For the last several weeks, our Help Desk email inbox has been inundated with questions from readers hoping to make sense of their technology. This week, we’ll review questions about tech in the workplace and the future of work.
Vanishing work boundaries
It’s a common question: How do you turn off work when your “office” is just steps from your personal living space? The ping of an incoming work message is crystal clear even when cooking dinner, brushing teeth, or reading bedtime stories.
Many people are finding the lines between work and home blurring. And that can be frustrating without the tools to manage it. Experts advise having a conversation with your team or manager about communication norms and expectations as telecommuting continues.
Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business who studies remote work, said a good way to approach this would be to set “exclusion hours,” meaning hours in which calls, emails and meetings do not happen. Ideally, this would be set by an employer, but Bloom says employees can also ask for them.
Remember, it’s “not unreasonable” to tell your employer you are online and available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. or that you pick up your kids from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. but will work until 6:30 p.m., for example.
“If an employer doesn’t respect that . . . then you have the choice to just say, ‘If this doesn’t stop, you’re going to force me to look for another job,’ ” he said. “Most employers will come to their senses.”
Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School associate professor focused on the future of work, said another conversation with colleagues or a manager concerns what work employees need to do together, synchronously, and what work can be done separately on a person’s own schedule and how those two pieces fit. Encouraging your team to embrace asynchronous work through Slack messages, emails and shared documents that don’t need to be addressed immediately can benefits both employee employer, Choudhury said.
“If I can take my dog for a walk around the park, I can think about a question you asked and come up with a more thoughtful response,” he said.
Moral of the story: You’re going to have to have a conversation with your teammates or manager. But once you agree to norms, then you must be consciously follow them.
Zoom fatigue from home or the office
Another common workplace complaint is this one: “Workers are putting on pants to return to the office only to be on Zoom all day.” What are the solutions that companies might employ to improve the in-office experience, and who provides them?
While it might be convenient to assume there’s a suite of tech tools to solve every problem, sometimes the answer to a tech problem is not technical at all.
So what’s the best way to improve the in-office experience? Choudhury suggests changing the question all together.
“My question is: Why should anyone go to the office, ever?” he said.
That’s not to say the office doesn’t serve a valuable purpose, rather it serves a specific one, Choudhury said. Offices help develop deep connections and collaboration within the team. If workers are not going to the office to collaborate live, why are they there?
Tech tools like Zoom, Google Docs, Slack, Asana and Trello can be helpful when it comes to working collaboratively in a remote environment. They can even help people work on tasks together in-person. But if workers spend all day communicating and collaborating solely with the digital tools versus any in-person contact, then they’re not getting much value out of being at the office.
As Choudhury put it, the office is the new “off-site” meeting place. Use the office for mentoring, team meetings and networking opportunities, he said. Requiring people to head there just because it’s where they’re supposed to be can be counterproductive, he said.
“We often never did our best work in the office,” Choudhury said. “We were too distracted.”
So the answer may not be deploying all the tech tools, but rather considering what purpose the office serves and how it will benefit your workers. Also, let’s not forget that companies across industries are rethinking the future of work, leaning toward more flexibility regarding when and where their employees work. Some argue that to be competitive, employers must be flexible.
To tablet or not?
With increased concerns about security, workplaces are requiring work-related software be only used on computers that have employer security software installed. In some cases, that limits tablet use to only those based on Windows 10 and newer Macs. That means that lower-priced and lighter tablets such as Kindles, iPads, and Android-based ones can’t be used with standard work software. Should remote workers abandon using tablets (other than high end ones) for work? Or cart around a laptop?
There are a few ways to think about the device you want to primarily use for work. But you should probably start by asking yourself a few questions: 1. Do I want my company to have access to what I’m doing on my personal device? 2. What tasks does my job require on a device and how much functionality and power does that device need? 3. Is my company’s software supported on the device I’d like to use?
Two analysts I spoke with told me that the trend still heavily veers toward laptops when it comes to business, for all the reasons mentioned. They have more processing power, are often more compatible with company software, have more functionality and make it easier to multitask.
Mikako Kitagawa, tech analyst at market research firm Gartner, said productivity apps available on tablets offer fewer features. So you may be able to crunch numbers on a spreadsheet, but you may not be able to do more complex functions, for example. It’s also harder to view several different windows at once, whereas on a laptop you might minimize a Web browser so you can watch video while you type a text document.
That said, depending on your job, a tablet may work in some cases. Graphic designers, for example, find them useful when they need to sketch on a digital device. But if you’re planning to use a tablet for a less creative role, you might be cutting yourself short.
“We think of them as secondary devices for specific purposes,” Kitagawa said.
Neha Mahajan, analyst at research firm International Data Corporation, said, “at the end of the day, laptops dominate” among workplace devices. But if you’re set on using a tablet and its operating system supports company software, Mahajan recommends using a premium tablet like an iPad Pro or Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7, as these models give users more flexibility regarding downloads. Granted, you’ll pay a bit more. Apple’s starting price for the iPad Pro is about $799 for its 11-inch display. For about $600, you can get Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7.
Mahajan said that during the pandemic, more people started using tablets for work. But it’s unclear whether that was driven by a lack of laptop availability as everyone started working and attending school from home.