Esther Dyson is the woman the computer industry listens to. The New York Times called her “the most powerful woman in the ‘Net-erati'”, while Vanity Fair magazine included her as one of the 50 most powerful people in the “New Establishment”.
Dyson is an evangelist for the liberating effects of new technology, travelling the world with her laptop and modem, hooking up to the Internet in hotel rooms, clients’ offices and airports to deal with the hundreds of e-mails she receives every day.
Yet she has no phone in the small New York apartment where she has lived since 1973.
She did have one once, but she found it had a major drawback: “People kept phoning me at home, so I took it off the hook. Then somebody started phoning Jamaica and charging the calls to my number, so I had it disconnected. It was more trouble than it was worth.”
Most of us, however, do not have the luxury of being able to have the phone disconnected. As a result, we face a steady blurring of the distinctions between our working lives and our social lives, a confusion which has almost entirely been brought about by technology.
The technology that is supposed to be liberating us is enslaving us at the same time. It gives us freedom from the office, but means that we are constantly on call, unless we do what Dyson has done, and define a space where we are not available.
In fact, mobile working means we have to change all aspects of our lives – and both companies and individuals are having to learn a completely new style of working. As might be expected, computer companies are at the forefront of adapting their working practices to fit in with a mobile lifestyle.
Peter Wingrave, design and workforce strategy manager for IBM Europe, was in charge of designing new offices for the computer manufacturing giant which could cope with the needs of an increasingly mobile salesforce. In the early Nineties, Wingrave recalls: “People needed to become more mobile. If you’re not with the customer, how do you know what they are thinking?”
One of the effects of this change was that, “you were no longer walking into full buildings. At best, they were half empty”. Management then began to question the cost-effectiveness of spending on heating, lighting and renting space for desks that were barely used – but empty offices were also having a bad effect on morale. “It was a pretty cold, sterile environment,” says Wingrave.
In 1992, IBM moved some of its staff into new offices at Bedfont Lakes office park near Heathrow. At the time, there were 700 desks for 900 people. Today, there are the same number of desks – and 1,500 staff.
Bedfont Lakes was a pioneering project for IBM, with space set aside for sales staff to come in off the road, plug in their portables and get on with their office work.
However, getting people to accept that they no longer have a desk of their own takes “an enormous amount of groundwork,” Wingrave admits. “But if you do it as a fait accompli, it’s bound to fail. It’s social engineering, it’s almost as though you are changing the layout of towns and villages.”
And while the sales and marketing team might be spending large amounts of time out of the office, they still need back-up systems to call upon. They also need other kinds of support – they need people to talk to, to provide the sense of community that the traditional office supplies.
Wingrave says: “They need good emotional support just as much as they need good technical support. The provision of helpdesks has been very important – and not just helpdesks to deal with technical enquiries.” IBM’s human resources department has set up helpdesks so that mobile employees can get advice on a wide range of work-related problems – and some which have nothing to do with work. Systems are in place so that all mobile staff have regular meetings with their line managers. What the company is trying to ensure staff understand, Wingrave says, is “you may be a remote worker, but we know you’re still out there”.
Many in the marketing industry no longer work for companies at all, but for themselves, having moved out of Soho and into SoHo (Small Office/Home Office). And major computer and telecoms companies have finally begun to think about their needs.
BT, for example, is developing number portability with its Onenumber personal numbering system. One of the biggest problems for mobile workers is being contactable by their clients: BT’s service should solve that, claims John O’Boyle, head of sales and marketing for life products at BT Mobility Solutions.
While the new service allows calls to be diverted to wherever a subscriber happens to be, “there will be a ‘do not disturb’ function”, he adds, to reassure those worried that they might be too contactable.
But it’s not just what the products or services do that matters. If they are to grace our homes, then they have to look good. As Clive Grinyer, director of product design at design consultancy Fitch, observes, mobile phones have now started to become more colourful. “They’ve started to reflect people’s lifestyle.”
Fitch was asked by BT to develop a number of design con- cepts for accessorised mobile phones, reflecting the interests of the individuals who were supposed to be using them, including one model covered in leather and metal studs. Gadgets such as mobile phones, faxes, PCs and printers have reached that point where “ordinary people” will start buying them – if they are designed to fit in with their lives.
The new Apple iMac, with its translucent plastic casing, is one of the first products to be designed with this in mind, Grinyer suggests. And Marie Bourcier, marketing director, Europe for palm computing at 3Com, manufacturer of the Palm Pilot, says that her company has recognised the demand from owners to be able to individualise their machines with the launch of a number of slip covers in different colours.
A spokesman for rival palmtop computer manufacturer Psion says: “Lots of companies have been working on ways of making machines more appealing.”
Companies which distribute Psions are offered the option to have their machines officially customised, for example, jewellers Aspreys offers a Psion in a silver case.
Just as white goods manufacturers have realised that consumers would like a choice of colours for their kitchen gadgetry, so computer and telecoms manufacturers will have to realise that people want their home offices to look more like homes and less like offices.
The negative side to this, of course, is that the old complaint about living in the office looks as though it may become a reality for many of us.
Case study 1
Richard Thompson is chairman of EMS, a field marketing company specialising in servicing hi-tech clients.
Thompson spends 80 per cent of his time out of the office, “either visiting clients, at off-site meetings, in the car or working from home”.
He says: “I’m a time-management freak. I can’t stand being stuck in traffic doing nothing.” In his car, he has a “good hands-free kit” and is taking delivery of a fax machine to go in the boot next week.
At home, he has an office with three phone lines – one of them ISDN – a fax, a printer and space for his portable. In his office at work, the same portable has a docking station which allows access to a CD-Rom drive. At other times he downloads all the information he needs – diary, address book and working documents – onto a new purchase, a Rex Organiser, a combination organiser and storage device. “It’s the size of a credit card and three cards thick, it plugs into a PC-MIA slot at the back of the computer and I can put all the stuff I need on it. And it was only 60 from Dixons.”
Out of 500 EMS employees in the UK, 400 are in the field at any one time. Of those, 200 are “as IT literate as I am and spend most of their time working from home. They only come into the office for meetings”.
Case study 2
Zuilmah Wallace is senior director at design consultancy Fitch.
Wallace must have one of the longest commutes of anyone working in the marketing services industry – she lives in Dublin and flies to London on Monday mornings, returning on Thursday evenings. On Fridays, she works out of her home office.
“I’ve got an Apple Power Book, a fax, printer and two telephone lines. I can connect with Fitch through the modem.”
Wallace says that she regularly spends anything between one to three hours a day connected to the Fitch intranet, though “I try to minimise the time spent online”. If she is travelling, she can connect to the Fitch network from anywhere in the world: “As long as I have an international adaptor for my computer and a phone line. I dial in and the system dials me back.”
Wallace is something of a test case for Fitch, and is the only staff member currently allowed to work from home in quite so organised a fashion. “It’s an experiment. If I can make it work, there’s no reason why others might not be allowed similar flexibility. I find myself highly productive when I’m working from home. I find it incredibly liberating and empowering.”