The future’s workplaces – without colleagues?

Many of us work on the bus on the way to work or in a hotel room before the conference starts. We are more and more mobile and the traditional workplace with binders, pinboards, and family photographs becomes less important.

– The job is here of course, says Katriina Byström, pointing at her silver-grey laptop.

As the initiator of the European Network for Workplace Information (ENWI), she is interested, together with 20 fellow researchers in Europe, in digital workplaces’ opportunities and challenges.

Colleagues in the digital realm and Peopleless Offices

In the 50s, American futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the concept Paperless Offices. Computers did not even exist yet, but he proved to be right in the long term. Now Katriina Byström is introducing her own expression, Peopleless Offices, i.e. offices without physical colleagues – they are instead to be found in the digital realm.

– I hope I am an active researcher when my children are 50 years old. This generation is growing up with the Internet and social media, so who knows how their work situation will look? It will probably be a long time before we have Peopleless Offices, but we do know that ways of working change over time.

Katriina Byström:
Lives: In Bredared
Works: At the University of Borås and at Oslo and Akershus University College
Family:  Yes, both in Sweden and Finland
Leisure interests: Riding year-round, boating in the summer, and skiing in winter – and spending time with family, friends AND colleagues
Received her doctorate at: University of Tampere, Finland
Likes: Variation in life, but always her family’s summer place in Finland        Has: A lot of persistence, almost always a strength, but sometimes it goes too far
Is good at: Positive thinking and finding constructive solutions
Wants to do: Oh, a lot! 
Doesn’t want to do: Standing in queues, is there anything duller?
Dares: Standing up for myself
During industrialisation, people thought it was strange to use the phone as a business tool. Today, we have access to information on our computers or mobile phones, so-called cloud services, which offer a variety of possibilities when it comes to the storage and dissemination of information. As a result, we can use information in the same way outside the office as inside.

Digital divide between generations can be problematic

- Often, I am met with scepticism toward the more distanced way of working; people wonder what happens to the feeling of community? But I don’t see it that way. Perhaps, in the future, we will have more interesting work, more leisure time, and greater fellowship with family and friends rather than colleagues. Or we work with our friends – we don’t know! That our material and social working environments are changing superficially and in terms of content is a fact, and is perhaps neither positive or negative in itself.

But she also sees challenges, of course. Different generations relate to digital workplaces in different ways, which can complicate things. Alienation can occur that can be more difficult to detect and overcome than in a physical environment.

– And what happens with expertise and how do you know whom to turn to when the collegial presence is reduced? There is a risk that knowledge becomes fragmented and that decision-making is based on arbitrariness in a digital world where everyone can find their own truth, says Katriina Byström.

Greater desire to learn more complicated work assignments

For 25 years, Katriina Byström has researched how professional groups, such as local government officials, journalists, and engineers, use information in their various duties. Based on these studies, she can draw a general conclusion about people's use of information and information systems in the workplace:

– If looking for information is difficult and takes attention from the task itself, we quickly become frustrated with all sorts of administrative and simpler tasks within our own profession. But in more complex profession-related tasks, we are willing to put more effort in seeking information, tolerate a greater degree of conflicting information, and are interested in learning more.

These experiences come in useful now as she researches digital workplaces. Together with a colleague, she recently started a pilot project to study people from Australia and Germany who largely work remotely.

– For my part, it is interesting to examine what kind of information is perceived as useful and how it is sought to solve complex tasks. Likewise, it will be interesting to see how physical workplaces’ built-in mechanisms for the routine use of information in simple tasks are transferred to or may be replaced in a digital environment.

Researcher – the best job in the world

That Katriina Byström has ended up in the right profession cannot be doubted. She would even go so far as to say that her profession is the best there is.

– Research is all about curiosity and learning and to test my thoughts against others’. I have contact with many interesting and competent students, practitioners and researchers worldwide. I get to be in a very positive environment and constantly develop myself along with others. What can beat that?