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August 14, 2014

Can you work with just a mobile phone and internet connection?

Recently I did a remarkably silly thing. Something I hadn’t done in almost seventeen years as the proverbial travelling consultant.

I went to London. No, that’s not the silly thing – I go to London quite often and honestly it’s really not that bad there. Even for a country bumpkin like me. No, the silly thing came to light after I’d boarded the train and it was pulling out of the station. I opened my bag to take out my laptop and some papers so that I could start work and my laptop wasn’t there. I checked again. And again. But it still wasn’t there. After checking for a fourth time the penny finally dropped – I’d left my laptop at home. I was a couple of minutes into a two-hour train journey, all ready to get stuck in to some quality report writing time and my laptop, one of the main tools of my trade – if not the main tool – was sitting at home, rather than on the table in front of me.

After the initial panic attack subsided I remembered that I wasn’t presenting today, so at least I didn’t need my laptop for any of my meetings. And I had my phone, and lots of people tell me that’s all they need to be able to work. “I can just work from wherever I am, as long as I have my mobile phone and an internet connection” is an assertion I hear all the time. Well this was a perfect opportunity for me to put that theory to the test.

Luckily I had a charger with me, otherwise I’d have been in trouble from the off. Because the second thing I didn’t do last night – the first being to not spot the absence of a laptop when I checked the contents of my bag (yes I did actually check, or at least I thought I did – it was late) – was to charge my ‘phone. I have one of those ‘phones that you have to charge about every three and a half hours (you know the ones) so the 20% remaining battery life probably wouldn’t have got me halfway to London, let alone seen me through the day.

So I plugged in and off I went. I couldn’t work on the report that I’d planned to because, whilst I synchronise files between my desktop and laptop, I don’t store all of my data in the cloud as a matter of course. In fact I don’t store much there at all, particularly if it’s confidential. Call me old fashioned but I haven’t yet developed the same blind faith in 'the cloud' that many others have. I’m with one of my information security colleagues on this one – he recently said “I wish people would stop calling it ‘the cloud’ and start calling it ‘putting my data on someone else’s computers’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying 'the cloud' is all bad. And yes, I do use it. But I’m extremely selective about what I choose to put there. There are, after all, some significant advantages if it’s used properly. But the cloud is a big and often dimly-lit place and not every cloud is created equal. Call me a cynic but I largely think of 'the cloud', particularly the free bits of it, as a really convenient way of letting someone else delete, corrupt, leak, sell, give away, deny me access to or otherwise compromise my data so that I don’t have to do it myself. Which I personally think is a healthy attitude that others would do well to adopt.

But I digress. In any case, trying to write a proper report on a phone, as opposed to making a few notes, isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. For a start, typing large amounts of text on a phone isn’t as easy as on a real keyboard, at least for anyone with normal sized fingers. Let alone the fact that my phone is constantly correcting what I type, which means I spend an inordinate amount of time correcting it back again. Then there’s the compatibility issues (which I won’t go into here as it’ll probably just turn into a rant against Microsoft and Apple), which means that you’re pretty much restricted to text only, without too much formatting and certainly nothing as weird and wonderful as a table.

But I digress again. At least I could start by sending a few e-mails. Except there was no network connection. On-board wifi hasn’t made much of an appearance on the trains from Evesham to London yet, at least not the peak time trains (for some reason you can get it at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, which is really useful for the majority of business travellers who actually have to get up in the morning). And the mobile phone signal is somewhat patchy for the first part of the journey. Funny how I can get a mobile signal at the top of a ski slope but not in the Cotswolds, despite the claims of 99% UK coverage by the mobile ‘phone companies (second rant suppressed).

So I read a couple of (paper) documents, wrote a bit of my blog, corrected the corrections, finally managed to send and receive some e-mails, did a bit of web browsing (albeit looking at stuff on a very small screen), popped a couple of headache tablets and arrived in London for my meetings.

Shortly before I got on the train home, my phone started bleating “low battery” at me again. “No matter”, I thought, “I’ll just charge it on the train”. Except the electrical sockets on this particular train weren’t working. So I had about twenty minutes of trying to access my e-mails (and failing, due to a glitch at my internet service provider – good old Sod’s Law!) and writing a few notes for later processing before my phone gave up the ghost. At which point I gave up too and read the paper instead.

So, how effective was my plan to “just work from wherever I am using my mobile ‘phone”. Well, I suppose I managed to do a bit, and significantly more than in the pre-smartphone days. But how effective was it really? Well I think the answer to that is fairly evident. I reckon I probably achieved fifteen to twenty percent of what I’d have been able to do had I had my laptop to hand.

Yes, remote working is eminently possible – I do it all the time – but its effectiveness is hugely dependent on the tools available and the type of work that you’re trying to do remotely. Even working at home can be problematical and far less efficient than working in an office, if that’s what you normally do. And if you’re a laptop user and you don’t have it with you (which is a distinct possibility if you’re one of the many, many people who leave their laptops in the office when they go home) remote working can be trickier still.

And yes, there are all sorts of things that can be done with a smartphone (aside from checking Facebook or tweeting), particularly if your job largely involves phoning and emailing people and making a few notes. But in my experience their usefulness is limited and they’re really no substitute for a proper computer if you have things like reports to write (or read) or large, complicated spreadsheets to deal with, amongst other things. And, whilst they may be OK for a short period, I challenge anyone to work effectively for anything more than a very short time using just their smartphone.

So next time someone says to you “I can just work from wherever I am, as long as I have my mobile phone and an internet connection,” I strongly suggest you challenge them to prove it. Because some things are a lot easier said than done.

Andy Osborne is the Consultancy Director at Acumen, and author of Practical Business Continuity Management. You can follow him on Twitter and his blog or link up with him on Linked In.

http://thebceye.blogspot.com/2014/08/can-you-work-with-just-mobile-phone-and.html