Some thoughts on mobile working

First of all, apologies to any readers of this blog for the long period since I last contributed anything. I’ve been engaged on a pretty intensive piece of freelance work over the last few months which, whilst it’s been good for the bank balance hasn’t been so good for doing other things.

Now that I’ve got some time available to do some writing I thought it would be interesting to reflect on one of the areas that my attention has been focused on over the last year: mobile working.

Mobile working has been a big theme in IT for almost as long as I can remember; certainly back to the days of the first commercial laptops in the late 1980s. However, the dramatic emergence and evolution over recent years of smartphones and tablets seems to have given the topic a burst of renewed growth.

Mobile working initiatives seem to be everywhere. These, of course, lead to numerous technology challenges such as: the pros and cons of the different devices and platforms, the issues around integration with back end systems and the perennial question of working when out of range of network connectivity. There are also, I’m sure, plenty of BCS members far more qualified than I am to blog on those topics.

What really interests me, however, are the implications of all this for the individuals to whom mobile working is delivered. Mobile platform vendors are understandably keen to sell the benefits of mobile working; increased productivity, greater flexibility, improved customer service and so on. They are maybe less keen to highlight the potential problems that this type of working may lead to.

My starting point when considering this is to think about why people work. Of course the most obvious reason is for the money, but I think that the real picture is significantly more complex than that. Certainly, some people are primarily driven by the financial reward, but for many, this is not the only, or even the main driver.

Other factors might include personal status or the desire to do something that makes a positive contribution to society. For many people the social aspect of work; being out of the home and interacting with a group of people, is what really gets them up in the morning. Mobile working can have a big impact on all of these areas. My overall feeling is that, whilst it is of course vital to get the technology right, the true success or failure of a mobile working initiative will very often hinge on how well the issues that this can cause are addressed.

Looking at this in a bit more detail, some of the questions that I think need to be considered include:

  • How well are the impacted staff, at an individual level, suited to and prepared for, being mobile workers? Some will love the freedom and flexibility it brings, others will feel isolated and miss the ‘buzz’ of the office. How can this be addressed? Can sufficient support mechanisms be put in place or do some staff even need to be re-deployed to more appropriate (to them) work?
  • How can, at a group level, the benefits of bringing the team together to share learning experiences and new ideas be retained? For me this is critical as if it is not addressed the cohesion of the team will be lost and team members will slowly drift apart. The use of social media type solutions may provide some of the answer here. In my opinion, however, there is no substitute for getting the group physically together on an at least reasonably regular basis.
  • How well does mobile working fit with the overall organisational culture and the management style of those responsible for the mobile workers? Many organisations now follow the mantra ‘work is what I do, not where I go’ but there are still plenty of much more traditional organisations and/or individuals who can be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of not having their team working under their proverbial (and sometimes literal) nose. To change this can involve significant effort, especially as a move to mobile working does not take away the need to manage a team, but with a different management style. It does not mean that managers can abdicate their responsibilities.

One final thought: why does this matter to IT? Isn’t IT’s job to deliver the technology and the job of the user management, possibly supported by HR, to deal with all this soft, people stuff?

On this point, I certainly agree that both those communities should be involved, and wherever possible encouraged to take the lead on these issues, but for IT to take such a narrow view of its responsibilities is, I feel, neither constructive nor appropriate.

Whether we like it or not, IT is the biggest driver of change most organisations have and the reputation of the IT department will inevitably be measured, to a very great extent, on the success of the projects that IT is responsible for, or is perceived as being responsible for. Technology and change do not exist in isolation from each other and therefore, in my view, IT, if it is to deliver real value to an organisation, has to be prepared to take the lead in at least ensuring the wider change issues are properly addressed.

About the author

Adam Davison MBCS CITP has an MSc in IT from the University of Aston and has filled a variety of senior IT strategy roles for organisations such as E.ON and Esso.

See his LinkedIn profile

See all posts by Adam Davison
June 2018

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