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Health at Work

16th January 2015

Concurrent with the rise of the knowledge economy has been the decline of being active at work. In many ways, the modern office encourages people to be sedentary – desks are rarely sit-stand, workers are often siloed into cubicles or clusters of desks, and managers tend see moving around as a sign of slacking off. There is now, however, a large body of evidence that suggests that such inactivity is negatively impacting employee health – new research published in the last few days suggests that inactivity ‘kills more than obesity.’

Organisations can counter the health risks of inactivity by encouraging employees to break up work with walks around the office, holding standing meetings and even just moving the waste bins a little further from where employees sit. Sit-stand desks – all the rage with technology startups in Silicon Valley – are becoming increasingly popular, not just due to their potential health benefits, but also because those who use them report higher levels of concentration, motivation and energy.

Increasing physical activity in the office is only part of the wider trend of health in the workplace. Growing interest in this area is partly being driven from the top, as large organisations with ageing workforces have realised the imperative of ensuring that staff remain productive in their later years. However, employees themselves have taken an increased interest in their own health at work. With an array of inexpensive wearable gadgets on the market already, the health conscious worker can easily monitor their posture, amount of time standing vs sitting, and the quality of their sleep. Ernst and Young have recently begun a trial of wearable wristbands with their UK staff. Equipped with the Jawbone wristband, staff can monitor their activity levels and share them with colleagues.

Technology has historically been a driver of inactivity and health problems at work – when electric typewriters superseded mechanical ones, the average weight gain in typing pools was half a stone. Now though, due to the rise of wearables and greater mobility at work, technology is empowering organisations and their staff to work healthier.

As workforces age, we can expect health to take a more prominent place in the way organisations approach workplace and technology.

This post was written by Owen King, Unwork’s workplace consultant.

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The Future of Workplace Technology: Rise of the machines

5th January 2015

‘Player Piano’, the first novel by American author Kurt Vonnegut, describes a dystopian future in which humans have been rendered obsolete by intelligent machines that dominate both manual and knowledge work. Recent developments in workplace technology have made Vonnegut’s work, published over sixty years ago, look ominous.

Machines and robots are, of course, already familiar sights in factories and assembly plants, augmenting, and in many cases replacing, human workers in the low and semi-skilled parts of the economy. Now though, advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data are poised to impact the office and take the place of knowledge workers. Accountants, journalists and managers will soon find themselves competing with software that can work faster, smarter and at a fraction of the cost.

London-based startup Receipt Bank, for instance, has developed a software platform that automates the process of compiling and updating expense reports, usually seen as the preserve of entry level accountants, and uploads the data into major accounting tools. Elsewhere, software designed by Chicago-based Narrative Science is able to take raw data and convert it into prose. The software was initially used to convert statistics into sports and news stories, but is now being employed by financial institutions, government departments and automotive firms. Credit Suisse uses the programme to generate summaries of stock activity for its brokers, a task which was formally undertaken by a team of twenty employees.

The impact of intelligent software is being felt even in those professions which require a high level of expertise and training: IBM’s Watson, an artificial intelligence supercomputer, can diagnose lung cancer with a 90 per cent success rate, compared to 50 per cent for human doctors. Advances in technologies like neuromorphic computing will only further accelerate this trend, enabling computers to rapidly learn and think creatively.

Whether these new technologies will bring about a world close to that described in ‘Player Piano’ will depend on how they are applied in the workplace. In some cases they will augment, rather than replace, workers, while others will free employees to focus on more complex and interesting tasks. As mathematician and inventor of the Stepped Reckoner G W Leibniz wrote in the seventeenth century, ‘It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labour of calculation, which could be safely regulated to anyone else if machines were used.’

This post was written by Owen King, and is part of a series on the future of workplace technology. 

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The Perils of Interruptions at Work

6th December 2014

When was the last time that you did something, start to finish, without being interrupted? In today’s fast-paced, connected and globalised world, we’re nearly always being distracted by the ping of an email, a phone call, or someone hovering nearby with a burning question. In addition to being incredibly irritating, interruptions are impacting our ability to work effectively and innovate.

Distractions and interruptions affect the brain’s capacity to internalise and apply knowledge, an essential skill in all knowledge economy professions. When intently reading, listening or interacting with something, information flows from our short-term, working memory to long-term memory. Interruptions or distractions disrupt this flow of information, leaving us unable to process or store it as knowledge. Over time, frequent interruptions can result in poor memory recall and lower ability to comprehend while reading.

Research has also shown that distractions or interruptions lead to significantly higher levels of frustration and feelings of pressure. Being interrupted tends to make us paranoid that we’re falling behind, resulting in attempts to work faster and higher levels of stress. Deep concentration, on the other hand, has distinct health benefits. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about the state of ‘flow,’ reached when ‘a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.’ Achieving this state, Csikszentmihalyi contends, is imperative to realising true fulfilment.

Furthermore, our capacity to innovate and be creative relies on an ability to absorb and reflect on knowledge. More interruptions and higher levels of stress leave less time for quiet reflection and contemplation. When distracted and unfocused we’re unable to consider what new products or services would meet customers’ need; what processes could be improved; or in what direction our companies should be heading.

Companies can better design their processes and workplaces to help us concentrate better in the face of an onslaught of interruptions. Expectations that emails don’t have to be answered instantly and the use of presence indicators can go a long way. In the near future, wearable technologies will monitor our levels of concentration and filter out all but the most important notifications. In the meantime, establishing quiet zones in offices, where the use of phones is prohibited, can make work which requires deep concentration more productive.

This post was written by Owen King, Unwork’s Workplace Consultant. 

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