Ubiquitous computing: its impact on the workplace and how we work

Technological innovation is transforming the way that we work and the most radical transformation is occurring as a result of advances in digital technologies. Just as ‘personal computing’ (second wave computing) – a computer for every worker – transformed the ways in which companies were organized, and radically transformed entire industries as new ways of working emerged, so too ‘ubiquitous computing’ (third wave computing) is beginning to transform the workplace.

Ubiquitous computing is where computer sensors (including personal wearable technology such as watches) connect with computing devices (Smart Phones, tablets etc) in our physical environments to provide a space of continual and ongoing computing. In this new domain, the pervasive nature of ubiquitous computing is working to unify physical and digital spaces.  The world of ubiquitous computing is:

one that is hyperconnected and data saturated, a world where an Internet of everyone is linked to an Internet of everything. (ref)

In a recent review on the impact of technology on work and organizations Wayne Cascio and Ramiro Montealegre discuss four important ways in which ubiquitous computing is impacting on the world of work.

Electronic Monitoring Systems

Increasing numbers of organizations are equipping their devices, machinery, infrastructure, and even their employees with networked sensors which enable the organization to monitor their environment in real time and take action in response to this data.


While robots are not new (they have been used on the shop floor in automative manufacturing for decades now) improvements in computing – particularly advances in artificial intelligence and sensor technology – mean that the new generation of robots are able to learn how to execute tasks on their own and so work in increasingly complex environments and in close settings with humans.


Advances in communications technology are facilitating the ongoing unification of physical and electronic spaces. The most explicit example of this is the dramatic rise in recent years of virtual teams – teams working together but not co-located in the same physical space.

Wearable Computing Devices

Combining many aspects of the other shifts discussed above, the adoption of wearable computing devices is promoting three main shifts: ‘quantified self’ products which work to allow individuals to measure the activities that they engage in such as walking (eg FitBit); enhancement technologies (eg Google Glass); and virtual reality devices (eg Oculus Rift). All three shifts are already impacting on the way we engage with others and our environment in the world of work. (ref)

In addressing these shifts we need to remember that ubiquitous computing is not by itself either good or bad – it’s merely a new inter-related set of technological advances – but it will definitely have both positives and negative consequences for all involved.

As an example, recent research has shown that attitudes toward electronic monitoring systems are more positive when organizations monitor their employees within supportive organizational cultures which value employee input on monitoring system’s design, and place the focus on groups of employees rather than singling out separate individuals (ref). Similarly, in the field of robotics there is probably going to be a growing need for managers to deal with (well-founded) concerns by employees that robots are competitors for jobs whereby employees may very well fight against their installation.

We also need to be acutely aware of the general impact of all of this extra data on work in general. More data does not necessarily mean better work. In fact, more data has been correlated with lower levels of productivity. The Information Overload Research Group has estimated, for example, that information overload wastes up to 25 percent of information workers’ time and costs the U.S. economy up to $997 billion annually.

Ubiquitous computing is here. While we can’t predict exactly what impact it will have on our societies, how we work, and on the way our organizations function we do know it will impact things. We ought to be proactive in how we respond to these changes. For, while ubiquitous computing itself is neither good nor bad – how we utilize it in our lives can, and definitely will, lead to both positive and negative outcomes. What we really need to be aware of, as we ought to be aware with the introduction of any new technology, as Adrian Wooldridge has recently noted is that:

some clever businesspeople are beginning to realize that technology is not always the answer—and indeed may well be the problem. (ref)

Let’s work to ensure that ubiquitous computing is at least more salve than problem.

Images courtesy of: Pixabay