This week I have worked at my own office desk, at a client site, at the kitchen table, on a plane, a train, a bus, on the Tube, and in a number of coffee shops. While some of this work has involved reading magazine and newspaper articles, chatting on the phone and scribbling notes, the majority has been tapping away at the laptop. An FM case study of a Liverpool building, for example, was largely written in the waiting room at Liverpool Lime Street station and on the train back to London, and then finished off at home.
And I’m not alone. Everywhere I go these days, there are people perching laptops on their briefcases, tapping away at iPads, iPhones or BlackBerries and chatting to colleagues through Skype. People who defend the office as the only location for work need to get out and see the reality. People are working everywhere – and that’s just in the winter. On the way to a meeting in Pall Mall last week, I passed a businessman who had set up his laptop on the side of one of Trafalgar Square’s fountains (his IT manager would have had a heart attack) and was busy talking on Skype. And that was despite the temperature being only marginally above zero. When spring finally comes, every open space will be full of people working in one way or another.
But there are two major downsides – and I’m suffering from both. The first is the lack of WiFi connectivity. Last May, London Mayor Boris Johnson revealed his desire to convert the capital into the world’s technological hub with a free city-wide WiFi like Venice, Miami and a host of US cities. We’re still way off that in most of the UK. For those regular mobile workers, buying a WiFi dongle is an easy option for a small monthly charge, but for those of us who are only out and about occasionally, that extra cost is hard to justify. And the result is that you either pay exorbitant costs for one-off WiFi use, you try to piggy back off free connections (only to have them drop at a crucial moment) or you camp out in Starbucks where there’s free WiFi.
The other, more important, issue is physical comfort – or lack of. Us facilities professionals spend a lot of time ensuring everyone in the workplace is as comfortable as they can be. They have the right ergonomic chairs, adjustable desks, screens at just the right height (or laptop stands) but then the business comes along and gives people laptops and we know full well that they’re going to be sitting in uncomfortable positions for long periods craning their neck to see the screen. As anyone who’s tried to type on a laptop on a train table for long periods will know, you leave the train with your shoulders hunched up around your ears.
But few organisations seem to be concerned about the ergonomic suitability of all the locations that their staff are working in. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before there are a spate of claims for repetitive strain injury, and other health problems, against organisations for failing to provide the right working environment – and there have been several already. It will be the facilities manager who will have to shoulder the blame. We need to be thinking now (and I know many of you are already) about how we balance this desire to work flexibly with the need to be ergonomically safe and sound.