Would the real mobile worker please stand up?

Who really is the mobile worker? I'm asking this because if you want to control risk around mobile work, you have to know what mobility adds to the work and how this fits with decisions about the time and place of work. A bus driver, a mobile hairdresser and a consultant are not all mobile in the same way. The mobile bits of work are not often not what they seem. Consider Fergus, the National Park fee collector who I wrote about recently in my blog. Fergus is a part-time fee collector in Deua National Park, NSW and he gets around on a motor bike collecting fees, providing information to park users and managers and helping out with maintaining the park. I'm arguing here that Fergus's work has more in common with a mobile office worker than you would think. Lets take research on mobile work and compare these three jobs for a start.

Rachel Cohen created three categories in her research on mobile work.

I'm thinking here about where Fergus' work fits into one of Cohen's three broad groups: being mobile at work, being mobile for work, and being mobile while working. The subtle differences in the joining words makes a huge difference in the source of and options for managing risk.

In the bus driver's job, being 'in motion' is critical to success. The bus driver is unlikely to be involved in accidents if she does not get the bus moving on the road, but she is then not doing her job. Using Cohen's mobile work types, her main task involves being mobile AT work. The mobile hairdresser only has to arrive safely at another location. He does not cut hair while driving. He is mobile FOR work. He could, however, order stocks while driving. The third group is being mobile WHILE working. This combines (but not completely) the first two groups. Being mobile WHILE working is, to a certain extent, discretionary. Productive tasks are done while on the move, though these could be done when just moving (eg selling a ticket when rolling away from the bus stop), while stopped for a moment (eg at traffic lights), as an added task while moving (eg while driving at full speed), at a formal but temporary stop enroute (the bus interchange) or on final arrival (thought tickets may or may not be sold at the bus depot). For the bus driver, selling tickets can be mobile AT work and less like being mobile FOR work (for a solo driver, tickets must be sold in transit). For a bus conductor, tickets are sold while the bus is moving so the nature of the task and risk are different. The system of work is critical to both safety and business outcomes.

Being mobile FOR work means the actual work is done at the end-points, what happens in the middle has to happen safely and no other work-related tasks are done. The work of a consultant flying between Canberra and Sydney then blurs the boundaries. The work does not happen if the change of location does not happen, but the consultant does not fly the plane. They may, however, drive a car.

To be mobile WHILE working is to choose to add a task to another task. The consultant who adds a phone call while driving between cities is being mobile WHILE working and has a choice. The bus driver has less choice has competing tasks of selling and driving, the conductor literally stands and walks somewhere between the two. The consultant could fly or drive. Working out the costs and benefits of the risk of accidents and risk of loss of productivity from travel time and lack of availability (driving takes longer) can make your head hurt.

Back to Fergus. The way I see it, the simple view is that Fergus is less mobile AT work and more mobile FOR work. He moves between campsites and collects money. The fee collection part of his job could be done in many other ways. Fergus, however, is a professional and does other things. He points out where the local platypus lives and investigates acts of vandalism. The challenge with Fergus's work is that the very valuable parts of his job, collecting information or improving vistors enjoyment of the part by acting a bit as a tour guide, require him to be constantly moving between parts of the park. Making sure Fergus is both safe and productive is hardest when Fergus's attention could be divided by two tasks done at once - taking video footage or talking on the radio while driving his motor cycle.

You can read about Rachel Cohen's research here:

Cohen, Rachel Lara Rethinking ‘mobile work’: boundaries of space, time and social relation in the working lives of mobile hairstylists http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/7355/81/WES_Rethinking_mobile_work_Final.pdf