Perks and perils of mobile working

Instant connectivity has changed our working methods and expectations, but not always in the ways predicted. MARK VERNON identifies the social shifts in a wireless world.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The other day I heard a three-year-old child ask its parent for a DVD. 'We don't have it,' replied Mum. 'Don't worry,' said the kid, 'we can get on the web.' Three years old!

The generation has already been born that regards not just mobile phones and laptops, but webcams and wireless as the norm. Moreover, when they grow up, they may choose to live in the countryside rather than the city, believing distance shouldn't make them any less employable. They might even argue that not travelling into an office is an ecological imperative, given the need to cut carbon.

What a long way we have come in a decade of mobile working. Or have we? The foundations were laid in the 1970s, in the days of mainframes and dumb terminals. Technologically, this is to reach back into the dark ages. But in terms of the organisation, it set in train incremental steps of decentralisation. When in the 1980s personal computers became cheap enough, the management infrastructure was ready to make the basic adjustments to take advantage. By the late 1990s there were about 10,000 internet service providers around the world, half of them in the US. They opened up online access to anybody, not just those with a mainframe. Similarly, the web browser - the lynchpin of the client-server model of computing that enables 'anytime, anyplace, anywhere' connectivity - is also just over a decade old.

Three developments have dominated changes since. The first is speed. Today, backbone data rates of 10 gigabits per second are routine, enough for multiple streams of video - data rates could barely support e-mail 10 years ago. The second development is wireless. Before, such access was just not economically viable; now, it is cheaper than a coffee machine. The third is the mobile phone. Although cellular phones have been around since the 1940s, it was only in the '90s that they became ubiqitous, and small enough to fit in a pocket. Today, most developed countries have more mobile phones than people. Mobile telephony has become a business staple, and one that is arguably generating growth. In Africa, for example, poor farmers are now able to determine the best markets to send their goods to by calling in ahead of time for prices.

More than 70% of European businesses have a mobile project going, according to research by Fujitsu Siemens Computers. Equipping workers with laptops is the main thrust: 98% of companies use them. Handheld devices are deployed by just under two-thirds of businesses. Less than a quarter have so-called e-mail push products like BlackBerrys.

So does mobile working make for (a) better business and (b) better work/life balance? On both counts the research is ambivalent.

Business is, of course, now unimaginable without mobile phones. And yet corporate attitudes towards mobile working change episodically. At first, there was a lot of talk about productivity. People on the road would stay on the move without having to return to the office to, say, upload orders or download work schedules. And there was talk of mobile working mitigating the long hours of professional services: an evening's e-mailing on the sofa was passed off as a perk.

It was not clear how a business could do more than just extend the old ways of working across longer hours and wider geographies. The fashion now revolves around employees as stakeholders: as mobile workers they can make demands on the company as much as it does on them. So someone who wants to be at home for certain periods in the week can offer their skills on their own terms; the company can accommodate this by sourcing the skills they need across a number of suppliers. 'We need to get used to the fact that work is a task, not a location,' explains Alex Black, strategy director at Affiniti, a company specialising in integrated communications. 'Some leaders still do not trust their staff to work wherever or whenever.'

Although mobile working began with decentralisation, there is evidence that it has initiated waves of re-centralisation. Professor Richard Sennett of the London School of Economics attributes this to the amount of information that mobile computing puts in the hands of executives. It leads them to think they know what is going on in their business, and so rather than trust employees, they're tempted to make command-and-control decisions.

Another profound issue is that of social capital in organisations. With pyramid-like structures, social capital is high because people feel they belong; with mobile working, the base of the pyramid tends to collapse, eroding social capital in the office. Sennett describes the mobile worker's new sense of self: 'An individual constantly learning new skills, changing his or her knowledge base. That ideal is driven by the need to keep ahead of the machine.'

This could be bad for performance. 'The impact on individuals has meant that businesses are now poorer,' believes Gladeana McMahon, who advises companies on gizmo proliferation. 'They are not getting time to be creative or to think strategically.' What was downtime is now uptime online.

Collaborating teams come to expect instant responses from colleagues. When they don't get them, the tension rises. Occupational psychologists Pearn Kandola did some work for Cisco, after which they recommended appointing 'communications tsars' to manage grievances and set communications protocols. Texts saying 'There is no news' are preferable to silence. Little wonder 2.3 trillion text messages will be sent per year by the end of the decade. Like nature, collaboration abhors a vacuum. However, an experiment conducted by ntl:Telewest Business that forced executives to work from home found that they missed the banter and face-to-face interaction with colleagues.

With their number displays and 'busy' buttons, mobile phones provide easy means of not taking calls. Research from BlackBerry shows that users tend either to filter e-mails from those they'd rather avoid or respond to the few people they regard as family and friends.

When asked, almost everyone says flexible working is better working. Research from Microsoft and the Future Laboratory shows that the new generation of employees rate the ability to work flexibly as important as salary. It allows women - and some men - to be home when the kids return from school.

However, there is evidence that blurring the boundaries between work and home - 'lifeblending' - can increase stress: the temptation is to default to a work mentality every waking hour, even when on holiday. For example, the 2007 British Social Attitudes survey reports that 77% of full-time women and 67% of full-time men would like to spend more time with friends. These figures have risen dramatically since 1989. Observes Paul Lee, head of Deloitte Research: 'The increasing practice of taking work calls while on holiday, or taking laptops when going on holiday, may be linked to growing job insecurity.'

Against that, though, could be the fact that we simply live in a complaint culture. A leading telecoms firm found that implementing more processes by which workers could be involved in decisions had as much impact on their wellbeing as introducing more flexible working hours.

So what of the future? Some say the distinction between working at the office, at home or on the road will gradually disappear. Each will be thought of as normal. And the workers, formerly known as mobile, will achieve levels of empowerment and autonomy previously enjoyed only by captains of industry.

More likely, the mix of mobility and stress will remain. According to iAnywhere, a Sybase subsidiary, 71% of existing mobile workers said that they answer e-mails and phone calls out of office hours, and feel that their company expects them to do so. Only 8% switch off at the end of the working day. Is there really much likelihood that this will change?

MOBILE WORKING BY NUMBERS

2 followed by 128 zeros the number of unique internet addresses available for electronic devices.

1 followed by 9 zeros the data rate in bits per second of today's corporate data backbones.

6 million the number of mobiles India buys per month.

98 the percentage of companies supplying employees with laptops.

30 the percentage of Britons who fail to take their annual leave entitlement because they are too busy, according to the Work Foundation.

12 the age of the child at which a single mother will be expected to look for work, if new legislation is passed (at present, this is 16).

5 the percentage of people who say mobile devices are not important to their work, according to Damovo UK.

If you or your firm have a good story to tell about the impact that mobile working has had on productivity, flexibility or work/life balance, enter the brand-new People Moving Business Awards, created by Microsoft in partnership with MT specifically to reward excellence in mobile working. Full details and an online entry form at www.managementtoday.co.uk.

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