THE WORLD IS YOUR OFFICE - Mobile, laptop, e-mail, voicemail, personal organiser - the well-equipped manager is available for work night and day, wherever in the world he or she may be. This model of work obviously has benefits for all concerned - it also has its drawbacks. There are steps you can take, however, to avoid becoming a non-stop, 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week employee. Richard Thomas explains.
In the lexicon of the late 20th century, mobility ranks somewhere along with motherhood and apple pie. How often do you hear a sports team coach urging players to be less mobile? Or a military strategist calling for the creation of a slow, static task force? No one is against mobility.
Even camper vans, for decades dismissed as an eccentric hippy accoutrement, are enjoying a surge in popularity. Roam free, the millennium is upon us.
Economists and management gurus are also evangelical about the benefits of 'mobile' workers. Sitting behind a desk in an office is just so '80s; we should be tearing up the tarmac in pursuit of clients, or working in a SOHO (that's Small Office, Home Office, not the lively heart of London), and keeping in touch via mobile phone, e-mail and palmtop computer.
While reports of the death of the traditional office are exaggerated, it is certainly true that many workers have cut the apron strings to the corporate HQ. At least two million British employees already work from their home, car or wherever they happen to be. British Telecom reckons that one in four of us will be out of the office within 25 years.
'It is inevitable that more people will be deserting the office,' says Eric Laurier, an academic from Glasgow University who has co-authored a study into 'road warriors', the most mobile workers of all, whose car is their office. 'You only have to look at the absolute explosion in the number of mobile phones, which have been taken up much more quickly than PCs. That is a strong indication of things to come.'
In other countries the mobile revolution is further advanced, especially in the US, where a tenth of the workforce is already without a fixed place of work, and in Scandinavia. American business is way ahead of Europe in terms of technology use - a computer designed specifically for the car is selling well - and is in any case driven by the pioneer spirit of the early settlers; Americans are only happy when they are on the move. The enthusiasm in Scandinavia for more flexible work patterns is, by contrast, the result of the immobility forced on workers by the weather. (Frequent heavy snowfall is a good incentive for employers to consider telecommuting.)
The benefits of mobile working seem clear: staff spend less time commuting to work - which in turn is good for the environment - there is less need for expensive office space and productivity is boosted. Some firms have reported cuts in office space of between 25%-65%. Scottish Widows and Xerox claim productivity improvements of up to 60% since allowing staff to work 'remotely'.
But the costs are harder to measure; loneliness, lack of communication, an erosion of the corporate culture, higher job turnover. It is also impossible to know what is lost from staff not being able to chat informally over the water cooler.
'The real test of the new technologies will be the extent to which they can replicate human contact,' says Howard Southern, a director of the Henley Centre, a consumer consultancy. 'Video conferencing was supposed to change the way we worked. But in reality it is staid and formal and stilted. It simply does not have the same effect as the real thing.' Millions of jetlagged businessmen and women can testify to the limitations of videos and conference calls.
In his recent research Laurier tracked the lives of half a dozen ultra-mobile workers, and says that the advantages of flexibility are often outweighed by the sense of isolation felt by those on the move. 'There is a great deal of loneliness that goes with the loss of a fixed office base. One woman who I spent time with had moved from an office-based job to one which was mostly on the road, and she really felt it. After a while though, people get used to it.' Informal groupings of mobile workers are springing up, based on cafes in motorway service stations or city centres; Laurier's study is entitled Meet You At Junction 17 after one of the favourite spots for a coffee and chat. Many of those who meet up are from different firms; they simply share the same patch, and the same nomadic lifestyle.
The nomads also cope by aggressively screening phone calls, and by productively using time that others see as wasted. Traffic jams are a chance to catch up on calls and reports. Audio books are a major hit, with Tony Benn's diaries an unlikely favourite. Maybe the road warriors are a new intelligentsia?
Even the inevitable breakdowns are not necessarily a disaster, says Laurier.
'One woman I was with broke down,' he says, 'and while I would have been a frantic mess, she calmly called to reschedule her meetings, dialled the recovery firm and then took herself off to a nearby beauty shop for a facial.'
It is possible that new communities will spring up to support non office-based workers, and that strategies to cope will work. But the problems of dislocation can be corporate, too. Given that much of the value added to the production process in Western economies is at the 'knowledge' end of the spectrum, the dispersal of brains could be a problem. The informal bouncing around of ideas is difficult, or even impossible, without the face-to-face contact of a shared workplace.
'One of the critical factors in modern business is rapport,' says Southern.
'And this often develops in the spaces between formal meetings or calls. The question is: how does technology and mobile working build up rapport?'
But Laurier argues that the development of the knowledge economy could be an argument in favour of greater mobility, for the 'virtual office', rather than for in-house brainstorming sessions with flip charts. 'One of the reasons people get pushed out by their employer is to collect knowledge on the ground, and bring that back to central office, or feed it in electronically.
How are customers in the north-west of London doing? The only way to find out for sure is to get someone out there. This is especially important in a service economy, where information about trends and satisfaction is crucial.'
But the intrusion of mobile phones and laptops into previously protected time, time at home, for example, or a couple of hours on a train has led some senior business people to rethink the advantages of constant contactability.
If you want time to think strategically about the future of your company, the last distraction you need is the irritating chirrup of a mobile phone.
Second-class train carriages are stuffed with mobiles; some first-class sections now ban them. The new status symbol is to choose not to have a mobile - or at least to turn it off.
And even if the advantages of allowing workers to roam more freely are accepted on paper and on the bottom line, huge challenges remain. Most bosses want to see their assets - in this case you - around them. It is disconcerting to not know where your staff are.
How can the individual cope with the new accessibility? The keywords are control and balance. First, control the technology rather than allowing it to control you. If you need some thinking time, turn everything off. Consider using your mobile for outgoing calls only for a period of time each day. Try not to do work just before bed or it will dominate your dreams and all too often, turn them into nightmares. Invest in a priority line service for your mobile and/or home so that your family can reach you even when colleagues are getting voicemail.
At the same time, it is critical to pay yourself back for time used outside of office hours. One of the problems with the creeping invasion of personal time is that it often comes on top of an already full working day; it is being 'bolted on' to a traditional work pattern, rather than helping to replace it with a more flexible and balanced approach to working hours. If you need to take a call at 9pm, fine: take your phone to the pub and lose half an hour of valuable drinking and pool-playing time. But the next day, set the alarm clock a little later, arrive at work a little later, go to the gym mid-afternoon, or go for a pedicure.
The only way to sustain constant intrusions into personal space and time is to build in balancing intrusions of private activity into normal working hours. Of course some bosses won't like it, but they can't have it both ways. Be assertive.
'Virtual offices require shifts in performance cultures,' says Thomas Davenport, a US specialist in flexible working. 'They require managers to emphasise delivered results, rather than observation of the work process.' At present, British managers resemble Napoleonic generals, wanting to survey the might of their assembled armies, rather than be discreet controllers of unseen SAS-type special forces.
For certain kinds of workers - sales representatives, for example - the results are clear enough to allow for a high degree of autonomy. In other areas managers are understandably keen to keep a close eye on their charges. There is always the suspicion - probably not entirely unjustified - that the workers might be at home, shopping, or even lying on a beach somewhere. Be warned: some firms are already investing in high-tech kit which locates staff by tracing their mobile phone signal ...
It is impossible, at this stage, to draw conclusions about the impact of mobile working on businesses, individuals or communities. For some people - those with power in the labour market - the option to work when and as you please is clearly liberating.
For those trapped behind a PC or the wheel of a car all day, every day, beholden to the trill of the mobile, desperate to prove they are working, and achingly lonely, mobility is less of a godsend.
'It is a hugely varied experience,' says Laurier. 'For some people it is good news, allowing them to plan their time and control their lives more effectively. For others, doing long hours of crappy work, it is less appealing.' At least on production lines there is some camaraderie to dull the boredom; none for the person answering directory enquiry calls with a home PC. Taking people out of the office simply makes the inequalities between them invisible. In just the same way that cars, salaries and office size reflect clout in the labour market, so the impact of mobile working is either liberating, giving more control to the top-dog staff, or a misery-making intrusion into the lives of the less fortunate, less secure or less confident.
'Extra work is required to set the boundaries between home and work, that is for sure,' says Laurier. 'Call screening on mobiles is a key skill.
But there was one woman manager who never turned her mobile phone off, and always answered it. Her work became her life,' he remarks.
Needless to say, predictions about the numbers of workers likely to be at home or on the road need to be treated with caution - as do all the breathless lists of apparent benefits.
Remember all those seminars in the 1970s with titles along the lines of 'How To Cope With All The New Leisure Time Which Will Be Freed Up By Computers'?
Ultimately the effect of mobile working depends on control. Who decides when and where the electronic gizmos are turned off? Kids are now being paged by supermarkets in their school breaks and asked to work that evening; firms are tracking staff movements; white collar workers are logging on at bedtime to send and receive e-mails.
Karl Marx worried about ownership of the means of production; increasingly the critical test of power is control of the means of communication. Look at your mobile phone now. Is it turned on? Could you turn it off? Go on, press that button ...
A HIERARCHY OF MOBILITY
Workers with fixed offices who occasionally work from home.
Tethered in office
Staff with some mobility but who are expected to report to a fixed location; in British Airways' office building at Heathrow, staff wander between meeting rooms, comfortable chairs and computer terminals.
Staff have no fixed office space but book a 'hotel room' (most likely a cubicle) as required, sometimes in different locations. IBM has a string of suburban office/hotels - referred to as 'productivity centres'.
Some workers are either at a home office or at customer sites, freeing up office space (at the expense of the employee's home space) but often resulting in isolation.
The so-called 'road warriors' are truly mobile, working on the move. Sales representatives are not alone in this category; New York's district nurses have no office space - they update patient records by mobile phone after a visit.
DOS AND DON'TS IN THE MOBILE AGE
Do: Talk to suppliers or difficult colleagues in an area of patchy mobile phone coverage (but always call a valued client from next a stationary position next to a transmitter).
Do: Keep e-mails short and succinct; a recent Gallup survey showed that the average networked worker receives 170 e-mails a day. As a rule of thumb, if you have to scroll down to read a message, it's too long and no one will read it.
Do: Regularly check phone messages and e-mails, and try to respond immediately. Key to successful mobile working is frequent contact to remind people you are around. Don't ponder each word; speed of response is usually more important than precision.
Don't: Ever put 'witty' messages on voicemail or mobile phone answering services; they are the equivalent of cartoon ties - telling the world only that you are desperate to demonstrate the existence of a personality.
Don't: Write e-mails when you are angry; they cannot be deleted once sent. Calm down first, or even wait a day before responding to a message which has upset you.
Don't: Expect answers within 24 hours to e-mails, and only use receipt reports on vital documents. No one likes to feel that they are being watched.
Don't: Copy e-mails to the recipient's boss; treat e-mails like a phone call or face-to-face meeting. Going over someone's head - even electronically - is bad form.
Phones that follow you
BT/Cellnet is about to launch a Corporate One-Phone, which acts as a normal (but cordless) phone while in the office, connecting to 'bases' around the building and then automatically switching to a mobile once it leaves the building. This One-Phone would do away with the need for separate telephone numbers.
Designed by a consortium including IBM, Nokia, Intel and Microsoft, Bluetooth holds out the promise of the end of the spaghetti of wires which adorn computers, by connecting printers, laptops, modems and other equipment via radio frequencies. Products using Bluetooth are expected on the market next year, with the greatest benefits seen by those who drop in and out of the office with laptops, or work from cars.
New companies such as NetStore are providing mobile workers with the IT security of those using office-based systems. For about £15 a month, the firm will back up data held on a laptop on a daily basis, with encrypted packages of work automatically sent over the internet to NetStore's data banks.