We asked Lew Epstein to look back over the past 25 years and share his thoughts on how the relationship between work, technology, and mobility has changed. Here are his reflections:
A starting place
Twenty-five years ago I traveled throughout the New England and New York areas on business and worked from my home office near Boston. It wasn’t particularly unusual to me; it seemed normal. Those of us who worked this way back then were a minority with monikers that included “knowledge worker”, “consultant” or the more generic “telecommuter”. I worked wherever and however the work needed to be done… in my home or car, on trains and planes, in my clients’ offices and in various hotels.
Now as then – the destinations I choose reveal my preferences, and the transitions I manage between people, places, and work modes. For example, years ago I had a favorite hotel lobby in NYC to meet others and to work from when mobile, a quiet rest area on the 2nd floor in a Cambridge hotel to make private calls from, and a preferred train car to spread out work-in-progress when traveling along the Northeast corridor. I can recall each location’s scale and sensibilities, not because I’m a social scientist (I’m not) but because we’re wired to store memories like these, informed through our senses, which are tied to our physical and emotional needs.
Outliers and indicators of the future
Back then I followed a few small organizations that purported something big was happening around mobility (or perhaps I just liked to think so because I could say I was part of a new movement). The Gordon Report covered the growing legion of teleworkers, while ISDW, Institute for the Study of Distributed Work, explored the sociological, technical, and economic forces behind the changing nature of work. These two sources foretold a world that would become more mobile and fueled by emerging technologies that would soon be available to connect nomadic workers everywhere. Soon, however, is a vague point in time. After all, it’s taken a generation for mobility to gain critical mass. But if you look back over the past 25 years you’ll see its roots extend through a generation of new products and experiences that respond to the needs of a more mobile workforce – growing in number.
The next generation of mobility, weaned on smart phones and at the edge of wearable computing, is evolving quickly now. And when wearables are as common as smart phones – they’ll cause a new set of users’ preferences, expectations, and relationships between work, technology, and mobility. To respond will require something more than a singular object, such as the latest smart phone, watch, lamp or chair. That’s because, though each plays an important role, each is a separate part in what’s become a more intertwined and complex nomadic work life, which shapes our daily experience.
The tipping point
It took 25 years for the relationship between work, technology, and mobility to become so intertwined. The next generation is changing faster. Sure, each generation of people, places, and things has inherent similarities, but it’s clear that our accelerated connectedness is driving new behaviors, preferences and expectations forward. That’s why I wonder about the more holistic nature of these relationships, the needs that have persisted through time and the new ones just emerging. I’ve been thinking, how might we keep pace with this next generation of mobility – to create a better place – for the new workday as it unfolds?