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The New Workplace Is Agile, and Nonstop. Can You Keep Up?

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 organization 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 Douglas Safford, Allstate’s vice president of technology innovation. “All the layers and specialization are breaking down. Instead of a year, we want to put an idea in front of a customer in a week.”

Tech culture finding its way into other industries is nothing new. Decades ago, Intel’s founders tried to create an egalitarian culture where the chief executive sat among his employees, and everyone at the company shared in the risks and rewards through stock options.

In more recent years, Google’s drive to take care of employees’ everyday needs, like commuting or dry cleaning (all so they could focus on work), has been adopted with mixed success in other industries.

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 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.”

At the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, a government-mandated transition from traditional computers to cloud-computing systems now 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 Dan Collins, head of digital and media at the museum. “Things move a lot faster, with fewer meetings. Tools are more important than organizational charts.”

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NYT > Technology

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