Magazine article Management Today

The World Is Your Office

Magazine article Management Today

The World Is Your Office

Article excerpt

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.

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. …

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