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London and Amsterdam – Digital natives and the death of the desk: a glimpse into the future of work

The death of the desk and other evolutionary leaps in the workplace

Boarding a flight out of Heathrow recently, I passed an architect sitting cross-legged on the floor of the terminal.
One half of his laptop screen displayed a set of shop drawings, the other a Skype window where a foreman in a site office was holding a steel section up to the camera. As he half-listened through headphones, the architect flicked quickly through a folder of construction photos on his smart phone. Undeniably, our idea of what constitutes a job is changing. The concept of work decreasingly refers to rituals performed through predictable timetables in well-defined physical locations (a ‘shift’, ‘Sunday’, a ‘factory’, the ‘office’) and is increasingly understood to mean a particular type of (often highly technologically mediated) active behaviour.

At the head of this emerging notion is the techno-futurist research and development company UnWork. Their recent WorkTech conferences in London and Amsterdam aimed to further explore the potential of so-called ‘activity-work’ by bringing together under one roof 200 of the greatest contemporary minds in fields as diverse as real estate, information technology, cultural studies and demographics analysis. This holistic approach to work-life and the workplace - termed by CEO Philip Ross as ‘the death of the desk’ - is typical of UnWork’s interest in understanding how factors like language barriers, new communication technologies, and changing global property and infrastructure costs might impact upon the way we do our jobs.

‘WorkTech is about the future of work at its intersection with technology,’ says Monica Parker, associate director of UnWork and keynote speaker at the Amsterdam conference. ‘The forefront of this domain is the home. We want to know what the effect of virtual work might be on a broader social and economic scale… how can it reduce our carbon footprint, or radically alter our transportation networks? When the workplace becomes so reliant on personal videoconferencing technologies, how can we get the most out of the real? What are we losing with a lack of physical communication?’

A large part of this is understanding how different demographics employ and deploy certain technologies. As cloud (internet-based) computing becomes increasingly ubiquitous, and indeed the internet itself becomes more indispensable to our day-to-day lives (Wi-Fi access is currently being trialled on the London Underground), the profitable relationship between the worker and the web becomes more critical. How can a ‘digital immigrant’ (those born before the rise of the machines) keep up technologically with the remorseless upgrades of the ‘digital natives’? But the corporate world tends to underestimate the ability of older generations to adapt - just because I was born after 1980 doesn’t mean I think the iPad looks any less like a tablet from 2001: A Space Odyssey (nor does it make it less foreign as a techno-object).

Hearing Parker discuss the world that WorkTech proposes, I have to remind myself it doesn’t yet exist. And in a sense, this is where the great power of their thinking is demonstrated: by searching out the positive ways in which a company can profit from high-data feeds, augmented reality, social networking and RFID chips, these thinkers pitch us headlong into the realm of the already-emerging near-future.

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