The new workplace is agile, and nonstop. Can you keep up?

By Quentin Hardy

SAN FRANCISCO — Whether you like it or not, your boss may want you to start acting more like a programmer.

In offices ranging from a museum in Sydney to a car dealership in Maine, to the tech department at insurance giant Allstate, the workforce is adopting a tech industry concept called agile computing.

Silicon Valley has changed how we work, for better or worse. Our smartphones keep us connected to the office all the time while Internet searches bring the world’s information to our fingertips.

But people may not realise that it is the subtler aspects of how tech companies operate that often have a more lasting effect on other industries.

The “agile” part of this increasingly popular management concept is simple: Rather than try to do giant projects that take months or even years, create small teams that do a bit at a time. This way, small problems don’t balloon into enormous ones hidden inside a huge bureaucracy. And progress can be measured in small steps — one little project at a time.

The idea has been around for at least 15 years. It is used by the small tech company Twilio, for example, to turn out 40 changes to its product every day. But it wasn’t until recently that this sort of employee organisation found its way into other industries or even into the technology departments of other companies.

“Folks want to talk about the Airbnb and Uber, but this is like when the assembly line showed up,” said Mr Douglas Safford, Allstate’s vice president of technology innovation. “All the layers and specialisation are breaking down. Instead of a year, we want to put an idea in front of a customer in a week,” he said.

Now cloud computing — putting your data or your software on the servers of a giant data center that is accessible through the internet — is having an outsize influence. Cloud computing (a technology) and agile computing (a management concept) have proved to be a strong combination for creating and tweaking products faster than the competition.

New technologies and the management ideas that come with them have always presented risks to rank-and-file workers. Email improved communications and helped do away with a layer of management that was responsible for that communication inside big companies. Global fiber networks tied the world together and made it easier for jobs to be outsourced to other countries. And automation and robotics have wiped out countless manufacturing jobs.

With cloud computing, the risk — at least for now — appears more subtle. The average worker may have more flexible hours. What that can really mean is they are expected to work all the time. And they are expected to react faster to bosses’ demands with more varied skills.

“Work has changed, and everyone needs more expertise, more consultation,” said Dr Pamela Hinds, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford. “There’s more speed with which projects have to get out, because of competition, and people are pulled on and off projects much more,” said Dr Hinds.

At the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, a government-mandated transition from traditional computers to cloud-computing systems has everyone planning exhibitions and raising money on Jira, a software development tool for managing cloud projects quickly.

“We change light bulbs on Jira. It’s how we plan all our exhibitions,” said Mr Dan Collins, head of digital and media at the museum. “Things move a lot faster, with fewer meetings. Tools are more important than organisational charts,” he said.

At Newcastle Chrysler, a car dealership in Newcastle, Maine, a former coder named Alex Miner installed a coding product called Hipchat throughout the family business. Like Jira, Hipchat is made by Atlassian, a company known for software development tools.

“Everything’s a lot more audited by sensors. I can tell one PSI off pressure in a tire from anywhere in the company and react to that,” he said, a reference to pounds per square inch. “The older guys in sales don’t want to adopt the new tech, but the service guys, they work together and they get it; the velocity is advancing everywhere,” he said.

Tech industry coders are known for their all-night binges, so it is not surprising that copying the way they operate is leading to concerns about work taking over the rest of one’s life.

“There’s a lot of talk around the water cooler about how easy it is to pick up more work when you get home,” Mr Collins said. Some of the museum workers have found other cloud-based tools to compensate — ones that shut off access to work after, say, 7pm.

There is also a question of identity in this new workplace: If you are asked to be flexible and jump from one little project to another without hesitation, what sense of ownership do you have of your work?

“It’s like you have to constantly walk through walls, producing fast, with no chance to regroup,” Hinds said. “As humans, we crave being known for something. If you’re constantly moving in and out of teams, what’s your identity?”

If agile-type work is the new organisational pattern, it will be in a long tradition of companies styling themselves after the technology they consume. Standard corporate organisation charts looked something like assembly-line factories, with strictly defined jobs moving up narrow silos of production. Those factory-style organisations displayed power with corner offices and doors.

Now, “we’re trying to figure out the right ways to collaborate”, said Ryan Mullenix, an architect based in Seattle with NBBJ, a global corporate architecture and design firm. “Brief periods of personal control become a huge thing, stuff like individual lighting or heat, or a quiet corner where you can sit alone.”

Chef, a maker of tools for building cloud software, now sends consultants to its customers to explain to employees how all this is going to work.

“We don’t talk about work/life balance anymore,” said Chef’s chief executive Barry Crist. “It’s work/life mix. If you need to be home at 4, then put your kid to bed and make up for it at 10pm, that’s fine. Younger people now want flux in their day, and they don’t want to turn off the information, ever.”

And if you don’t want to live like a coder for life, perpetually crashing on a project? Good luck, said Mr Safford of Allstate.

“A third jump in, a third resist but come onboard, and a third try to hide,” he said of employees. “I have conversations that amount to: ‘Do you want to die on the hill? Do you think this is going away?’”

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