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From homeworking to homeless working

The challenges of extreme flexible working

We say you can work pretty much anywhere in the emerging world of Smart Working. The first half of 2014 has given me a chance to put this to the test. Spending time in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dubai dealing with a house move that left me temporarily homeless, plus an unplanned eye operation – it’s been an eventful and very mobile few months. And it’s given me the opportunity to test out ‘extreme flexible working’.

So what do you need to be able to work anywhere?

Mobile technologies
Andy's mobile kit laid out on the desk of a budget hotel

 My ultra-mobile kit consists of:

  • Wheeled laptop bag – essential for travelling
  • Sony Vaio laptop
  • Samsung tablet (and Tesco tablet case - functional but not glamorous)
  • iPhone
  • Wireless dongle – a lifesaver in the UK
  • Plantronics Savi  headset
  • Voxhub VoIP phone connection, with X-Lite softphone
  • Voice recorder
  • A fetching man-bag for travelling light with just the tablet.

Who needs an office with this kit to hand?

Working in England in China

I spent a month in China over Christmas and New Year. Apart from the festivities and family activities, it was also the time for some intensive writing, plus finishing one project and beginning another.

Using home broadband and the almost ubiquitous wifi in cafés and malls I was able to work pretty much as I do in the UK. And I found a great bookshop/workhub called Bookworm – check it out if you’re ever in Beijing or one of their other locations around China.

Fears about the broadband not being up to making calls using the softphone and VoIP were not realised. I conducted many hours of interviews, meetings and conference calls, and people said it sounded like I was calling from the next room – clearer than people joining the meetings from UK landlines, in fact. Good battery life on the headset was important, and the noise-cancelling was effective. If not there could have been interesting sounds from the background perhaps – no one else was able to hear the fierce winter wind rattling the window panes and whistling around our 21st floor north-facing (and extremely cold!) apartment.

I was able to use a range of conferencing technologies - the in-house conference call system of a large UK client (dialing in via my VoxHub VoIP service) GoToMeeting, Lync and Skype.

And I'm a user of some cloud services too: Office365 for email on the move syncronised with Outlook, and websites I can update from anywhereusing various services and software. Except the Wordpress ones: the Chinese authorities block the administrative features of Wordpress as well as many websites based on it. LinkedIn works there, but not seamlessly. No Facebook or Twitter, but I haven't been using these for work purposes.

Back on the plus side, Beijing has a mobile signal throughout the underground transport system, putting it ahead of cities like London for connectivity.

In Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dubai it was mainly a question of working in hotels, which all offer good wifi. And airports, of course. Mainstream stuff these days.

Was it paper-free working? Almost, except for notes made in interviews in my ever-present notebooks. But I did very extensive reviewing and proof-reading for articles and reports – it can be done without printing off copies after all. Not having a printer really helps to keep the paper down.

Homeless working in Cambridgeshire

Before Christmas our house sale seemed to be petering out with endless problems from the people buying from us, or rather the people buying from them, and so on down the chain. This is common in England. We didn’t have a house to buy at this stage, but were looking to rent for a while till it became clear which country we would most live in.

Suddenly the house sale came back to life, and everyone in the purchasing chain wanted to move in a hurry before it all collapsed again. So I moved out, only to be told that the house we had booked to rent wasn’t actually ready. So this meant staying with friends for a while, and then a variety of hotels when I working away with clients.

On the moving in date I collected the keys and the house still wasn’t fit for habitation – repairs not completed and the house in desperate need of a thorough clean-up. With my wife back in China, I refused to move the furniture in and went back to hotel living, then spent the final couple of days before going to Dubai on some sofa cushions brought out of storage. Bed by night and piled up to make a chair by day.

This was when the wireless dongle came into its own, being the channel for work, phone calls via VoIP and also TV in the evening. I’m far too old to be doing this sort of thing, by the way. But though my domestic life was upside down or in storage, hopefully the work was seamless.

Then the hospital

With the house sorted out, superfast broadband installed, home office set-up, everything was back on track. The one morning I woke up with the vision in my left eye blurry and obscured by a big cobwebby ‘floater’. A call to the optician, a trip to the Accident & Emergency clinic and the next day I was on the operating table.
I anticipated a lot of waiting around during these hospital trips, and with the prospect of being out of action for a while took along the urgent work to do. And yep, I could do it all from the patients waiting areas.

The procedure is best described as dentistry for the eyes, with needles, probes, implements connected to long metal hose things that looked for all the world like dentist drills, and doctors leaning over me with bright lights.  After that – it didn’t matter how many bits of kit I had: work was not a possibility for several days, anywhere, anytime.

The moral of the story?

Really the lessons are twofold. I’ve been able to travel more extensively, to live for a while in other places by having the means to overcome the constraints of distance.

But it’s also cultural. With the nature of the projects I’m doing, writing about the future of work and helping large organisations to develop strategies and guidance for smart working, working in this way is a natural way to do things. The work itself becomes part of the awareness-raising and cultural change process.

Then there’s work-life balance. Life became somewhat manic and unpredictable for a while, but I was able to manage work and my various other responsibilities and interests at the same time.

And finally it’s an object lesson in business continuity. Losing my base for work, I was still able to operate effectively as a homeless homeworker.

Perhaps you should try it sometime.


Homeless working

May 2014


Being footloose

How much do we need an office. Or a home office for that matter. Or even a home?

Andy Lake reflects on the experience of not just being able to work anywhere, but having to when life throws up the unexpected.

This is about using smart working on both a planned and unplanned basis.





















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