“Value comes from connected humans, not monolithic structures.” – Jarche (2013)
The current covid pandemic made the idea of the networked worker prudent and necessary in terms of keeping an organization alive and employees connected. However, it is not a new concept. The mobile-equipped workplace has been a reality for many years. Organizations have been providing company-issued laptops, iPads, and cell phones to enable their employees to access both the intranet and the internet. There is also a high reliance on email as a communication channel. As Jane McConnell pointed out, a shift in performance management is associated with a networked workplace. Rather than a big annual company meeting, there is an ongoing dialogue with those plugged into the network concerning what is happening in the organization—or at least, that is the ideal situation.
The networked worker is a sign an organization is maturing in the digital age. With this maturity comes opportunities and challenges associated with the networked worker and their access to the internet. Let us look at some of the opportunities as highlighted by several sources:
- Increased flexibility and connectivity (Jarche, 2013; Parker & Raine, 2020). The idea of working remotely is quickly becoming the new normal. Working remotely provides flexibility for parents, people with disabilities, and those who prefer an unconventional setting to work from anywhere and at any time. Personally, I have been taking advantage of a hybrid opportunity to work from home for three days a week and be in the office during the other days. It has sparked my creativity and renewed my zeal for my work at a point when I was getting burned out. By being better connected, networked workers can be a creative source that brings business value, as Jarche (2013) noted.
- Lifetime learning in the knowledge age (Parker & Raine, 2020). Access to the internet allows for continuous learning through web-based tools to reskill or upskill as needed without paying for a 2-year or 4-year degree when it is cheaper to learn focused skills – soft or hard– online affordably (Parker & Raine, 2020). Organizations have the opportunity to facilitate lifelong learners on the job for the good of the organization. Along the same lines, Jarche (2017) highlighted the benefits of social learning—a process by which people learn from and with each other and help each other get better at creating new practices.
- Decentralized decision-making (McConnell, 2016; Kelly, 2016). This can be an opportunity or a challenge depending on the type of organization. In my organization, decision-making is done primarily top-down. Decentralizing it would mean sharing perceived power, which is not always handled well.
- Self-managing teams can be created (McConnell, 2016). Managing the networked workers might not be necessary overtime since work would become more transparent (Jarche, 2013; Jarche, 2017). This would ultimately mean the role of managers might have to change or evolve.
- Jarche (2013) also suggested that the transaction cost between networked individuals is significantly reduced compared to transaction costs inside the organization.
- Faster access to knowledge outside the organization by workers who are networked (Jarche, 2013).
Even with the highlighted benefits, there are sometradeoffs associated with networked workers. Here are some of the challenges:
- Increased stress and new demands on the lives of workers as a result of being plugged in all the time, as the pew research showed. Madden and Jones (2008) suggested that networked workers seemed to be always on or always off. Research showed that 46% of networked workers report increased demands that they work more hours, and 49% say that the level of stress has increased. There are no longer boundaries.
- Kelly (2016) refers to the internet as the world’s largest tracker. Anyone and anything that accesses the internet can be tracked. But do you know exactly by whom? Kelly (2016) suggests some kind of co-surveillance to even out the playing field — the watched can also track the watchers. As work becomes even more networked, and there are no clear international rules governing cyberconflict (Kelly, 2016), how can new responsibilities and obligations be managed in a world where civility is not always second nature to most, and information can be used to harm, infiltrate, disrupt, and misdirect, as noted by Kelly (2016).
- Kelly (2016) agrees with the large-scale collaboration, massive real-time social interactions, and omnipresent instant connection that networked workers can bring but also warns against the disruption of boundaries. Are boundaries frequently crossed among networked workers as information is shared and as access becomes almost limitless?
- McConnell (2016) also suggested that fewer than 15% of organizations were confident that they would retain any knowledge and know-how of networked workers if they decided to leave.
- Despite access to the internet, there are still insufficient mobile applications and services available in most organizations customized for their purposes. A challenge for the networked workers occurs when the right web-based application is not available for the work intended, and another one closely related has to be “MacGyvered” for the benefit of the organization. Web-based tool developers now have to come up with ways to ensure their tools are customizable according to industry to make this challenge an opportunity.
- There are those referred to as the customer-facing workforce — the janitors, cleaning crew, waits staff, and even jobs like mine, people on the edges of the organization and far from the center. This workforce can often be disconnected from the corporate systems and information flow and have access to very little. This prevents real collaboration with customers and colleagues and impedes smooth work experience in a networked world. The customer-facing workforce are the people asked to sit at the children’s table at a luncheon, while everyone else has a seat at the adult table of the wired and ready workers —they get some food but are not allowed access to the wine bar.
Whether freely available internet access is always a positive thing for businesses or institutions has to do with the nature of their work and the sensitivity of the data the organization handles. It might not be prudent for an organization to block the rise of the networked worker and expand the access to the customer-facing workforce if it wants to show it has a culture of adaptability and sustainability (Burke, 2018).
Burke, W. (2018). Organizational change: Theory and practice. (5th ed.). Sage.
Jarche, H. (2013). Networks are the new companies. https://jarche.com/2013/11/networks-are-the-new-companies/
Jarche, H. (2017, December 30). Embracing automation. https://jarche.com/2017/12/embracing-automation/
Kelly, K. (2016). The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future. Viking Press.
Madden, M., & Jones, S. (2008). Networked Workers. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2008/09/24/networked-workers/
Parker, K & Raine, L. (2020, April 13). Americans and lifetime learning in the knowledge age. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trend/archive/spring-2020/americans-and-lifetime-learning-in-the-knowledge-age