Mobility: seeding better questions

"How can we get people more engaged, more productive, and happier at work? Is technology part of the problem – and could it also be part of the solution? Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft, imagines what might be possible if more organisations embraced the full, empowering potential of technology and encouraged a truly open, collaborative and flexible working culture. "

So runs the intro to the RSA Animate Re-imagining work that just came out. It's a great video that presents in a nutshell the issues and opportunities around mobile working, workplaces, work, and technology . It was timely that I came across it because I've been working on a presentation that I'm co-giving at the Las Vegas Corenet conference. The session's title is Keep Moving: The Rise of the Mobile Worker .

The session description reads 'The world of work moves at lightning speed, so why should workers stand still? Thanks to ever-more-sophisticated technology, workers are becoming increasingly mobile. In this session, a manager/consultant, champion of mobile working and a mobile worker herself, addresses key concepts in developing an effective mobile workforce. Specifically, she'll explain how HR, IT and CRE can work together to create a seamless transition and achieve optimal results.'

As I said in an earlier blog about this presentation what seemed like a good idea at the time of submission is fast turning into 'where is the deck that needs to be rehearsed and submitted in a few days?' I think it's getting there and it was helped by my having conversations during the week with both the co-presenter, John Risteter, and then Keith Perske and Brian Collins who I'm joining in a panel discussion earlier in the conference on more or less the same topic: If The New Mobile Workplace Is Such A Good Idea, Why Are We Still Talking About It?

Keith's idea for this session is to "try to knock the mobile workforce/AWS conversation on its head and the session title says it all. We've had the same discussion at these summits for years and I'm bored with it. We need to go straight at the reality of this subject and address the issues that are the true sticklers. We need to challenge the audience, and by extension, the leadership of their organizations back home to step up and deal with the barriers to progress. I want to emphasize that we have the facts and it now takes wisdom, courage and leadership to get us to the next level. I want people to have something meaty to chew on after they leave. I want to seed questions that can be asked throughout the summit at the different workplace/mobility sessions that will begin to build a larger conversation."

Stirring stuff but what does it mean in terms of what we discuss with participants? And that was the nub of our conversation. It isn't easy to come up with an angle that takes the conversation on mobile working away from the pros and cons debate (one example here) brought into focus by Yahoo, earlier this year into something that is provocative without being 'out there' and thoughtful without being academic or impractical. So we are still working on this one. (Any ideas welcome).

Thinking about the various people in the different countries I was in during September I came up with some questions they seemed to be asking, and they're questions that I haven't seen much on in the current mobility debate and that might fit Keith's idea:

1. What are the cultural aspects of mobility that come into play? Can multinationals working across different national cultures apply the same principles of mobile working across all their geographies? Does/should mobility look very different in one country from another?
2. Just because we can be mobile does it mean we should be mobile? Don't different types of work combined with personal work style preferences combined with management skills in managing mobile workers all need to be factored into decisions around mobility?
3. Mobile working is one of those phrases we think we have a common understanding about but there are different interpretations e.g. is it working on one site but with no fixed/assigned desk, is it working remotely from home office or other location, is it being 'on' 24/7 wherever you are. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the different interpretations?
4. Factors of trust, respect, integrity and capacity to be a mobile worker and/or manage mobile workers are often lost in the discussions that center on corporate real estate savings – what are the risks in ignoring those aspects?
5. In any one workforce there are certain jobs that preclude mobile working is there a danger of creating 'them and us' populations of mobile and 'fixed' workers. What means can organizations use to give equity of flexible working?
6. How do we know mobile workers are working? What are the different indicators of performance in what is often a knowledge based workforce?
7. How is employee loyalty developed and maintained in a mobile workforce and is it important that it should be?

Each one is fairly 'meaty' in Keith's terms and raises a bunch of opportunities. The opportunities aspect is one of the things we did talk about. I think we were in near agreement that mobile working is often seen more in terms of challenges – to performance measurement, to trust, to community building, to management skill, to IT security, etc. and is seen as an almost forced response to cutting real estate costs or attracting and retaining workers through flexible working. We felt looking at the opportunities might be in the realm of provocative.

A different thought that came to mind as I've being working on the topic is that we tend to think of mobile as vested in an individual who is mobile i.e. he/she works in various locations. We don't think of the work as being mobile. For example, is the surgeon who conducts an operation by remote control of surgical instruments on a patient who is in a different geographic location a mobile or remote worker? Is the ground based pilot of a remote controlled helicopter dropping food supplies into dangerous territory a mobile worker? Is the person who does work through ODesk a mobile worker? In all these cases it is the work that is the focus of the mobility and not the worker.

It seems that if we were more focused on what work is being done and the way it which it gets done then the debate moves away from individuals who may or may not be 'mobile' (or any of the other the associated terms around teleworking and remote working) towards why and how do people work. This would almost certainly make for a more interesting and socially valuable debate.

What's your view – should the mobility debate move away from the narrow focus on mobile workers who are working away from a traditional base towards a debate on the nature and meaning of work that can or could be done remotely? Let me know.