Are we using IT or is it using us? Anne Sebba examines the latest research into our changing patterns of work.
There is a mobile phone advertisement that promises increased productivity because you can build a team of people who will constantly be in touch with each other and the office. In other words, if you have a job in the 21st century, you will be able to work harder and for longer hours, wherever you are. You may also have less support, less security and may suffer greater stress.
But most academics researching the future of work and the impact of new technologies and entrepreneurial relationships on society and individuals paint a more complex, less dramatic picture.
Steven Woolgar of Oxford University's Said Business School, who heads the £3 million, 25-university Virtual Society project, believes all new technologies initially promise more than they can deliver. "We have to do everything we can to combat 'cyperbole' - exaggerated claims about the effect of the new technologies on society." Much of the group's research suggests that the problems of social division in society far outweigh what the internet can bring them, because the number of people with access will fall below some predictions.
Woolgar also identifies a counter-trend indicating that electronic systems will sit alongside traditional methods of work, rather than replace them. He cites a recent study on teleworking that shows that the more you give people teleworking situations, the more they travel. "They make contacts quickly and efficiently via the electronic system and then have to visit them to do more business."
Peter Nolan, director of the £4 million Economic and Social Research Council's Future of Work programme, agrees that new communications technologies will not produce a total revolution in the way people work. "Some of the companies that were zealous about the benefits of selling office space in expensive locations have now changed their minds because they find that people want the social interaction, and that (the company's) ability to control efficiency sometimes diminishes. We are moving away from the idea that just because we have the capability to make something happen it will automatically follow."
Richard Scase of Kent University blames old-fashioned management styles for slowing the take-up of potentially beneficial internet technologies. "There's a culture of management that says, 'I don't trust you unless I see you.' It is preventing the realisation of internet technology, which could reduce traffic congestion, urban pollution and the stress of working in large, alienating offices."
But there are limits to remote working. "As we move towards a knowledge-based economy, how do we develop creativity? We can have information systems and knowledge-management systems, but they are no good unless you have creative humans to interpret the data, construct scenarios and make projections. The limits to the virtual organisation and how we nurture creativity alongside new technologies is a big issue for the UK economy over the next ten years."
Many academics are focusing research on getting the work-life balance right - a key concern of the government, which has recently set up a Work-Life Balance team headed by junior minister Margaret Hodge.
As Manchester University's Cary Cooper, who is undertaking a research project for the Institute of Chartered Accountants, comments: "There is all this IT around, but were not using it effectively. It's using us. We have the longest working hours in Europe and one of the highest divorce rates, and that is a heavy cost for the country. We have to make the business case for more flexible working arrangements. It's no good just saying we'd like it - will it produce added value?" One area where information technology has led to a closer control of work is the call centre. There are now 400,000 call-centre workers and the number is rising.
"This may be an extreme example," says Francis King, economics professor at Kent University, who is worried about the intensification of work habits. "But you sit in front of a computer, and the moment you have finished one task the next comes along. It is like this the whole day. Technology has closed all the gaps by monitoring how long you take over a task. There is no let up."
King believes one of the ways research can help is by persuading people they must put up barriers between home and work. "It's a question of learning to work smarter, not harder," he says.
There is a general awareness among researchers that overwork is creating increased stress and cooling the overheated work ethic is potentially more of a problem than encouraging the workshy.
Michael Rose at Bath University says the importance to someone of having paid work is growing, not declining, as was once predicted. Rose has spent years studying the relationship between job satisfaction and stress as part of his Work Centrality and Careers project. He found that professional workers - especially university lecturers bogged down by administrative chores and staff shortages - have low job satisfaction and high stress levels.
One interesting conclusion is that job satisfaction has more to do with training and skill than with quality of work or remuneration, which are usually cited as sources of satisfaction. This is called the skill-discrepancy effect. The higher above average person's skills experience and training for the work he or she does, the lower the job satisfaction. This finding destroys some commonsense assumptions, notably any idea that people who find it easy to do their job are likely to have higher job satisfaction. "Managers will have to be vigilant if they want to maximise potential," Rose warns.
Nolan says that when his 100 or so researchers in 26 projects report formally in 2002, some of the findings will not make pleasant reading for the government. "It will be different from most gloomy surveys, which say there won't be any paid employment possibilities. We're talking about a movement in the way people perceive their careers because of the harsh realities of organisational restructuring. Our programme says, 'Yes, things are changing, but not as rapidly as some might think and there are also countervailing pressures'."
One cheering, if surprising, conclusion is that an increasing number of enterprises are finding they can do business with trade unions.
"Often it is a more efficient way of managing a workforce. After 20 years of unbridled hostility to collectivism, there are signs of a reversal. The attitudes of trade unions to business have changed too," Nolan says.
But who is responsible for equipping people with the skills with which to move from job to job? A reinvigorated trade union movement could well operate a little like the old guilds and assume some responsibility for this, as well as policing workplace agreements on training and skills.
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