Working whenever: Trends and insights on mobility and computing

The traditional nine to five workday is not the only way to make a living. Rolling out of bed before the sun rises and sipping coffee while sitting in traffic could soon be an archaic ritual. Steve Sawyer, associate professor of information sciences and technology, discussed the evolution of the work environment at the first Research Unplugged event of the fall season.

man in glasses in front of computer
James Collins

Steve Sawyer

Cellular phones and laptop computers have made it easier for employees to be mobile. But technology is not the real driver here, Sawyer argued. Rather, "It's a social issue that technology has followed."

Traditional farms and factories closely integrated work life and home life, but "we no longer live near where we work," Sawyer said. "The average commute time from home to office is thirty minutes," he pointed out.

"Knowledge workers," whose product is ideas, can do their work away from a physical work site, connecting to colleagues and resources through wireless technology from their homes, their favorite coffee houses, and even their cars. Which raises new kinds of questions. "If you know that you can leave the office and still access your projects, where and when should you work?" Sawyer asked the group of retirees, local businesspeople, and college students.

Some in the audience wondered aloud whether a virtual office may be less conducive to productivity than the conventional desk. Even in traditional office settings, Sawyer noted, the average employee logs five and a half hours of actual work in a nine-hour day. Personal e-mails, online games, and coffee breaks account for some of the rest. "But distraction is not a location issue," he stressed. "It's an opportunity issue." The freedom to choose where work happens puts more pressure on the worker to make the right decisions about time management—but it may also help keep workers happy.

Opportunities for socialization are another benefit commonly cited for traditional office environments. But social networking Web sites and chat rooms can reintegrate telecommuters with the corporate world, Sawyer said. Brainstorming sessions can now happen between ten different people in ten different locations.

Before the lunchtime conversation came to a close, Sawyer reminded the audience that it's important to also keep time for yourself in this age of mobile technology. "There are some people who are really good at getting away from work, but I'm not one of them," Sawyer said with a chuckle.

Steve Sawyer, Ph.D., is associate professor of information sciences and technology. He can be reached at sawyer@ist.psu.edu.

Last Updated November 13, 2006