Time to prepare for the human cloud

Inside the enterprise: Technology is producing a global talent pool, and this could bring drastic changes to the workplace. Is IT ready?

Some 20 years ago, organisations such as the Telework Association and BT started to promote the idea of remote working. New technologies, such as the Windows PC and ISDN lines, were going mainstream.

Computer technology was falling in price, and becoming easier to use. Tools such as video conferencing – running over those ISDN connections – was becoming viable. People, especially knowledge workers, could work from home, or from specially-designed telework centres. New life would be breathed into rural areas and small towns, and we would all be spared the daily commute.

Field-based staff in areas such as sales and engineering often feel better connected to colleagues than they did before. They might not be in the canteen, but Twitter is a very effective conduit for gossip.

However, that is not exactly how it has worked out. The Telework Association is still going, as is BT. But there has not been a flux of workers, or employers, to rural areas.

In fact, as the Mayor's office points out, London's population has grown every year since 1988, and is expected to do so until 2031. Other cities – including Manchester, Leeds and Bristol – have seen their urban populations grow, as industrial areas have been regenerated and turned into housing.

Much of this is down to social and demographic factors, but technology has also played its part. Back in mid early 1990s, the vogue among companies was for large, self-contained teleworking projects. Staff would essentially carry out the same tasks as before, but either from a remote branch office, or from home. Unsurprisingly, many of those projects were not a great success, and one reason was that the technology was not quite ready.

But large, formal teleworking projects have given away to the idea of remote or flexible working. Here, technology has been more successful: Wi-Fi, smartphones, and remote access make ad-hoc remote working practical.

It suits people who need to work on the move far better than the old-style, PC-based teleworking schemes, and it is on a much more human scale. Whilst some teleworking projects fell down because staff felt alienated, in companies with good flexible working schemes, field-based staff in areas such as sales and engineering often feel better connected to colleagues than they did before. They might not be in the canteen, but Twitter is a very effective conduit for gossip.

None the less, the telecommunications industry continues to talk in terms of revolutions, rather than incremental change. An example is a report, called Work 3.0, compiled by vendor Mitel.

In it, the vendor argues that resources, including property and people, will be virtualised in much the way IT has been. Companies can scale these resources up and down according to demand. The workforce, the authors suggest, will become a " human cloud".

Virtualising IT, and breaking the link between information and physical resources, such as office space or PCs, does make this possible. And there are some markets – software development is one, call centre staff another – that already are global.

But when it comes to more general, office work there is still a long way to go. Statistics from Mitel's research found that half of employees, for example, "rarely or never" work from home; 34 per cent of those that do, cited social interaction as the main advantage of the office. But administrative aspects, such as a dedicated space to work (28 per cent) or even easier access to HR and accounts (22 per cent) were also a reason for going in to the office.

It might not be faster broadband that will encourage homeworking; perhaps IT's first task should be a web-based system for filing those expense claims.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.