Smartphones and Workplaces, Oh My!

My most recent “Talking About Tomorrow” hosted conversation was deep into a fascinating discussion about the “consumerization” of the workplace, when one of the participants commented “I think the smartphone has had a bigger impact on the workplace than the laptop ever did.”

Really? Hasn’t the laptop practically replaced the standard desktop computer, reduced space requirements, cut costs, and enabled millions of workers to work almost anywhere? How could a mobile phone even dream of having as dramatic an impact on the way we work?

Stay with me for a moment.

Yes, it’s true that laptops have certainly contributed to workforce mobility. And laptop technology has been highly impressive. Today both laptop CPU speeds and disk storage capacity are essentially equal to all but the high-end desktops. And their cost is no longer out of reach either.

Certainly laptops have changed the way we work within the corporate office, as well outside of it. How many times have you seen a colleague settle into the conference room for a lengthy meeting, set up the laptop, and either start checking email, or taking notes (or both)? And of course there are millions of us who pound away on our laptops on commuter trains and buses, in airports, and on flights at 30,000 feet off the ground.

And that kind of mobility has radically changed the way knowledge-intensive work gets done (to say nothing of where it gets done). And it’s made it ridiculously easy for millions of us to work at home part-time, including evenings and weekends (that’s both good and bad, of course…).

How could the smartphone have more impact than that?

Well, think about it for a moment. First, the smartphone has saturated our world far faster than laptops did – and for several very good reasons. (it’s easy to forget that the first smartphone – the iPhone – was introduced less than seven years ago – on June 29, 2007, to be exact).

First, like all cell phones, smartphones run on cellular signals in addition to WiFi. Thus, they connect us to each other, and to the worldwide web, far more easily and from millions more locations than laptops can. And smartphones are a whole lot easier to carry around than even the smallest laptops. Thus, we tend to have them with us almost all the time. That’s not true of laptops, at least for most of us.

Second, while smartphones have tiny screens and almost-infinitesimal keyboards, they can do almost anything a laptop can do – send and receive email, browse the web, store photos and other files, and so on.

But smartphones can also do much, much more than that. For starters, they are obviously very multipurpose, with hundreds of thousands of apps that supply us with information and feedback on just about any subject you can imagine. There’s no need to dwell on how many aspects of our lives and our work have been beneficially augmented by smartphones.For example, most of us take our smartphones many places where we don’t take laptops. And that makes the world far more accessible to us (and it makes us much more accessible to the world as well).

Again, whether that’s good or bad depends on your needs and preferences, but it certainly has created a very different kind world for all of us.

But perhaps most important is that in addition to smartphones only knowing who we are, with embedded GPS systems they also know where we are. That combination is more profound than you might think.

For example, as Eric Johnson of Allsteel (one of my “Talking About Tomorrow” members) pointed out recently, being able to know who is where at a given moment in time enables workplace designers and facilities managers to capture data on who is using any particular workplace or conference room over time, and to track where staff choose to work, both inside and outside the corporate facility.

Smartphone data can identify what office, cubicle, or conference room an individual is in from 10 AM to Noon (or any other time), as well as who else was there at the same time. The phone data can also tell you when a space is overcrowded, and which areas are underutilized.

Yes, yes, I know that smacks just a bit of “Big Brother.” And I don’t even know if the phone companies and phone manufacturers would be willing (or legally able) to share the data (though certainly an app could be written to capture this kind of information).

There are already plenty of apps that will let you know if any of your friends are nearby so you can hook up with them (and now there is even Split, which will help you avoid unwanted encounters with an ex-spouse or other people you don’t want to interact with).

But if you can stop worrying about the potential for abuse for just a moment, think instead of the opportunity this kind of data creates for enriching our understanding of how work gets done, where it gets done, and how workplaces could be redesigned to match more closely the choices each of us makes every day about where to work on any particular task.

Don’t think about tracking specific individuals; think of discovering patterns of workplace usage and of how people move around from one workspace to another over the course of a day or a week. Wouldn’t that information be worth something?

What do you think? Is anyone currently collecting this kind of data, or using it to make more effective workplace strategy and design decisions? And if not, why not?

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2 replies
  1. Susan Stucky
    Susan Stucky says:

    Of course someone is collecting this kind of data! Using it to discern patterns of interaction in the workplace as well as informing workplace design and the like. There’s a book (of course) called “Social Physics: How good ideas spread — The lessons of a New Science”, by Alex (Sandy) Pentland. I gather there is a consulting practice emerging as well.
    Both socio-metric badges and smartphone apps are being used. ” The data collected by the badges are changing how people lay out office space and altering how companies understand patterns of interaction”. Also ” …collect data on their individual communication behaviors — tone of voice, body language, whom they talked to and for how long… With remarkable consistency, we have found patterns of communication to be the most the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are often as significant as all other factors — individual intelligence, personality, skill and the substance of their ideas — combined.”

    If these results are sustained, this should make us stop and think for a moment.

  2. Bary Sherman
    Bary Sherman says:


    Cutting that cord has made all the difference in the world of mobility. It’s hard to believe the smart phone was introduced only 7 years ago. Wonder what the workplace world will be like 7 years from now? Asking people to predict the future is always a fun exercise for 10 minutes or so.



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