

For pros, what we have learned about the era of distributed business is that it:

  • frequently (not always) affords a higher degree of schedule flexibility to its workforce;
  • makes it possible to be more selective with one’s residence preferences; and,
  • in theory, opens up a larger job market, because work can often be performed independent of place, meaning someone who is out of work can seek employment anywhere in the country and be “available” to start immediately.

For the cons, there is greater depth of understanding about the human toll:

The myth of multi-tasking – as highlighted by a recent post on the Singularity Hub asking “Are We Too Plugged In?” it cites research finding that some multitaskers have a harder time ignoring irrelevant information, while for others the mere anticipation of incoming messages keeps them stressed even when not working [my italics added].

Extreme labor arbitrage – as illustrated in an October 2009 article in Wired about Demand Media entitled “The Answer Factory” a typical content creator (in this case a videographer):

“… is working the conveyor belt — being paid very little for cranking out an endless supply of material. He admits that the results are not particularly rewarding, but work is work…He has shot more than 40,000 videos for Demand …but ask him to pick a favorite and he’s stumped. ‘I can’t really remember most of them,’ he says.”

Physiological risks – in his article “Well Connected” in the February 2009 issue of Biologist, discussing remote work and computer-intensive tasks, the researcher Aric Sigman (whom I’ve blogged about previously) sums up his obvious concern for the downside risk of technology-dominated jobs: 

“While the precise mechanisms underlying the association between social connection, morbidity and mortality continue to be investigated, it is clear that this is a growing public health issue for all industrialized countries.”

So, back to the original headline: “Is a distributed business good for the workforce?”

I believe the answer is “yes, it can be” as long as we make user experience and satisfaction important counterbalances to worker productivity as a new generation of mobile business apps are brought to market.

What this means is approaching the development of future business apps – the majority of which will invariably be designed for mobile devices such as the iPad or a tsunami of Android devices – with more than the technical skills to produce an iOS app in Objective C.

It also means possessing a deep understanding of behavioral research techniques, like contextual inquiry, work flow interviewing, and process diagramming.

These behavioral research techniques are a means to unlock observations that may radically alter the fundamental understandings about a problem and its perceived solution. Rather than just repurposing applications from a stationery PC to a mobile phone or tablet form factor, the opportunity is to re-think the applications in the context of the future mobile enterprise.

And THAT’s an opportunity that’s bound to yield good for both the workforce AND the business!