Leaking roofs and potholes: the “digital office” is unsafe, unstable and inadequate

Author: Paul | Date posted: August 9, 2013

digital-frustration-trainOver dinner with some friends at senior levels in the UK public sector, my dining companions recounted all too common stories of dramatic reductions in office space in pursuit of “a big shift to smarter working”. But in each story the “smarter” physical working arrangements were enabled (or more accurately disabled) by digital equivalents hopelessly unsuited to the remote worker.

“Our laptops are eight years old and logging on from anywhere other than in the office is slow, unstable and makes working from home awful,” they said. “This is not smarter working but just cost reduction masquerading as digital empowerment.”

Digital disappointment surrounds us dressed up as “we can work anywhere”. On a Virgin train journey from London to Manchester last week, supposedly featuring enhanced mobile reception and decent grade wifi, the lame connections to the internet and 3G networks turned a potentially productive two-hour journey into mindless, time-wasting digital misery. Even in the tech centre of San Francisco, getting online from my swanky hotel room and lavish lobby was a dismal experience.

Recently Ubiquisys, a UK technology company inspired by poor mobile connectivity in the English countryside, was acquired by Cisco for $310m. Founder Will Franks drew on his own frustration with poor rural connections to develop the technology of small-cell telecoms to enhance call quality and data connection. One effort to fix this digital mess.

The truth is that in the so-called developed world of 2013 the state of the digital workplace as provided by employers and service providers is shockingly bad and has improved only marginally in years. If we can’t get access to power or decent grade wifi we are still stumbling in the digital darkness.

Imagine if these connection chasms were physical – crossing the road would be a life threatening experience, opening an office door would send it crashing to the floor. Buildings would be closed by emergency services and labelled as “unfit for human habitation”. But in the digital workplace we tolerate such fundamental lapses because the current state is so much better than nothing at all.

So many companies are in the throes of creating flexible working but often it remains a real-estate driven push for lower office costs without the essential digital investment to enable such costs savings to be realized through neutral or enhanced productivity.

I believe the issue is that we can see with our eyes that a pipe is leaking, a desk leg is about to collapse or a hotel room needs cleaning, but the digital workplace is by its nature invisible. So hotels, cafes, airports, trains, warehouses and offices get away with dreadful digital provision – and it is hurting us individually, as companies and at national levels.

Finland has a mission to connect its citizens in a drive equivalent to creating the new roads, railways and waterways of the Industrial Revolution. But most countries, including the UK where I live, have no concerted agenda to create the digital highways that we need now.

Governments focus on projects that voters can see physically. High speed trains for 2030 costing $50 billion get all-party support here in the UK. But investing 20% of that digitally in a way that would transform the entire UK economy within five years attracts only lip service.

No Government minister can cut the ribbon on a new digital highway.

Governments and employers need to realize that while physical investment matters, digital infrastructure is in the dark ages, with leaking digital roofs, virtual potholes and dead-end disconnected highways. We must invest far more in the digital infrastructure we all require.

What is your worst “no connection” digital experience?

Leave a Reply