The new digital divide: Mobile-friendly jobs vs. being confined to the office

The consumerization of the workplace still hasn't rendered the time clock obsolete. Credit: Marcin Wichary via Flickr

Corporate values inform how a business manages the changes to a more mobile computing culture. In particular, how a company values the work of its employees plays a crucial role in how the company executives and managers react to trends like mobility, bring-your-own-device (BYOD), users building their own workflows with mobile apps and cloud services, telework, and the fine (and increasingly blurry) line between work and home.

In the comment thread of my recent guide to developing and managing a successful telework program, I mentioned a conversation I had a few years ago with a workplace psychologist. The psychologist, who asked that his name not be used, pointed out to me that there are essentially two ways that human beings assign value in a work setting. One is based on the time or documentable effort put into a task or project, and the other is based on the end results of a day's work or project.

[See also: Google's idea of productivity is a bad fit for many other workplaces]

One of the easiest ways to quantify the difference is to consider the two ways that consultants, contractors, and freelancers bill clients for their services. One is by an established hourly or daily rate. The other is to negotiate a fixed price or fee for an entire project regardless of the hours put and regardless for when, where, or how those hours were spent.

In western culture, we're introduced to both of these value systems early in life. When we go to school, we're judged based on our attendance in class as well as by the results of assignments like reading, homework, and test scores. While our grades are typically based on the results of our study, the expectation to be in class every day can result in disciplinary action or even being forced to retake a class even if the original grade was an A+.

Unlike school, where both values systems are relevant to our success, many jobs are focused one value or the other. Some jobs are designed around the time-based value system by necessity. Wait staff, retail employees, and help desk operators are all examples of jobs functionally based around working specific hours and for an hourly rate. Because the value proposition in such positions and industries is time-based, they're also typically jobs that, by regulation, company policy, or union contract, provide additional pay or other incentives for working additional hours (as well as during specific times such as weekends and holidays).

Then there are the so-called salaried positions,  where the value is in accomplishing tasks or projects. Although these jobs often include times when an employee is expected to be in the office or available remotely, he or she will receive a set salary regardless of whether additional work (in or out of the office) is required. Overtime or related benefits are rarely included, though some perks may be offered to sweeten the deal for being asked to work beyond the societal norm.

Salaried positions naturally encourage workers to build the most efficient processes. That could mean developing official policies and processes that support efficiency or it could mean developing personal workflows using enterprise and personal mechanisms like mobile apps, checklists, cloud services, scriptable technologies, and enterprise systems. Thanks to the advances in mobile technologies and the rise of BYOD, salaried workers can not only create workflows that are faster and easier than ever before, they can also create workflows that work in the office, at home, or anywhere else.

Many salaried knowledge workers are now working outside the office either through a management-sanctioned telework program or simply because work needs to ge done. If that means finishing projects or responding to emails at home during traditional "off-hours" then that's what many of us do today. In many ways this tacit remote work proposition is following a similar trajectory to the adoption of BYOD. Employees are simply choosing to work outside of the office because they feel it's necessary. That leads to initial acceptance, if not approval, and as the gains are quantified remote work options tend to get official support. In some cases that leads to full on telework initiatives.

Even some hourly positions can be done remotely. Given reliable phone service and Internet connectivity, for example, help desk professionals can receive and respond to technical issues as easily from their living room as from their cubicle. Because they are paid by the hour, however, there are incentives to keep help desk workers in the office or call center. One of which is ability to track time at their desk. VPN activity and other system logs could determine if remote agents are taking calls, but that involves a shift in management processes as well as tools to support remote monitoring. It also represents a cultural shift for a company and its managers and workers.

This means that we may be witnessing a mobile divide forming between salaried positions that come with BYOD and telework options and hourly positions that are less flexible and cannot be done remotely without reengineering various tools and systems and some that simply cannot be relocated outside the office. It's easy to speculate that this is a new extension of the digital divide in education that impacts the employment prospects of millions of young people.

That's a worrying image it isn't a truly accurate one. For one thing, while some jobs can be done remotely and other can't, there isn't a stark blue collar/white collar line between them. There isn't even a direct education or experience division. For example, although telemedicine is a growing movement, no doctor has been freed from going into his or practice every day to see patients or going on rounds at a hospital.

What this division does offer is a new way to look at your career and its prospects. If you want the most flexibility and the chance to work remotely, there are many jobs that are a natural fit to that at varying socioeconomic levels and with varying education requirements and income potential. There are others that don't fit into the telework mold that well or easily. In the end, being aware of this mobile divide isn't an automatic limitation. It's rather the opposite because being conscious of it can help you define the fields, careers, workplace values that you want to pursue.

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