FT mobility challenge

FT mobility challenge

By Peter Whitehead

Published: July 11 2007 09:40 | Last updated: July 11 2007 09:40

FT
reception called to say two gentlemen were waiting for me. But they
were hardly waiting – they were working. Each was tapping at a laptop
and toying with a phone, much as they had been all week.

Matt
Connolly and Darius Pocha had been challenged to run their business for
a week using only mobile communications from a variety of locations
including a zoo, a park and a beach.

They run Enable,
a digital agency that provides creative, strategy and technology
services from its base in Bristol. It employs 11 people and has a
strong ethical and environmental ethos.

 

The challenge allowed
them to use only a limited range of equipment provided by T-Mobile: a
T-Mobile Nokia N95 and a T-Mobile USB modem, both HSDPA enabled to
provide Web’n’Walk broadband internet access. They also had Webex
online meeting technology and their own laptops.

As mobile
broadband seeps into more markets, making mobile working a viable
option, the idea was to assess the practicalities, asking whether the
networks provided a seamless, business-quality service and assessing
what effect mobility had on efficiency.

But why would anyone
agree to such an ordeal? Mr Connolly is strategy director at Enable; he
said he wanted to know whether mobile working would make him more
effective and productive.

Mr Pocha, creative director, works
collaboratively with clients, designers and production teams and relies
on big bandwidths. He feared not being connected. On the other hand, he
was hoping the places he planned to visit would prove inspirational.

By the time the pair reached the FT offices at the end of the week they had shared a mix of experiences.

The
first lesson they brought back was to prepare properly. Mr Connolly
spent much of the first morning battling with connections, trying to
get into Enable’s virtual private network via the T-Mobile Web’n’Walk
service. “It took hours to get set up with all the teething problems
and getting everything to match our system,” he says. “It wasn’t the
fault of the technology, but it did show that these things take time
and you have to plan.”

Another factor for which they were
insufficiently prepared was power, quickly drained by constant use. Two
of Mr Connolly’s working days were ended prematurely by flat batteries
– the second time before he had even managed to extract his hotel
details.

Living on batteries turned both men into scavengers. Mr
Pocha explains: “We were always on the hunt for somewhere to plug in to
charge up and it becomes quite stressful – you’re constantly sharking
for a power supply.”

If the preparation for their own week had
been patchy, what surprised them was how much work they ought to have
done to prepare the employees back at base. “Managing that side of the
communications better would have been valuable. They felt we were in
some way inaccessible.

“We’ve been exploring the reasons why. One
person, for example, found he had a number of little questions which he
felt didn’t warrant a phone call or e-mail, so he stored them up, which
might not be efficient,” says Mr Connolly.

This was very
different from the effects felt by the remote workers, as Mr Pocha
explains: “When I was by the sea I looked at an internal blog we have
where people in the office add their thoughts. People working remotely
can feel isolated, disconnected or lonely, and I think services such as
social networks like this are going to be important for remote workers
– because they allow you to see the chatter going on and feel part of
it.”

But did being out and about make them more efficient? Mr
Pocha says: “I wanted to see whether I could be inspired by being
mobile, whether I could stay connected everywhere and whether I could
reclaim what would otherwise have been downtime. And that did happen.”

Mr
Connolly was similarly surprised by how productive he became: “I
started Tuesday off with some taxi rides and because I was able to work
it meant dead time became working time.”

He spent the afternoon
in London’s St James’s Park: “I had a cracking afternoon in the park. I
was in a deckchair and got through stacks of work and then I was
uber-connected on the train on the way to Brighton,” he says.

The
importance of being in the right environment highlighted the two men’s
working styles. Mr Connolly went in search of places that resembled an
office such as busy cafes. He also became self-conscious of his loud
telephone voice: “It made me very aware that I’m speaking in public
places.”

Mr Pocha, on the other hand, sought inspiration. He
spent time on the beach at Portishead, near Bristol, and at Bristol
Zoo: “When I sat by the sea it was inspiring and I felt free – which
might sound a bit spiritual, but I had the wind in my hair and I could
smell the sea.

“Then in the afternoon at the zoo I found myself a
great spot under some shade near the restaurant by the monkey
enclosure. But I got completely distracted by the monkeys and did
absolutely no work.

“I really think you have to pick your venue
carefully. In both places there was a lot of stimulus but one was
conducive to working and the other wasn’t. But I do like monkeys.”

Mr
Pocha says he felt free on the beach because he was connected and could
chat to colleagues in the office – or not if he chose to. “Being
connected isn’t always about being available,” he says. “I shut down my
e-mail client and my IM client. I wanted connectedness, but on my own
terms.”

Mr Connolly was also impressed by the control the mobile
devices gave him: “I’m very particular about when I’m working and when
I’m not. I will set myself my working hours and then close down my
laptop and phone and then I can’t be reached. That’s the way I’m able
to switch on and off.”

So what about the technology itself? Mr
Connolly says: “For me, I need access to e-mail, the web and a phone
throughout the day. The whole Web’n’Walk thing is great for that and I
really enjoyed it and felt connected.” But Mr Pocha, with his need for
large bandwidth, had to adapt: “After the first day I reset my
expectations about what you can expect a 3G device to do.

“When
you look at the bandwidth you need to share a desktop, do a voice over
IP call or videoconference and have Second Life running, then even a
reasonably fast wired network is going to struggle and so expecting 3G
to do it is a nonsense. So I worked around it because what it does give
you is pretty great.”

He did try videoconferencing via the modem,
but found it only viable if he was in exactly the right spot: “You need
all the bandwidth you can get. But I did have success using a T-Mobile
wireless hotspot.

“It gave me a chance to think about how you do remote meetings and how different they are – it involves a change of mindset.”

A
final surprise was how draining non-stop mobile working can be:
“Because you can fill every free space with work, it gets tiring,” says
Mr Connolly.

But then an hour or so in the FT offices gave both
men a chance to recharge their batteries before a final test of the
technology in a pod on the London Eye wheel, followed by a train
journey back to Bristol – working all the way.

Read the day by day diary here and listen to them discuss their adventures in the latest Digital Business podcast here.

You can also read Matt and Darius’s own blog diaries on the Enable website.

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