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!

Print Is Good

The news is full of stories about e-books and the shift from print to digital. While I support that shift and am a heavy consumer of digital content, I still love print for certain things. Here are a few of them:

I like print for handy, domain-specific data and tips. Take a look at the print items below, for example.  They are from various collections I’ve kept over the years from my days at two of the historic “Big Eight” consulting divisions. 

The first image is four, two-sided cards from Arthur Andersen (now Accenture).  They were laminated to last and sized to fit in a purse or suit coat pocket.  The examples shown are for effective presentations, effective written communications, management tips, etc.

The next image is a set of nearly a dozen similar pocket cards from Coopers & Lybrand (now part of IBM Global Services).  Each one was a guide – a checklist, really – for different aspects of microcomputer services, from design to testing of systems and everything in between.  Unlike the Andersen cards, these would fold out.

Speaking of IBM, the next image is a couple of IBM pocket cards that I used for quickly troubleshooting code in Assembler, JCL,  or COBOL.  I’ll admit, they are a little bit like the slide-rule equivalent of paper.  But, man, once you got proficient with these things, they were instant reference tools.
In every case, these print materials are like flash cards for business – info rich, easy to carry, quick to search, and not reliant on a power or network source.

I also like print for “right brain” publications. Go to the magazine rack and pick up a magazine on architecture, design, or other specialty subjects. A couple of my favorites are below. 

The first is from a multi-content magazine of poetry, short stories, criticism, and other writing and art, named Fishes.  And, yes, that is a fish hook tacked to the cover.  You can only find that kind of innovation with a print publication.

The other example is the most awesome vendor-sponsored newsletter I ever received.  The four issues I got in the mail are below.  Look at the amazing diversity in cover and interior typefaces and artwork.

Here’s another example of an interior spread – look at the page layout and the full bleed for the large image from Leonardo da Vinci on the left.

In addition to the innovative content, the form factor itself was innovative.  In the next image, you can see an example of one of the issues in relationship to an issue of Good Housekeeping and one of Craft magazine.  The Good Housekeeping is the typical magazine size you see in a bookstore or supermarket.
I consider these high impact publications which could only have the effect they produce through print.  They may be dangerous (as in a fish hook) or expensive (the “World Tour” issues must have cost a fortune), but no PDF could ever duplicate the impression they leave with the reader.
Perhaps my most favorable, old-school bias towards print is that I prefer to have at least one item that is principally designed for print for any company, organization, or major project (like an event, for example) that I run. 
Whether it’s a glossy, sixteen-page, full-color brochure or a suit-jacket sized pocket folder with a space for a business card and other on-demand inserts, I find that there remain too many situations where having something that you can physically hand to someone helps differentiate you from others and keeps your brand physically present on a table or the desk of the recipient.
Again, just because it’s print, doesn’t mean you can’t leave as innovative an impression as you would working only in digital form.  A couple of examples include the image below, where a company where I worked prototyped a version of the book that you see on the bedstand tables by most medium- to up-scale hotels.  Only, in this case, the book was intended to be another reminder of our “high touch” customer service to complement our high tech services. 
The sleeve on the upper cover of the book was designed to hold the business card of the customers, to personalize it.  Inside the book were:
  • a personalized welcome and thankyou letter from our company’s chairman to the customer,
  • business cards of our client service team assigned to the customer,
  • pre-posted business reply post-cards that could be mailed to our company at no charge to the customer indicating issues going poorly or well,
…and other customer- and project-specific materials.

The other image, below, shows examples of various print pieces produced for internal, company purposes – all focused on mission / vision / values, and important contacts.  They are all business card sized and could easily fit in a pocket or notebook.

Pardon my pop-psych analysis, but my opinion is that these kinds of unique uses of print have a way, by their very physical presence, of sub-consciously producing a recipient’s greater trust in the “real-ness” of the company or organziation.
The last instance I’ll admit to preferring print is for most of my book reading.  The preference is health-related in two ways: in one way physical, and the other way financial.
Regarding physical health, I’ll share that I probably spend half of my book reading time in bed at night.  And I don’t know about you, but I just can’t get comfortable with an e-book in bed.   But far more importantly, there are some early warning signs that the electronics of e-books may be bad for you – especially at night. 
For example, in a June GigaOm post, one commenter chided Om for not giving enough attention to the negative consequences, writing:

Reading for extended periods on an ipad (or similar device) in bed prior to going to bed has a significant effect on melatonin production and other key neurotransmitters and biochemistry…. drastically impacting the the immune system and your ability to have restorative sleep.

There is a huge difference between reading a regular book which reflects low ambient light into the eyes compared to direct observation of an intensely illuminated surface… bottom line .. this trend will lead to a broad epidemic of auto immune disorder in the coming years…

For the financial health side of things, I love that you can get all of the print books you want from libraries at no cost (well, almost no cost, if you don’t count the mandatory $4 per year library card renewal and the optional library donation of $20 or so). 
Our own local library even reminds you how much you have saved in books, movies, and other content you might check  out during the year, with a little receipt it prints every time you visit.  As you can see from the image below, barely half-way into August I’d saved over $2,200, mainly on books. 

While you can get books on CD or DVD and tape, many library collections remain limited compared to print and e-book content almost universally comes with a cost, for anything other than the classics that are available for free download.

So there you have it…at least four instances why I think print is good.  Will we ever have a paperless society?  To me, that’s like asking will we ever have a garden-free society or a bicycle-free society.  Yes, we could, but why would we?  Let me know what you think.