How an Open Office, the Cloud, an iPhone, and a MacBook Air Changed How I Work

Each year I find myself increasingly mobile and virtual, working all the time but seldom in a single workplace.

August 21, 2012

How has your work environment changed since you began your career?

Each year I find myself increasingly mobile and virtual, working all the time but seldom in a single workplace.  

Today, work happens wherever I happen to be. My MacBook Air is light enough to tote everywhere, but powerful enough to do anything I need done. The combination of an Air and an iPhone (via tethering) allows for constant connection (even in the absence of a WiFi signal). With all my files and many of my applications in the cloud (Google Docs, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Amazon servers), and the cloud being accessible from any screen, the concept of "going to work" has lost almost all meaning.   

Each year I seem to shed the physical things that characterized my work identity.   

This de-materialization started with paper. Books disappeared from bookshelves. Xeroxed journal articles were removed from filing cabinets.  

This situation of an office devoid mostly of paper went on for a number of years. As the volume paper articles and books declined the number of and size of the monitors increased. For a long time I was a two-screen guy - giant 30 inch flat screen monitors docked to a laptop, keyboard, and mouse. Screen real estate seemed important - and every few years the dimensions of these monitors seemed to expand. Today my screens are smaller, more numerous, lightweight, and always with me.

Eliminating the bookshelves and filing cabinets made room for new collaboration tools.  I gained a small round conference table and a big whiteboard. My office became a place for both collaborative and heads-down work. Meetings proliferated, many of them taking place at the round table in my office that occupied the former place of the bookshelves and filing cabinets.  

Today, all that is gone. I work in an open office at a standup desk.  I keep almost nothing on a paper. Less time is spent "in the office", but more time is spent working. My desk, once cluttered, is clean. Where before you could find me in my office, nowadays shoot me an e-mail, and I'll come find you.

Meetings, either physical or virtual, take place wherever I can grab a free conference room. Time at my desk is reserved for shorter, discrete tasks (such as e-mail), and impromptu discussions and collaborations. Scheduled meetings, virtual collaborations, and serious heads-down research, writing, or course design occurs at various places on campus or at home.   

These changes, like any change, involves both pros and cons.   

On the pro side I think there is a good deal to be said for work environments that mirror the collaborative nature of so much of the work that we do. An open office makes us all more accessible, and lowers the barriers to communication. Our lightweight laptops (or iPads if that is your speed) make it easy to grab them and walk across campus for a quick discussion. The smart phone replaces the desktop phone, the ultraportable computer replaces the fixed desktop, and the result is an ease of productive mobility.

Another pro of open offices and mobile work tools is the necessity of creating quiet and distraction free spaces for work. Nowadays I'll carve out time on my schedule to get away from colleagues, find a quiet and hopefully distraction place to park, turn off e-mail and whatever applications that I'm not working on, and put my head down to research, write, and think.   It is the necessity of creating a distraction free place that enables more thoughtful behaviors about eliminating distractions.

On the con side it is often difficult to find these quiet and distraction free places on campus, and a challenge to find the time blocks in which to engage in this focused work.  We need to build more small conference rooms, collaboration spaces, and quiet work areas as we move towards less private office space. Desk phones should be replaced by universal smart phones.  Every campus application needs to work seamlessly across devices and screens.

Days spent managing e-mail and in meetings (impromptu and scheduled, virtual and face-to-face) leave little time for sustained and concentrated work. The laptop, the smartphone and the cloud allow us to bring all our work home (or anywhere we go), with the result that any line that separated work-time and work-space from non work-time and non work-space has been obliterated. The concepts of "the workday" or "a home life" both seem outdated.

How has your physical workspace, and hence how you work, changed over your career?


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