TechnologyTechnology: the latest office addiction

Technology: the latest office addiction

Employees can adapt to mobile technology easily enough, it's learning to switch off outside of working hours that causes the problem

The waiter takes your order on a mobile device, the postman has me sign for a
package on a handheld screen. The taxi driver has his own electronic credit car
machine. The passenger in the back stops working on his laptop to answer a call
and transmit an email from his BlackBerry. All every day uses of the mobile

In most professional firms at least half of staff have BlackBerries and the
problem is not their use in terms of web connectivity but the fact that staff
complain about becoming addicted. Switching staff onto the new technology is not
the problem; the real issue is getting them to switch off.

And just as executives are finding it easier and easier to work from outside
the conventional office, so the office of yesterday is disappearing and the much
trumpeted paperless office is at last actually happening.

And while white and blue collar workers in the West are finding that mobile
technology adds to their efficiency but threatens to disrupt their work/life
balance the effect in the third world is even more dramatic. The leapfrog effect
that mobile technology has had on the Third World economies is a major factor in
the explosion of these economies in the last decade. Previously they had been
inhibited by their lack of secure land lines; now these are no longer necessary.

Danny Hoffman is director of the Tikit, a specialist software company that
supplies around 250 accountancy and 150 law firms. This Aim-quoted business is
growing at around 20% a year and last year turned over £23m. Nevertheless
thanks to mobile technology Hoffman rarely goes into any of the company’s eight
offices. It’s one very immediate advantage he sees for his clients in the new

‘Because accountancy staff can be in touch with their offices at the same
time as they are working for clients they can record their time far more
efficiently,’ Hoffman says. ‘Partners can now manage remote teams far more
effectively. Teams can now work on the same data. One of our accountancy clients
told me that because of mobile technology he has doubled his turnover while at
the same time halved his staff.’PA Consulting reckons that the use of mobile
technology can lead because of 24/7 accessibility to as much as a 15% increase
in productive work and as much as 50% saving in support staff.

Organisations are changing because of the flexibility gained from use of
mobile technology principally BlackBerries and laptops. James Bennet, director
of the technology sector at Ernst & Young, says: ‘We no longer have physical
offices, most now work from hot desks or open plan. We have far more registered
at our offices than could actually fit in.

‘The fact that we are far more flexible, always available and have more
access either individually or in groups to all kinds of information, speeds
things up and make travel less necessary. It isn’t only on business functions
where we are saving on support staff, because of mobile technology we are far
more into self service in areas like HR.’

While restaurant chains like Wagamama have speeded up the throughput of
customers by using mobile technology to take orders and pay bills, companies
such as construction equipment giant Caterpillar can speed up repairs to its
vital machinery by giving its mechanics access to plans and detailed analysis
while on site.

But in terms of the world economy, while white collar workers and those in
the service industries are becoming more efficient and autonomous in the West,
whole industries have been created and liberated in the third world. Len
Waverman, professor of economics at London Business School, says: ‘Throughout
Asia and Africa producers so long in thrall of traders and financiers are now
getting the upper hand. The Indonesian fisherman can now use his mobile to get
the best price before he lands his catch. He will land the fish where he can get
the best price. Previously, he was at the mercy of the middleman. The advent of
mobile technology has unleashed unprecedented entrepreneurship and
opportunities. It has liberated information.’

But there are downsides. The instant response culture may bring speed but
some fear it could have a detrimental impact on quality of communication.

Mark Neild managing consultant with PA Consulting says: ‘Having everything
processed at point of sale cuts down the need for the back office and we are
seeing these being reduced by half. However having staff who are in a position
to email and respond to emails all the time has consequences. More emailing
means more time is being spent and often wasted responding. Unproductive
meetings may have been replaced by unproductive emails.’

Cripsin O’Brien chairman of the technology group at KPMG says: ‘There has to
be a leadership style that doesn’t use 24/7 accessibility to turn more efficient
working into oppressive working. I know one FTSE 100 finance director who
deliberately doesn’t send emails over the weekend because he knows they will be
answered within the hour.’

However in intensive executive and professional environments the desire and
sometimes the need to being involved and in the know has led to something of an
addiction to BlackBerry emails. There are some who if they don not get a speedy
response, resort to the telephone to find out why not.

Alex Brown, partner in the technology group at law firm Symmonds and
Symmonds, says: ‘When I am on holiday I ration myself to one look a day. Being
able to work more flexibly does have its down sides but it does allow you to be
in effect in more than one place at the same time which increases your scope.
But in some things like negotiation there is no substitute for face to face

Another major concern is the security of information which is being
transmitted without the security of the office fire walls and is being stored in
highly vulnerable laptops.

Face the facts

Some 91% of business leaders felt that new technologies would be important
drivers of organisational changel 88% saw technology as an opportunity not a
threatl 60% felt that the workplace of the future would involve less
face-to-face interactionl 31% looking to completely transform the business

Source: 500 business leaders interviewed by NOP for Orange/Demos

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