Work is where you are

Where does work take place? In the office? At home? Maybe in a café, or on the train? More importantly, should we define work only as what we do at a desk?

Earlier this year the company Yahoo asked all work-from-home staff to return to working only at the office. They cited the collaboration, the interactions, and the experiences that are only possible when you’re in the building.

After reading Eileen Brown’s blog supporting the Yahoo decision I reflected on how and where work gets done. Putting aside a discussion about whether Yahoo’s decision will achieve what they want, I wondered about the assumptions made: ‘Work is (only) done in the workplace, i.e. office’; and ‘Work (only) gets done with a computer and internet connection’.

Many 21st century knowledge workers are not confined to the same four walls each day. And they aren’t necessarily freelancers or working for themselves. They have some choice as to where and when they work, and can make the most of different locations, timing and mobile devices.

A typical day on the move

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Recently, I kept a log of my activity on a fairly typical business day. I noted where I was, what I was doing and what devices I used:

8:25am: On train platform; reviewing calendar and sending text messages; with smartphone
8:40am: On train; reading articles/material in my notebook and making notes; with laptop (no wi-fi) & paper notebook
9:30am: On tram; musing and people-watching; with no IT
10:00am: Seminar for client; with laptop and paper notes
11:30am: At Café; processing emails and note-making; with laptop and WI-FI
1:30pm: At Library shared table with others; writing resources and reading articles; with laptop (no WI-FI)
3:30pm: At Co-working space with collaborator; writing proposal; with laptop and wi-fi
4:30pm: At Café bar; meeting with prospective client and taking notes; with paper notebook
6:00pm: On train; reflecting and note-making; with laptop (no WI-FI)

Different locations, different possibilities

I work as I move about. Each location brings different opportunities – and limitations. So I adapt to where I am, or go somewhere else. Some examples:

* I needed to type and send a timely email message to a client after a seminar I give, so I sought out a local venue with a suitable table surface and WI-FI connectivity.
* Internet access is tricky on the train or bus, but I can draft emails or write in my paper notebook. If I’m sitting, I read and annotate on my laptop – typically articles I have set aside just for such times.
* For deep thinking or creating content while in between appointments, I headed for a quiet spot with good seating and lighting at a local library.
* For taking a phone call I received when on the street, I sought out the foyer of nearby building to remove background street noise.
* To have a sense-making conversation with people I knew and felt safe to I toss around emerging (crazy?) thoughts, I headed to my co-working space and entrepreneurial community at Hub Melbourne.

Park benchNot mentioned on my list above is my car (in stationary mode, of course!); or a local park bench. I’ve been known to use these spaces too if they are the most convenient and the climate is acceptable. The likely context? When I’ve just finished up a meeting and I’ve got things on my mind I need to quickly capture – else they might distract me when driving the longer distance from the city to my country home.

I also get inspiration just being in the outside world. Walking or on public transport I see posters and flyers, observe activities and hear conversations, which get me wondering about what others care about and are paying attention to. This in turn shapes my emerging ideas and influences how I might approach an unrelated current situation.

There are things that might be better done if you are not sitting at a desk, not tied to a computer. Activities like reflection, cultivating relationships, taking mental and physical breaks and conceptualising new things (often done best with whiteboard or blank sheets of paper).

My mobility and the variety of place, time and activity also supports an ebb-and-flow approach to sustaining good energy for work. Mindful of the conditions that increase or reduce my energy, I make choices about where I need to be or where I need to leave.

Organisations making change about where people can work

There is a growing trend for organisations to provision and support a variety of work spaces both within and without the organisation. In these spaces lie the hopes of greater collaborative activity, innovative outcomes and happier engaged employees.

Some thoughts about how to get moving:
1. Start with a conversation about individual styles and preferences. Talk about the different contexts and how preferences might change in relation to context.
2. Discover some new possibilities to mentally or physically explore. Find stories or examples on web. Visit places that provide non-traditional experiences – local co-working spaces often have open day tours or try-for-a-day arrangements, i.e. Check out Hub Melbourne and what people are saying about such places.
3. Setup some temporary options to experience. Observe what happens; note what you liked or disliked, and how you felt energy-wise.
4. Use what you now know to make wise decisions in defining the practices and acquiring the resources to make effective change in where you work.

May you be productive and effective where-ever you find yourself working.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning, so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

Image credit (woman on train): Shutterstock

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