Halfway through a year where working life has been upended, there has been a spate of the kind of “Future of Work” reports beloved by consultants, analysts and business managers.
Weighty predictions about how working life will be transformed by technology have been a staple of the digital era. Ever since the term “telecommuting” was invented in the early 1970s, idealised visions for new ways of working have held a powerful allure, even if the reality has fallen short.
So when real change is in the air, the imagination leaps ahead. There are 1.25bn “knowledge workers”, or people who spend at least one hour of their working day in front of a screen, according to tech research firm Forrester. A large portion of them have been forced to spend much of this year on Zoom.
Wall Street has decided that this heralds a new era, driving up the stock prices not just of Zoom, but of many other software companies involved in communications and collaboration, along with all the technologies needed to support remote workers.
The WFH boom will recede. But it is already clear that many people hope to spend part of their working lives out of the office long after the pandemic has passed — and that they and their managers believe they can be at least as productive. Even those who return full-time have had a taste of new ways of working.
That makes this year’s experiment in WFH a catalyst for a set of changes that have been decades in the making. They extend beyond remote work, and include long-running efforts to make workers more productive by breaking down barriers within an organisation, and between organisations. When face-to-face meetings become impossible, it allows a new, digital-first way of working to seep in.
Workplace messaging service Slack gave a glimpse this week of how these forces are coming to reshape work in the age of cloud computing. Slack is easily pigeonholed as a chat app for office workers, but its channel-based communications have become a way to harness disparate workers around a shared goal. It also integrates with an organisation’s other software applications, making it a digital backbone for companies that operate in the cloud. The fact that Microsoft has put Teams, its own rival to Slack, at the centre of its worker collaboration and productivity efforts shows how important such services are becoming to the way work gets done.
Slack took a step further this week by letting people from as many 20 different organisations join a real-time discussion, while also plugging in their corporate applications to let data flow beyond their corporate “firewalls”. Its new service, Slack Connect, is a glimpse of how work around a shared project that spans different organisations could become more of a real-time exchange, replacing the email chains that have been a staple of work life for two decades.
This kind of change to the nature of work is difficult to pull off. Workers need a high level of trust in people beyond their own organisation, while their employers need to be able to limit the data that can be shared while meeting all their compliance needs. A new channel like this may only replicate much of what workers have already been doing in personal meetings or ad hoc emails, but it still takes a mental leap to build new digital rails across organisational boundaries.
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The accelerated adoption of tools like Slack during the coronavirus crisis has also highlighted another aspect of the cloud software era. Services that were once dismissed as little more than “features” — nice ideas that would eventually be rolled up into broader services — have become the foundation for large businesses in their own right. The software-as-a-service age has brought a seemingly endless subdivision of software products like this, in the process spawning entire new categories.
Take communications. As Slack’s chief executive, Stewart Butterfield, points out, there has been an “unbundling” of communications into video calling, messaging and voice, and companies such as Zoom are discovering the huge markets this can open up. The inevitable pendulum-swing of the tech world means there are already attempts to rebundle all of these services, but in the meantime the category killers are finding a ready market.
Inevitably, parts of the WFH revolution of 2020 will come to be seen as a false dawn. Many workers will be only too glad to get out from behind the video conferencing screens. The suites of cloud applications sold by companies like Google and Microsoft will exert a gravitational pull, as employers try to limit their spending on whizzy new apps. But the crisis has still brought an alluring glimpse of a future way of working, as well as the new software fortunes it will create.
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