Mobile Only: Week 29
Benjamin Robbins, an EMF member, is spending the next year working solely from a single mobile device. Each week he shares his thoughts and experience with us on what it means to be mobile-only.
I had the opportunity to host a live webcast in Chicago this past week. The topic of the event was mobility and employee-led innovation. Our dialogue kicked off by discussing how the consumer experience has made its way into businesses and what benefits organizations have reaped in the aftermath. There were numerous benefits named, but the top benefit called out was an increase in employee productivity. While I fully believe that with mobility there are new ways of getting work done, I wonder if there isn’t a subtle physiological backlash that effectively cancels out the opportunity for productivity gains that the technology allows.
My professional career began over fifteen years ago in software development. In those days the waterfall methodology of development was the de facto approach to projects. The product design team would spec out the entire release and we’d spend three to six months developing it. Each release cycle started out relaxed and finished in a fit of all-nighters. Somewhere along the continuum, as work hours transitioned from six- to twelve- to sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, there was a peculiar change in people’s productivity.
As the work hours grew longer on a per day basis, I would notice people taking longer lunches, running errands, having longer chats at the water cooler, going to appointments, etc. They would spend more time engaged in personal tasks during work hours. They would seem to lose focus much more easily and allow themselves to engage in other non-work activities. In short, their productivity plateaued.
The justification for this mixing of personal and work was simple: “If I’m going to be here at work for so long, then I am going to take my time at lunch,” or “Since I am working such long hours I need to run this errand now because I won’t be able to do it later.” The idea being that because individuals were working so hard they had somehow earned more time to do other things in the middle of the day. People would go out of their way to let others know how many hours they worked rather than what work they got done.
So I have to ask these questions: Does mobility produce the same effect? Does the expectation to be constantly “on” for work cause individuals to not focus as much during core hours? Are individuals only getting the same amount of work done, but spreading it out across all hours of the day and night? Does the end result of persistent connectivity and working anytime, anywhere inadvertently cause tasks to take longer than they would if someone worked “less”?
Back in my development days I distinctly remember thinking that if people would just knuckle down and get done what needed to be done, instead of wearing their hours worked like some sort of gamification badge of honor, then they could just go home sooner. It seemed to me that once you got beyond twelve hours worked there were diminishing returns; like going from two to three lanes on an interstate—you just don’t see the efficiency gains like you did going from one lane to two.
Here’s the tricky bit when it comes to mobility. Productivity is difficult to measure. Organizations are able to sense that mobility is delivering a return but can’t really measure the overall effect. For example, I’ll get e-mail replies from coworkers at 10 at night. I create docs, share files, and conduct video conferences all from my mobile device. But I also can create family videos, check Facebook, and play a round of Plants vs. Zombies (which I have to tell you is phenomenal on my 24-inch monitor at work.) Ask yourself, if you had ten things to get done today, how many of those did you take home to complete after the kids went to bed?
In the end, have we simply moved our work hours around and received no bottom-line productivity gain? Can we even measure that? Perhaps we only have a certain long-term capacity for extended work hours. Sure you can override that capacity for a short stint, say for a project, but in the end most of us will look for balance. When you run a marathon, if you go out too hard and too fast, your body will exact revenge and force you to return to a pace that you can maintain. Perhaps our minds will do the same for mobility’s notion of anytime, anywhere.
Benjamin Robbins is co-founder and Principal at Palador, a firm that focuses on providing strategic guidance to enterprises in the areas of mobility, apps, and data. You can follow him on Twitter. Mr. Robbins resides in Seattle and blogs regularly at http://remotelymobileblog.com