How and in what direction are new working environments developing? Future workplaces, emerging work methods? In our current series of Bene’s Office.Info, we try to track down the major trends for the coming years.
Sometimes you have to step back to be able to get moving forward again. This is why we are starting on our "New Working Environments" topic at the most abstract and most technologically innovative area of modern working environments – hoping to come up with very specific optimised spaces. From virtual to physical. Into the Cloud and back again.
As banal as it may seem – the new term "cloud computing" is derived from early IT design drawings. These sketches presented essential components in detail (such as a computer) and depicted unessential or distant processes (such as computer networks) as a cloud that stood for ‘everything else’ that swarmed about in the digital world outside of your own PC.
Although it was quite insignificant in the beginning, the cloud symbol stubbornly held on. After all, people who know a little bit about IT yearn for simplifications in the otherwise complicated world of IT... The idea behind the cloud is actually rather old, hailing back to a time before the PC became an everyday object in offices and households. In the 1960s, the idea was basically that not every company needed expensive hardware and software and specialised staff members; instead, these companies would send data to a service provider that had the requisite infrastructure and expertise – or to put it briefly: outsourcing to a computing centre.
In recent times, this old idea has remained essentially the same. Part of IT operations, whether hardware or software, is no longer done by end-users on-site; instead, these services are farmed out to one or several providers. The Internet provides the access, and software and data are no longer on local computers; instead, they are in geographically distant computing centres. The difference today is operative in character: because the services offered by such players as Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and many others are distinguished by their high performance, comparably low costs, flexible scalability to meet current requirements, considerable usability and climbing rates of acceptance, both in private and business applications.
Now the trail is getting hot as we track down new trends in the working world: Cloud services are a major topic in connection with the increasing mobility of our working lives. The development of mobile end devices, such as laptops, tablets and smartphones, have led users to need increasing numbers of devices and places where they can access their data. Cloud computing makes it possible. Access to software and data can happen almost anywhere, and with almost any device. If you lose or damage a device, it’s not really a problem any more – the data remain preserved and accessible at any time.
Even the term teamwork has taken on new dimensions as workflow processes have become significantly easier. Because applications and data are stored centrally and are accessible from anywhere, several employees are able work together on documents – as long as this is desired and the documents have been approved for sharing. Pure collaboration.
While on one hand this all sounds very attractive and endlessly useful, it does leave a few questions hanging in the air. Like questions about data security, for example. What makes some users break out in a real sweat, though, is that their documents aren’t "on their desk" and aren’t under their own control. Yet others view this as a strength; Cloud services providers already offer the resources and expertise of security professionals and redundant security systems. An argument that sceptics can’t agree with. They see problems above all with the security of access to application data during the transfer between the local client and the distant server. Switching to another provider, or the sale of a provider, also seems problematic in terms of problems with monitoring data on third-party storage media.
Even if these points can never be fully wrapped up, the fact remains that Cloud computing is becoming very trendy, or even better: it’s already here. In our everyday private lives, we’ve been sending e-mails over webmail services, uploading holiday photos into online albums, films to YouTube, checking out our next visit to the cinema, making plans on Facebook, sharing folders on Dropbox - and we no longer have the faintest clue about where all of this information is physically stored.
The trend is very similar in business applications. Cloud solutions are increasingly used to supplement existing IT infrastructures, either as a Public Cloud with access via the Internet (although "Public" of course does not mean that everyone has access to data and applications; only authorised people have that) or as a Private Cloud that is accessed through an internal company Intranet or within a department; there’s also a mixed variation called a Hybrid Cloud.
Actually, though, the exciting question is this: will all knowledge workers become Cloud workers? Will the office workplace be replaced by a workplace in the Cloud?
Recently, Spiegel published an article that reported that IBM wants to change relationships to workers in a major and comprehensive way. The company will only be led by a small core staff. IBM wants to recruit specialists and skilled workers on an Internet platform created for just that purpose. Freelance workers would then present themselves from all over the world and be certified under quality features designed specially by IBM. Much like the social network Facebook, employees in the IBM model would receive evaluations and certificates from employers that then can be viewed by other companies. Employees organised in a cloud... would receive international work contracts... And they would only be employed for the duration of the project. Models like this fit the trend completely. "According to previously unpublished figures from Germany’s Institute for Employment Research (IAB), the number of permanent full-time jobs sank by 18.5 per cent from 1999 to 2009. In the meantime, just over half of all employees hold such positions. At the same time, the number of unusual forms of work, such as temporary employment or solo freelancing, climbed by almost 79 per cent", according to Spiegel.
Which proves once more what has long been obvious: the 9-to-5 desk in the office is on its way out, and the workplace is going virtual. Nevertheless, theoreticians insist on the necessity of face-to-face communication, now and again. Wherever it may take place. Yet it will become more important in future to learn about options for mobility, cloud working and 24-hour availability – and how to deal with all of this sensibly and draw reasonable boundaries. Clear agreements are necessary within a company, among partners and with customers; otherwise, we would open ourselves up to our boss, colleagues or customers calling us up while we’re on holiday to tell us that something has to be done right away – because now you can do anything from anywhere, any time.. We’ll see whether we’ll be strong enough to say, No, not now! The answer lies – still – in the clouds... no... in the stars.