Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mobile Worker

By 2009, one-quarter of the world’s working population will be mobile workers, according to a July 2007 study issued by Cisco Systems Inc., titled “Understanding and Managing the Mobile Workforce.” Before you doubt that a quarter of your work force is or ever will be mobile, consider the categories of mobile workers identified in the study:

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* On-site movers work at one site, but move around within it, e.g., security guards and IT technicians.
* Yo-yos occasionally work away from a fixed location, e.g., jobs that require business trips.
* Pendulums alternate between working at two fixed locations, e.g., the company office and a client’s office or home office.
* Nomads work in a number of different places and constantly move between them, e.g., a sales rep calling on many customers a day.
* Carriers work while they move, transporting goods or people, e.g., train conductors and airline attendants.

Research firm IDC claims that the number of mobile workers is increasing faster than home-based workers and that mobile workers are more productive. But companies need to pay special attention to hiring the right kinds of employees, and managing them properly, in order to realize the productivity and efficiency benefits of a mobile workforce.

The process actually starts with hiring the right type of managers for mobile workers. They must be results-oriented rather than process-driven. That is, they need to be comfortable seeing only what mobile workers get done and not what they're doing moment to moment. Managers must be at ease with email, instant messaging, video conferencing and plain old phone calls as their means of communicating with mobile workers. Managers must also be able to empathize with workers whom they don’t see often in order to know when someone is under stress or is feeling isolated from the team. Finally, managers must know how often and in what tone to communicate with mobile workers.

The Cisco Systems study identified several personality types that characterize successful mobile workers. Note that more than one of these personality types may manifest in any given employee.

* Stimulation Seekers: Extroverted and seek contact with people, want to go out and see clients
* Tough Survivors: Emotionally stable, with low levels of neuroticism and the ability to cope well with pressure
* Curious Explorers: Creative, open-minded and seek a variety of experiences
* Independent Decision-Makers: Like to work without supervision
* Disciplined Achievers: Conscientious and self-motivated

When recruiting mobile workers or selecting employees for a project that involves mobile work, it's important to test candidates for resiliency under pressure, either through interviewing, testing or by examining the candidates’ track records. Additional competencies that should be assessed include communication skills, customer focus, planning and organizing, flexibility and adaptability, and the ability to build relationships.

Mobile workers should also be asked to demonstrate the ability to communicate through various technological media. This task will give candidates a look at what’s expected of them, and some may deselect themselves.

Mobile workers may be at greater risk for physical and mental health problems than stationary workers. Travel can make it difficult to eat properly, exercise and sleep. Isolation from the support of colleagues can allow mental strain to build up to unhealthy levels.

Many mobile workers lack sufficient technology tools to get their jobs done efficiently — a situation that leads to greater stress. It's management’s job to see that mobile workers get the tools they need, to build supportive communication channels and to help employees achieve a healthy work-life balance. Strategies such as relaxation exercises and positive self-talk techniques will help mobile workers manage negative emotions, in the absence of peer support.

Of course, it's vital that mobile workers be equipped with proper and reliable technology. The basic “road warrior” kit includes a mobile phone, a laptop computer, secure remote access to the corporate network and easily accessed communication systems (instant messaging, email and voice mail). IT support should be available when needed. Rather than forbidding all personal calls on company cell phones, technology should encourage easy contact with workers’ support networks when they're feeling isolated.

To combat feelings of isolation, managers should act as bridges between mobile and office workers, building lines of support between the groups and helping them understand each other’s unique problems. One way to do this is to encourage mobile workers to share photos of their home offices and the places they visit with the office staff. Regular video conferences between office and mobile workers can help maintain team relationships. The use of instant messaging and “presence” software, which informs everyone on a network who is online and where they are, can help mobile workers feel noticed and included.

To take full advantage of mobile work environments, managers must be willing to give up some control and work to build individual relationships with mobile workers. The right kinds of employees for mobile work environments must be selected based on the appropriate criteria. Office and mobile staff must form supportive relationships. And finally, mobile workers must be equipped with the technology tools and psychological support that they need.

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