19th Century: “Work” and “Private” become two separate time zones defined by when people clock into the mass production conveyor belts and when they clock out again to go home to some highly needed and well deserved sleep.
21st Century: Mobile and nomadic work patterns are spreading like wild fire. We get access to our digital work spaces in the cloud. We are expected to be connected to our professional lives 24/7 through mobile phones, emails and other channels.
We all know when we are at work, but we are starting to ask: When are we not at work?
…but is that actually the right question? Or is it a redundant echo from a time when we clocked in and out of factories?
Perhaps the terms “Work hours” and “Spare time” should be replaced with the word “Life” like it used to be before the industrialisation, but to reach this forgotten harmony we need to start embedding our private lives into our work spheres as much as we have already done the other way around.
A next generation digital life space
From a digital user experience point of view it means giving the users a digital interface that covers both work and personal content. Imagine an intranet that embeds your social profiles as well. A mixture of work tasks and friend alerts. A melting pot of information and communication.
Does it sound like a potentially confusing environment? It is! At least to those of us who did not grow up with computer screens and mobile phones next to our teddy bears.
But for the digital native generation, Generation C (as in connected, communicating, content-centric, computerized, community-oriented and always clicking) this is just ordinary life. They can digest information from several channels. As they watch a movie on the TV they chat away with friends on their laptops and fire of TXTs left and right from their mobile phones… and making sense of these bursts of information as individual conversations streams comes natural to them.
They will expect a work environment enabling them to consume personal content while engaging with work content without boundaries. A traditional environment with more linear and segmented communication will feel old-fashioned and will in reality actually slow them down and be counter-productive.
As digital designers we need to start thinking about work environments that takes into account the next generation work force’s ability to digest multiple streams of communication no matter what content. If we don’t, the interfaces will become increasingly irrelevant and we will lose Generation C to their smart phones.
The question then becomes: What’s in it for the business? It could be building on the private relationships and turn them into private customer relationships. It could also enable much quicker trouble shooting; quick, informal target group reviews and a real collaborative environment of friends and colleagues driving and crowd-sourcing innovation. But there may be many unforeseen benefits we simply cannot see at this point in time.
While the traditional digital dangers such as posting classified content to the wrong channels remains, I believe the digital natives are better equipped to handle this in a responsible way as they are more aware of the impact both to their professional career as well as their social status amongst their friends. And they understand the etiquette (and benefits) of online communication much better than the majority of the current work force.
We need to plan for future adults who will find it amusing how we differentiate between online and offline communication as much as they will struggle to understand the distinction between work and private life.