Monthly Archives: April 2012

Naming Work Today

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Placing a name on something brings more meaning to it. A name describes an object of interest, providing additional insight into what the object is. For example, think about the sky. The sky is a big entity that we can all associate with. But give the sky a “name”, and a different understanding is gained: blue sky, stormy sky, angry sky, sun-set sky. Each name fills out of different image in our mind of the nature of the sky.

Finding an all-inclusive name for work has been a broad search in recent years. We in workplace strategy have been seeking the right name to describe the evolving world of work we are living in today?  I turned to Google’s search engine to collect some data on today’s more common work names.

“Knowledge Work”: <1,880,000 results

Peter Drucker created the name knowledge work in 1959 to describe work based on using information to develop knowledge to gain results. This name differentiated work that was primarily focused on products and goods. The PBS study “The First Measured Century” stated that knowledge work (tertiary occupations) began at 21% of the male workforce (sorry females!) in 1900 and ended at 58% in 1998. In 1900 20% of women held professional work. In 1998 52% of women held professional work.

“Telework”: <1,660,000 results

According to Merriam Webster’s, an associated name to telework, “telecommute”, was first used in 1974. In using the connector “tele”, the name pays tribute to the most commonly owned technology of the 1970’s – the television. The television was a device designed to transmit vision over huge distances. Telework, then, is work that happens over distance. In 2010, the president signed The Telework Enhancement Act, which was intended to enable government workers to engage in more work at a distance, thus reducing costs.

“Smart Work”: <1,620,000 results

Smart work often is described as work to make ideas happen. Scott Belsky writes in his “ WorkSmart” blog in Fast Company that, “The greatest achievements happen in the overlap of three things: Your genuine interests, skills, and opportunities. To find success, work within your overlap.”

“Mobile Work”: <1,350,000 results

Mobile work has one core principle: work results are not dependent on a single place. The impact of mobile work on the workplace has been most dramatic in the past ten years. Some estimates are currently quoting that there are 1 billion mobile workers in the world today. We consistently see utilization measurements averaging as low as 35% in workplaces today.

“Alternative Work”: <668,000 results

Alternative work is most often used to describe protocols for work under variable schedules. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has published an on-line Handbook of Alternative Work Schedules.

“Distributed Work”: <477,000 results

In the 2002 book titled “Distributed Work” published by The MIT Press, the authors expanded the definition of telework to include the attributes of smart work. The combination of diverse locations and a concentration on idea generation within distributed work is uniquely dependent of the use of technology.

“Flexible Work”: <4,340,000 results

Of all the names for work, the name that leads them all is Flexible Work. Such phrases as “work & life balance”, autonomy of choice, engagement & worker satisfaction, and overtime regulation are within the meaning of the name flexible work. Of all the names given to the nature or work today, the name Flexible Work stirs that most change reaction. A 2011 Fortune article states once again the challenges from the perceived losses of face time and visible long hours in the office resulting from Flexible Work.

Workplace strategy has not condensed the nomenclature around a common name for work. As companies of all types and sizes continue to develop their own uniquely branded names for the work that is actually occurring within their footprints, more names will surely be created. There may be as many names for work as there are companies in the world.

My opinion is that “Flexible work” is the best of the bunch, as it is the most encompassing of the basic migration of behaviors of work process. And flexible OR agile space design is a good general term for workplaces that meet the evolving work processes and cultural needs of all companies at work.

I do not like “alternative work”, “tele-work”, “smart work”. Each of these implies that there is an opposite version of work, which creates conflict. It is a continuing debate with no clear end in sight.