Loose lips sink more than ships

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the unstoppable trend towards mobile working and how, wherever you go, there are people perched with their laptop or talking business on their mobile phone. I had two concerns: lack of free WiFi coverage and a lack of consideration for ergonomic comfort. The day after that piece was published in this magazine I was on the Stansted Express when two chaps got on and started discussing their employer, a well-known facilities management company. Not only did they openly name the organisation several times but they talked about what they believed to be fraudulent practices and made derogatory remarks about senior execs.

OK, this was an extreme example but it got me thinking about privacy and confidentiality for mobile workers. Sitting in a Costa Coffee a few days later I overheard two colleagues talking about a major client and the contract renewal process (including how they could add in ‘additional costly services’ once the deal had been signed). On the train to a meeting, a woman was on her mobile to a client talking about fairly confidential aspects of their relationship. And at a serviced office space, I was sharing a table with someone and could clearly see the business plan they were working on.

Ask around and you find that this is a common experience. One facilities professional told me how she was waiting in a hotel reception before a FMA meeting and couldn’t help but overhear a chap talking about a named FM client to a colleague over the phone. Once the call was finished, she introduced herself and said she was also in FM. He went white. Someone else told me about a recent train journey when he was sitting next to someone who was working on an internal document about a new software product which was going to market despite several known glitches. And of course the press is full of stories about memory sticks and confidential documents left where they shouldn’t have been. Next time you’re out and about, look and listen and I bet you’ll pick up some interesting titbits.

You would have thought that much of this is common sense. But I think workplace managers and HR professionals must also shoulder some of the blame. I don’t think we take the time to train people in new ways of working. We take them out of static workspaces, give them a laptop and a BlackBerry and expect them to understand the etiquette of working in public. But of course they often don’t and they continue to work in the way they did when they were in private workspaces. We need to explain how people using those spaces need to adapt their style of working – perhaps by using code names when talking about clients or your own business in public; not naming people individually but perhaps by their job title; and being careful what confidential documents you work on in certain environments.

I’m writing this on the tube and don’t think I’ve been overlooked…

Cathy Hayward