Telework confab looks at impacts on health care, office design

FREDERICTON — At a conference on telework, you would think you would hear a lot about virtual private networks, voice over Internet Protocol and broadband feeds and speeds.

You’d be wrong.

At the 11th International Conference on Telework, which opened here Tuesday morning, there has been more talk of people and work environments than of technological nuts and bolts. If you ask the assortment of academics and practitioners from various fields who have come from all over the world to this small city, it’s the human issues that matter most.

Brian O’Connell, who teaches in the computer science and philosophy departments at Central Connecticut State University and is a past-president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, set the tone with a keynote address challenging the notion that technological advances are inevitable and technology is morally neutral. “Nothing about engineering is inevitable,” he said, quoting computer scientist Richard Hamming – author of “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering” – as saying that “engineering is a matter of choice and balance, rather than just doing what can be done.”

He added the words of another distinguished computer scientist, Gerald Weinberg: “Because computers are such fascinating beasts, because programming is such a game, such a joy, we who program computers are in danger of becoming the unwitting pawns of those who would use our toys for not-so-playful purposes.” 

O’Connell’s message – one he said he tries to convey to his students also – was that techies need to talk to non-techies and think about the broader implications of what they do. 

The implications of technology are certainly important in the health-care field, where electronic medical and health records, telemedicine and a variety of diagnostic and monitoring technologies are opening up new possibilities that might help the health-care system work better.

Dr. Penny Jennett is a medical professor at the University of Calgary and project lead of the E-Health Industry Project, which aims to bring industry and the health-care sector together to discuss and test technology that can help in health care. In a lunch presentation, she outlined some of the project’s activities, such as the Pan-Canadian Bone and Joint Oncology Rounds, in which bone and joint specialists are able to discuss difficult cases and “actually do what we would call grand rounds from a distance,” Dr. Jennett said.

In an initiative on workplace wellness, employees are being fitted with monitoring devices to measure – and try to encourage — physical activity. Dr. Jennett’s group has also evaluated electronic medical records systems, cameras that can be used to monitor patient movement for safety purposes, and location-based tracking systems to keep track of patients and hospital assets.

But Mike Hollinshead, Edmonton-based consultant and president of Facing the Future Inc. – who will be speaking at the conference Wednesday – commented that to use technology to enhance traditional approaches to health care is to remain stuck in an old paradigm. Observing that studies have shown a direct correlation between health and socio-economic status, he said technology can contribute more to people’s health by giving them more control of their lives.

That would include control over work environments, Hollinshead noted – and work environments are also a topic of this conference. Architect Martin van der Linden, chief executive of Tokyo-based van der Architects, talked about designing offices with multiple types of work spaces to suit different activities and work styles. He showed examples of his firm’s redesign projects for two consulting firms, including ideas like “clubhouses” for teams to work together.

As the conference goes on Wednesday and Thursday, there will be a few things to gratify the hard-core techies, such as discussions of visual interfaces for collaboration and data security. But there will continue to be much discussion of people issues. As van der Linden pointed out, 81 per cent of the cost of running the average business is salaries. Facilities are only five per cent. So which is more important?

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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