Networked Workers?

Networked workers bring a significant amount of opportunity to an organization and can significantly increase organizational productivity. From acquiring information quickly and efficiently to immediately responding to company tasks and communicating quickly and cheaply, the web has enabled workers to streamline business processes, increase knowledge, and up efficiency in the workplace. However, easy access to the web has some negatives in a work context, especially concerning time management and security. Free access to web resources ensures the availability of time-wasting websites that distract employees and decrease production, and networked activities open organizations to external infiltration, hacking, and other malicious threats. If an organization can mitigate the threats to company time and resources that easy connection brings, the positives of a connected environment are substantial. If it cannot, then the organization risks losing vital business information and productive hours. Here are a few of the most obvious opportunities and risks associated with networked workers:

Opportunities

Availability: Connected workers are nearly always aware of and engaged with work issues. This provides broader opportunities to solve work-related problems, ensures work remains a priority regardless of time and space, and allows employees to influence work from anywhere. According to Madden and Jones (2008) networked workers who use the internet or email at their job report higher rates of working at home. Overall, 56% of Networked Workers report some at-home work and 20% say they do so every day or almost every day – this indicates a large majority of American workers are available and working outside of the traditional hour structure.

Access to Information:
Networked workers have ready access to a massive amount of data, which can inform business decisions, help identify new strategies, and inspire new marketing approaches.

Creativity: According to Friedman (2007) Capabilities create intentions and, in a networked world, there is a whole new universe of things that companies, countries, and individuals can and must do to thrive. The existence of networked resources can inspire new ideas and help individual employees develop and implement creative solutions to business problems. Madden and Jones’ (2008) research indicates network availability does inspire collaboration; the authors indicate that 73% of survey responders say web technologies have improved their ability to share ideas with co-workers.

Communication: Networked workers can communicate easier, quicker, and more efficiently. From email to web chats to synchronous video conferences, today’s networked employee possesses a host of communication enhances that limit the adverse effects of time and space. This enables long-distance collaboration and allows the smooth management of complex design, procurement, and supply functions.

Risks

Distraction: Research indicates a significant amount of workers shop, blog, and engage in online gaming at the office (Madden and Jones, 2008). These activities take valuable time away from company tasks and cost companies significant time and cost in lost productivity. While many organizations employ filters and other blocking devices to limit the type of sites employees visit, social media, video, gaming, news, and other sites are often accessible from work computers or employee telephones, which makes it possible for employees to eschew assigned tasks for unrelated web activity through a variety of platforms.

Security: The websites networked workers access may open company systems to threats from hackers, industrial espionage actors, or malicious codes. Many individuals and nations use a variety of active and passive techniques to gather sensitive and proprietary data from countries and companies, and networked workers are a company’s weakest line of defense against a web compromise.

Bias Confirmation: The web’s user-driven model enables browsers to self-select the information they view, which can lead to selectivity and bias over time. For companies, this is dangerous because it serves to limit creativity and create groupthink.

Burnout: According to Madden and Jones (2008), those who are most tethered to work are more likely to say that their gadgets and connectivity have increased demands that they work more hours, with 46% of workers stating demands have intensified and 59% of professionals and managers agreeing. This correlation has implications for work-related burnout – 49% of wired workers stated constant connection increased the level of stress in their job, and 49% of workers stated connection made it harder for them to disconnect from their work while at home. These numbers suggest constant connection is somewhat stressful, and sustained connection may contribute to higher stress levels, job dissatisfaction, and burnout.

While these lists are far from inclusive, they identify some of the most obvious issues surrounding networked employees. In the current work environment, most employees have immediate professional or personal access to the web, and employers must acknowledge this and develop strategies to keep their assets safe, their employees focused, and their missions unchanged. At the same time, employers should work to harness the communication technologies and creative power that the web facilitates; if done correctly through proper policies and management techniques, integrating the web into the life of the typical employee can improve production, inspire creativity, and positively impact the organization.

Friedman, T. (2007). The World is Flat (3rd ed.) New York: Picador.

Madden, M. & Jones, S. (Sep 24, 2008). Networked Workers. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2008/Networked-Workers.aspx

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8 thoughts on “Networked Workers?

  1. It falls under access to information, but I can’t tell you how many times in the office we have asked “How do you do (and then fill in the blank with some technical question regarding Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Prezi, etc.).” Years ago it would have been a search to find someone in the office who could answer the question. Now I Google the question and more often than not find a YouTube that someone has posted that walks me through the solution step by step.

    What this also tells me is that my value add as a business had better always be trending up. Increasingly even complex challenges, that can be solved in a linear fashion (do this, then this, then this) can be solved more often than not using resources on the web. My value-add has to be in creating new solutions that marry the linear with the free-range, creating solutions that have unique attributes that you can’t just pull off the web.

    Finally, as a leader I need to challenge my employees to use the web as a virtual assistant, not just as an information repository. There are so many “self-help” solutions, be they for the office, fixing your car, etc., that the progressive office/individual should start with the web as a solution before wandering the office hoping someone else can help them (and burning through productivity).

  2. You stated, There are so many “self-help” solutions, be they for the office, fixing your car, etc., that the progressive office/individual should start with the web as a solution before wandering the office hoping someone else can help them (and burning through productivity).

    My organization is higher education. I can relate to your comments because, In higher education we need to begin examining changes in our workers have led to a rise of a new form of worker, which in in turn has placed demands on our society for the development of competencies reserved largely for the managerial and professional ranks. As we examine these changes we need to explore in some detail in my present work environment the social transformations that have been enabled through the wide scale development of information technologies, and, more specifically, through the development of information and communications technologies.

  3. Good post, Tim…and neat response, Matt. I want to respond to both.

    Tim, I totally agree with everything you said…but let me push back a bit. I wonder if leaders (or really managers) are trying to have it both ways. They complain that their people are off the clock and doing non-work things during “working hours”…and then want their workers to extend working hours by answering emails and work requests at home. Can you (or should you) have both? More a question to everyone…but Tim’s post sparked the thought.

    As for Matt – just this week I used the uber-snarky web site “Let Me Google That For You” to answer a PhD’s emailed question. The answer was easily found with a Google Search, and LMGTFY creates a short video that you can send to the student so that he or she can sit there and watch their question get typed into Google and the answer appear.

    While humorous, it points straight to your point…I should be adding value rather than simply acting as Google Jockey for my students (or workers).

    http://lmgtfy.com/?q=Let+Me+Google+That+For+You

    • Managers are trying to have it both ways – for many organizations, network tools have not replaced the traditional work schedule; instead, they’ve simply augmented it. This creates an environment where managers expect employees to be present for their typical work shift and then available to work/respond remotely after completing scheduled times. In many cases, managers can have it both ways right now, and will continue to view network access and communication resources as additional work resources instead of new tools until a more results-based, less schedule-based work culture evolves. Most American employers are wedded to the idea of fixed work schedules, so I don’t see this changing soon. Instead, I believe employers will continue to expect employees work full scheduled days and then use network access to accomplish more work. With most of the labor market leverage on the side of the employer right now, how many employees would risk their positions by disconnecting following their scheduled shifts? In today’s world, I’d guess not very many…

      • Tim –

        I referred to the concepts of work condensation and work expansion. The advent of technology tools condenses our work; we get more done in a shorter amount of time. If we consider this in light of previous industrial revolutions, this should mean an increase in worker quality of life and more free time.

        In Globalization 3.0, we’ve also expanded work. We do more in less time and then add MORE time to do even MORE. Technology has made us efficient, but we’re working harder.

        Seems a dichotomy turned reality, eh

        BPW

  4. Timothy,

    You section on security really struck a cord with me that I didn’t truly think about but there are a number of inherent risks from allowing access of various forms. In some cases, it could be that employees access websites that compromise the integrity of their organization. I think the more likely scenario could happen with employees having access at home where the organization has even less control over the protection of their information and documents. Do you think that organizations should require employees to have certain types of anti-virus security before allowing home access? I think that could reduce the chance for security issues…

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