Smart Moves: In charge and on the road

The new breed of nomadic managers relies on laptops and mobiles in the passenger seat, writes Robert Nurden
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The Independent Online
Bridget's car grinds to a halt in traffic on the M4 near Reading. But she stays cool. Instead of the hold-up being a cue for thumping the steering wheel or letting rip with some ripe swear words, she quietly turns to the passenger seat, keys into her laptop and starts working.

In Glasgow, 400 miles away, Marge stops for a quick business meeting at Seattle Coffee with two members of her team, and then is back on the road.

Sylvia's mobile phone rings as she speeds round the M25, late for an appointment with a client. She groans as the name of her boss in Birmingham lights up on the display and switches on the voice-mail.

Britain's growing band of mobile managers spend as much as 80 per cent of their working day on the road. Their car - specifically the passenger seat - is their office, from where decisions are made and communicated, calls received from bosses and clients, and paperwork processed. The electronic tools of the four-wheeled office are the laptop, e-mail, voice- mail, mobile phone and fax.

In 1993 there were estimated to be over two million nomadic workers in the UK, of which 60,000 were car-based, and that figure has grown since then.

Meet You at Junction 17, recent research by the Economic and Social Research Council, unveils the working lives of six nomadic junior and middle managers. Their jobs range from the personnel officer of a delivery company to the rep for a provider of credit facilities to department stores.

The survey's findings show that life for car-workers is hectic, pressured and stressful. Yet for all the electronic contact, the roaming managers themselves - a growing number are women - find the itinerant life a lonely one.

But the mobile workers must display lots of resourcefulness to survive. Their mobile phones are switched on from the moment they step into their cars, often as early as 5am. They listen to their voice mail en route to appointments, take calls selectively - screening is revealed as a finely crafted skill - dictate faxes and letters and instruct secretaries back at base.

They have to re-invent the concept of "office hours" to give themselves breaks. Sometimes, to gain a breather, they pretend that their mobile phones have broken down. The unreliability of network coverage works to their advantage. All this is done while negotiating motorways and traffic jams. Yet hold-ups are a godsend as two hands become available. Bridget didn't know why mobile workers chose cars with manual gear systems rather than automatic, which free up another arm.

Because of their remoteness, roaming managers put a lot of store on trust, the survey found. Unlike office workers, they can not show how hard they work, so they devise other ways of gaining people's confidence. They spend time building trust with office-based staff, clients and their team mates.

Throughout the country there are favoured places for meetings. One of the most popular is the service station at Junction 17 of the M4. Here, in a quiet corner of a cafe that serves good espresso coffee and pastries, thousands of contacts take place.

At 7.30pm Jane is heading back to Glasgow. She grabs a folder from the passenger seat, collides with the curb and flings the work away, frightened by her drowsiness. She still has to pick up her children. After she has put them to bed, there's tomorrow's presentation to prepare.

The other gypsy workers lurch towards home too. But by the end of the six-week survey two of them have resigned. "I've had enough of moving around," says Sylvia. "I miss stopping and chatting to colleagues in the corridor."

`Meet You at Junction 17: A Socio-technical study of the mobile office' by ESRC (01793 413117).