The Mobile Workforce: Are There Enough Coffee Shops to Handle Us All?

One result (among many) of the past couple of years has been the number of people who are “mobile” workers. Some of these mobile workers are actually looking for work, or as I like to call them “self-employed with deferred compensation”. Some of the mobile workers are like me. I have opted to work out of a home office, using multiple locations to hold meetings and to work in different environments. Some of these workers, according to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (1/1/2011 More of Work force decides to cut strings, written by Christopher Quinn) still work for companies, the just work remotely.
As companies had to tighten their belts they looked for ways to cut costs and one way was to reduce office space. They put people into situations of “space sharing” and allowing them to work remotely when it was their time to be out of the office. In some cases they eliminated almost all of their office space and had everyone go “virtual.” One outcome of this I have seen is it offered the employees flexibility as to where they could live.  (As an example, in our company one of us lives in the mountains. The rest of us live closer to the city.) This makes people more productive. They are happier, they spend less time in non-productive commutes. My wife works remotely when she is not traveling, and as a result her company gets 10-15 hours more work from her.
As the size of the mobile workforce has increased space for the mobile workforce has become an issue. Starbucks used to be a favorite place for people to meet. However, often they are so crowded that a seat is at a premium. So other places have started offering free Wi-Fi in order to attract people to  their location. So today you can plop down and open your computer and work at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Waffle House, or Panera, just to name a few. One Atlanta based company, Chick-fil-a, not only offers Wi-Fi but a few locations have turned their play areas into business meeting rooms, in order to accommodate the increasing demand.
There have even been businesses that have sprung up to meet the demand of the mobile worker to have an “office” and a place to meet people without really being tied to a permanent location. In the Atlanta area Roam, The Hub, and Strongbox West, offer locations that provide levels of office space and services, either on a monthy arrangement or and ad hoc fee. These places have been attractive to mobile workers because, in addition to giving them a place to settle for a time, they offer a more “social” environment than their spare bedroom. They meet people, form business associations, learn of prospects and just make friends. I have seen this same dynamic in my local Starbucks as well.
The stigma of being a mobile worker has also diminished greatly. A decade ago someone who worked out of a Starbucks would often be viewed as “amatuerish”. Not today however, in fact you may even be viewed as trendy, or cutting edge or flexible. There are still some issues for mobile workers that work in larger companies. The HR or managerial issues include things such as “Why can’t I work from home too?” or “How do I know my employee is really working?” These are not issues unknown to the world of the mobile worker. You do have to have the right person in place, doing a job suitable to mobile work, and you have to measure on productivity NOT attendance. Some managers have a very hard time with that last point.
Regardless, the world of the mobile worker is expanding. Jobs will be designed to incorporate this capability. The only problem many of us have in working in mobile locations is the VOLUME OF THE MUSIC. Sometimes the music is turned up too loud and that interferes with thought, face-to-face conversation and phone conversations. Well, space is an issue too. Some places, many Starbucks in fact, are just too small on some days. It has been quite awhile at my local Starbucks since I have been able to sit in the leather chair because they are in such demand. I would suggest that locations, of all sorts, look at their customer demographics and see if some adjustments need to be made. Just a thought.

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