Forward to the Future: How Workforce Tech Promises to Change the Way We Do Business

By Max Mihelich

Dec. 12, 2013

In the modern workplace, we communicate with colleagues through quiet taps and clicks on keyboards about as often as we do with our voices.

Over a relatively short period of time, computer technology has given rise to telecommuting and flextime schedules — phenomena that have had an obvious, noticeable effect on our lives and the workplace. However, there are other, subtler ways computer technology has and continues to shape lives in and out of the office. Such technology has changed the way jobs are performed and how trade secrets are protected. It has even provided a means to expand the workforce to individuals with physical disabilities who traditionally may have been excluded from certain jobs.

Considering the irreversible change such technology has made to the way people work, what will the workplace of the future look like? How will old jobs be affected, what new jobs will emerge and what issues will they raise for employers?

Tech Advent
Thinking about it historically, computer technology is in its infancy. But it has arguably had a greater effect on world economies in the shortest amount of time than any other technological breakthrough. An employer could have built a remote workforce 30 years ago, though it certainly would have been difficult. The widespread adoption and integration of computer technology and the Internet that occurred over the past couple of decades has changed that, though. A company today can operate successfully without a physical office space and with employees who have only met virtually.

The proliferation of computer technology can be explained by Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles about every two years, thereby making computers more powerful as well as easier and cheaper to produce. The iPhones many people carry in their pockets nowadays are more powerful computers than those that helped NASA first put a man on the moon.

Tech jobs will become even more commonplace in the coming years than they are now. The two careers expected to experience the most growth by 2020 are systems software developers and applications software developers, according to a recent study published by the University of California at San Diego.

Currently the number of employed applications software developers outnumbers the systems software developers, 586,340 to 391,700, according to the university’s study.

Those numbers are expected to increase by 28 percent and 32 percent, respectively, by 2020, which would mean 164,175 app developers and 125,120 systems developer jobs would have to be filled in the next six years. Other jobs based in computer technology that rank highly on the university’s list of fastest-growing jobs include market research analysts, network and computer systems administrators, computer systems analysts and computer programmers.

Clearly computer technologies will continue to play an increasing role in the workplace, whether by creating a job for somebody, like software development, or by changing the way a job is performed, like the way drone aircraft technology has altered the way a military unit conducts a patrol.

One device some employers believe could have an effect on their workplaces is Google Glass, introduced to the public in April 2012.

Aside from the ethical issues raised by critics of Google Glass, there’s an unavoidable physical problem raised by some of the product’s early users: simulation sickness.

Essentially Glass is a tiny computer worn like a pair of eyeglasses. A user controls the device through voice commands, and a single screen over the right eye displays the corresponding actions. The product allows a user to take pictures, record video, send texts and conduct video chats, among other functions.

Although Glass is only in its testing phase, some businesses in the United States — casinos and bars concerned about the privacy of their customers — have banned the product from their properties. Even a congressional privacy committee sent a letter to the Mountain View, California-based tech giant earlier this year ( requesting answers to eight lengthy questions about “whether this new technology could infringe on the privacy of the average American.”

Similar to casinos and bars, employers will have to determine whether they will allow Glass on their property for a variety of reasons.

John Glancy, co-chair of the law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart’s nationwide Unfair Competition and Trade Secrets practice group, highlighted perhaps the simplest concern for Glass in the workplace: “Who wants to even talk to a co-worker if there’s a possibility they’re recording everything?”

While it would be difficult for somebody to secretly record a co-worker given that the device is controlled by voice command, Glass certainly has the ability to make people feel uncomfortable. For instance, there are other apps developed by third parties that can allow Glass to be used in ways Google never intended. One developer created an app called Winky, which allows users to snap a picture with Glass simply by winking their eye. Another developer designed a facial recognition app for Glass, which could potentially allow a user to learn the identity of a stranger just by looking at them.  

Without the proper policies in place, Glass could also make it more difficult for employers to protect their trade secrets.

Glass “hasn’t hit us culturally in a big way yet. But it will. If your glasses are a video camera that you control with your eyes and you’re videotaping what’s going on around you, I can see all my clients have a problem with that, whether they’ve got highly proprietary manufacturing information or not,” Glancy said.

Employers can easily enact policies that ban smartphones or other recording devices in their workplace or highly sensitive areas. But, smartphones and devices such as

Glass aren’t necessarily the biggest threat to a company’s trade-secret security. According to Glancy, the most pressing concern is the ever-increasing ability of computer devices to move large quantities of data very quickly and how to protect it.

Obtaining trade secrets in person isn’t the most efficient way to get them; it’s much easier and more rewarding for a thief to quickly extract a large amount of information from a company’s server all at once rather than by gathering fragmented pieces of data with a smartphone.  

Computer Technology
Expanding the Talent Pool

As computer technology advances, candidates with disabilities will have better access to more jobs. Computer numerical controlled machines are already having such an effect.

Used throughout the manufacturing industry, a CNC machine is “basically a point system that’s designed to [manufacture] just about any part you can think of,” said Andy Preissner, human resources and safety manager at A to Z Machine Co. in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Preissner explained CNC machines allow A to Z to produce parts quicker and easier. But they also allowed the company to hire a worker with a disability.
“We have an individual with one functional arm, and he’s able to run a mill with little to no additional support,” Preissner said. “So individuals like that would’ve been excluded. They wouldn’t have been offered or hired.”

Preissner mentioned it’s rare to see workers with disabilities in manufacturing shops, even shops that rely heavily on CNC machines to produce their goods.

His comment highlights that, despite the widespread use of technology that can provide reasonable accommodations, there’s still a significant amount of progress needed before certain technologies can fully provide jobs to capable individuals with disabilities.

“I don’t know how many other shops in the area would’ve given him a shot nowadays just because he’s got one functioning arm,” which could potentially result in a violation of the ADA, Preissner said. “But as more and more individuals get out there, [employers] see and appreciate what the individuals can do.”
—Max Mihelich

A common piece of information companies seek to protect from their competitors is their customer list. Before the widespread use of computers in offices, an ex-employee who wanted to steal a customer list to take to a new employer would’ve needed to print a physical copy of the list and sneak it out of the office. Then floppy disks came along, followed by CDs and then USB drives, making it even easier to steal customer lists. Now though, the idea of using a floppy disk or CD to store information seems ridiculous as companies use services such as Dropbox or Google Docs, both cloud-software storage sites, to house sensitive information.

“Any sort of cloud storage service, it creates a whole new threat because if you don’t have a policy around it, telling people what they can and can’t do, how are you going to prevent anybody from maintaining that customer list in their Dropbox?” Glancy said. “It’s just going to get easier, as we move forward with technology, to move information quickly and efficiently.”

Simulation Sickness
Aside from the ethical issues raised by critics of Google Glass, there’s an unavoidable physical problem raised by some of the product’s early users: simulation sickness.

Simulation sickness is similar to motion sickness. In fact, it’s essentially the same sensation but with an inverted cause. Motion sickness is caused by your equilibrium detecting movement, but not your eyes. Simulation sickness happens when your eyes sense movement, but not your equilibrium, according to the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.

The Army has been aware of simulation sickness since the mid-1950s when the first helicopter training simulator was developed. As simulation technology became less expensive and more practical to use, the Army began to “enhance” its aviation training with simulator-based flight instruction more frequently.

The Army has been dealing with simulation sickness for decades, but as employers begin to integrate more simulation training into the workplace, the issue is likely to become more common. One human resources expert believes simulation sickness could be the workplace disability of the 21st century.

“As we advance and as HR people bring in new technology into their workplace, particularly in training situations, it’s something they need to be aware of,” saidMichael Haberman, senior consultant at Atlanta-based Omega HR Solutions Inc.

Depending on the simulator task being conducted, the number of people who experience simulation sickness can range from “very low to exceedingly high,” according to Army research on the subject. Most subjects adapt to the sensation after a few sessions of exposure, but 3 to 5 percent of subjects never do. The research also shows simulation sickness does not affect an individual’s cognitive performance of a task, just the motivation to perform it. Medication also exists that can combat the symptoms of the illness, but they’re not 100 percent effective.

If job candidates believe they were denied a job because they couldn’t use a certain kind of technology, those people may have a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Haberman said.

“Some creative attorney is going to turn around and make it an ADA issue. And certainly that’s really not that far of a stretch as far as the ADA is concerned,” he added.

While simulation technology may have the potential to create a new workplace disability, other technologies possess the ability to more easily provide reasonable accommodations or open up jobs that were previously unattainable for certain individuals because of a disability.

As an example, Glancy mentioned a product developed by Thalmic Labs called the MYO, which is an armband that reads electric activity in the forearm muscles, which can then be used to control an electronic device like a toy helicopter.

Such technology could theoretically be used in a workplace setting, for example.

“If you control a four-rotor copter, why couldn’t you use this kind of technology to move some levers or press some buttons? It opens up your workforce to people that might not otherwise be able to do those jobs,” Glancy said.

Max Mihelich is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax.

Max Mihelich is a writer in the Chicago area.

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