Ditching the Cube: How More Workers are Using Mobile Technology to Escape the Office

We’re sure you’ve seen them: the lone person sitting in a café or restaurant, tablet or laptop propped up on the table in front of them, perhaps tapping on their smartphone at the same time. They sure look busy. And the quick glance you stole at their screen as you walked by showed they’re not on tmz.com or Facebook. Who are these people and what are they doing here in the middle of the day?

They could very well be among the growing ranks of telecommuters, remote workers, or freelancers who have elected to ditch the cube and work from someplace other than a traditional office – a trend made possible by a combination of shifting attitudes about the nature of the workplace and advances in mobile technology.

The birth of laptop computers, even in the days of dial-up wired Internet access, could be seen as the start of the trend toward working remotely. Suddenly, you didn’t need to be sitting at your desk in the office to get your work done. You could take your laptop home, or even to some other location, where all you had to do was “plug in” to access your office network and sip coffee while you worked.

The growth of high-speed wireless networks and the proliferation of public Wi-Fi sent even more workers heading towards the door and into the coffee place – laptop, tablet or smartphone in hand – with the blessing of willing employers who saw that such flexibility lowered costs, raised productivity and boosted morale among employees who embraced their newfound independence and better work-life balance outside the cubicle.

A recent study by ConnectSolutions details some of the mutual benefits remote working arrangements have for both employers and employees, and cites mobile technology as key to making them possible. According to the study, email, instant messaging and video conferencing lead the list of applications most used by mobile workers, and 40 percent of the people surveyed say they’re “able to conduct at least half their total workload on a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device.”

A screen is a screen is a screen, and more and more employers are less and less concerned about whether their employees are working on those screens in a cubicle or someplace else.

But getting back to our earlier question: who are these people?

It’s as hard to pin down as the workers themselves. Some could be those who work entirely or part-time away from the office. Others may be your traditional “road warriors” – like salespeople – whose jobs have them on the road all the time going from client to client. Still others may be the self-employed: sole practitioners, consultants or freelancers who work for themselves and don’t need the overhead associated with renting office space.

Whoever they are, they may work alone but they’re clearly not alone. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one in ten U.S. workers – more than 13 million in 2010 – were considered remote workers, up from just over 9 million in 1997.

But what do these independent-minded people do when the allure of the living room or the coffee shop fades and the need for some company or collaboration takes over?

Enter the shared workspace.

Another growing trend, especially in urban areas, is the popularity of shared workspaces or coworking spaces – places where remote workers can rent space to work, hold meetings, collaborate with other remote workers, and network. Some co-working spaces cater to people in a similar field, others are open to anyone. Most offer the ability to choose between daily, weekly or monthly rates and typically include access to wireless networks, some office equipment, and even the occasional Keurig and box of doughnuts. And they seem to be popping up everywhere.

According to deskmag.com, a website devoted to coworking, “almost 300,000 people worked in nearly 6,000 coworking spaces worldwide” last year.

Call it a movement, call it a trend, one thing is clear: the nature of the traditional workspace is changing, and mobile technology is helping to lead the way.

John O’Malley is a public relations manager with Verizon Wireless. Follow him on Twitter at: @VZWjohno.