Like many people, on August 30th I read with interest a BBC news article titled Emails while commuting ‘should count as work’. The thrust of the narrative was to report on new research findings conducted by the University of the West of England into how people utilised free wi-fi on Chiltern Railways. The research was carried out over a 40-week period over which bandwidth was increased from 20mb to 125mb. To cut to the chase, of the 3000 travellers interviewed over that time, an impressive 60% made use of it. Of equal interest, and what ultimately grabbed all the headlines was the recurring commentary that commuters were using it to catch up on work emails and similar digital tasks both to and from their workplaces.
Whilst it may not surprise many that this is the case – not least anyone commuting to work – this has opened up the debate as to how do you manage and police the working day. And where is the line between the so-called work/life balance. Valid though this debate may be, I feel that it is missing a crucial point. The role of technology in creating a productive workplace.
Rather than asking whether doing emails while commuting should count as work, should we not be asking whether we need to commute altogether? After all, unified communications allow us to work with an array of productivity and collaboration media anywhere there’s an IP connection. And if so, can’t many of us do that from the comfort of our own homes?
I can accept that some jobs cannot be undertaken outside of an office, but there’s an awful lot that can. Isn’t that partly why those ‘surveyed’ commuters are doing their emails outside of work, because they can! Surely it doesn’t need a huge leap to remove the middle man from this equation and cut out the commute, if not altogether, certainly in part for most people involved? Imagine! In one fell swoop we could free up seating/standing space on trains and buses, saving people hundreds if not thousands of pounds in annual travel costs, improve their work/life balance by not having to leave home early or return late. It’s environmentally friendly too and according to research by the University of Montreal, 20 minutes or more commuting makes you liable for chronic stress too. So what’s gone wrong?
Unified communications has been around a very long time. Its history dates back to the 1980s, though realistically for most businesses it found its early niche at the close of the 1990s when IP telephony, video and messaging began to enter the mainstream as a combined entity and challenged the traditional siloed PBX market. Companies like Selsius and IPFX (to name two) were the early pathfinders, and though not exactly household names in their own right, they laid much of the groundwork for what we now know and use as UC. Selsius in particular was acquired by Cisco Systems at the turn of the century and quickly rebadged itself as Cisco Call Manager. And the rest as they say is history.
Part of the purpose of unified communications was to remove many of the legacy working barriers that held businesses back, such as having to operate from a single geographical location, like an office. Every day we use our smartphones to connect and collaborate with friends, family and work colleagues. In fact, IP and the internet is so integral to our daily lives, as consumers we’re watching more streaming TV than traditional terrestrial television and in just a few years telephone calls will only be available over IP. My point is that as consumers we’ve naturally adapted to new media, using them when and where we choose. It’s a benefit. It’s convenient. Yet as professional people, we still struggle to harness this power and value because of our outdated working practices.
The real benefit of UC is its ability to let people act (and react) when and where they need with a wide array of different communications tools at their disposal. Working while commuting certainly fulfils a part of this functionality yet collaborating while mobile is typically reduced to email and phone calls. However, with new collaboration tools such as Cisco’s Webex Teams in place, the user can have the same experience everywhere with access to the full gamut of UC services including document sharing and project communities.
So, we end where we began: Should working while commuting count as work? I guess it comes down to the job you do and the choices you make to accomplish it. Personally, I’d like to see more businesses embracing the opportunity that the latest technologies can enable within the modern workplace – wherever that is. And furnished with the right mobile tools you can make the UC experience more consistent across all platforms, even while commuting. The promise of ubiquitous collaboration is finally here, at last. Embrace it.
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