Working from Phone

Working from home has meant a lot more working from phones. Cell phones are a powerful tool if we can manage them.

Sometimes when I lie in bed on a weekday morning and am invited to a way too early meeting, I don’t bother to get up and move to my desk just yet. Instead, I reach for my phone, connect my headphones, take a deep breath, and bring my pillow to work.

If the meeting lasts, I can take it with me while I make my bed, get dressed, and begin to go about my day. Then at noon, I dash to the grocery store, finding the fresh air helps me digest the early meeting. All the while, my communication with my team hardly misses a beat. With luck and a cell phone filled with remote work apps, no one even notices that the times I am not tethered to my desk are beginning to outnumber the times I am.

In July last year, the New York Times reported that “the virus has changed the way we internet.” They point to a significant spike in March of daily app usage for remote work mobile apps, such as Zoom and Google Classroom. Despite the fact that the underlying mobile technology has remained much the same, smartphones have largely been up to the pandemic test. For many office workers sent home, mobile devices have become an invaluable extension of their at-home work set up, enabling flexibility to run sometimes critical errands.

When this moment of adversity is a distant memory, could we come to realize that working from home was a trojan horse for a more ubiquitous and lasting shift — working from phone?

Meatballs to Hexagons

Workplace habits have never been scrutinized more in our history. At this point, I’ve read what feels like 100 or more articles concerning the future of work. It’s been called “Work From Anywhere,“ “Hybrid Work, and “The Nowhere Office.” Julia Hobsbawm writes for Demos that “The Nowhere Office presents a future where boundaries have dissolved” and “people don’t yet have the skills to manage.” It’s a fair point. But all this management literature left me feeling less than optimistic and hardly more prepared for what might lie ahead. So, I looked for new sources of inspiration.

I uncovered one gem, a hilarious on-the-nose advertisement from Apple (the OG of creating products that shape consumer behaviors). “The whole working from home thing” is about a team with a daunting assignment, designing pandora’s box under a frenetic deadline and budget crunch, while working from home. The video is equal parts: a) hurts to watch because it’s true and b) laugh out loud in horror. But stepping over audacious moments of personal privacy and work-life balance completely disregarded, two moments stand out.

In a breakthrough moment, Bryan (the team member who, like me, takes a morning work meeting in bed) stumbles upon the design that becomes the team’s winning idea. Staring at his dinner, a dish of meatballs, he thinks of hexagon patterns. Then in another moment, Marie (another team member) quickly sends the team a picture of a honeycomb to help make Bryan’s idea more lucid.

The takeaways could not be clearer. The environment that surrounds the team was a critical part of bringing creativity to their work. The idea may have never existed without the close juxtaposition of work to real life. Then, the team’s chemistry reaches its full potential when they rapidly build on each other’s ideas. The video is hyperbole but demonstrates how tiny collaborative moments, and a sense of purpose, can create a ton of value in a mobile-centric work environment.

Cell Phone Novels

For more inspiration, I cast a wide net, looking for remarkable stories about people using cell phones for different kinds of work. I stumbled upon the (hard to believe) cell phone novel movement of the 2000s.

A profile from the New Yorker introduced me to Mone, a young woman from Japan who one day decided to write a novel about her life, curled up in bed and began typing on her mobile phone. A year later, her novel, written in installments shared on a popular media-sharing website, was published at more than three hundred pages. Alongside three other cell phone authors, her book ranked among Japan’s best sellers that year.

Mone’s impressive debut sprung from her bedroom was indicative of a fascinating new literary trend. The ability to write in bursts during stolen moments throughout the day created opportunities for those who may have felt boxed out of serious writing by time and resource commitments. Also, online platforms to share and connect with an audience of other writers became an incubator for their talent.

The earliest cell phone novels were niche and technology constrained. Since then, phones have become, well, smarter. Back then, Mone’s chapters were constrained to 200-words or less to fit into a single SMS text. Today the spirit of the earliest cell phone novelists lives on in bustling online communities of indie writers. Young writers experiment, build and share their writing habits. They frequent the many online platforms and digital tools that are available.

Wattpad, a self-described social storytelling platform for long-form writing, is one such oasis teaming with indie writers. The recent Netflix hit “Kissing Booth” originated as a story on the platform. There are over 90+ million users. In 2017, according to a company spokesperson, 70% of users were female, and 80% were Millenials or Gen Z. There is a strong inclination for mobility. In 2013, according to Publishers Weekly, “53% of Wattpad users had written a story on their phones and 85% of the time spent on Wattpad was via mobile phone or tablet.” Baked in the platform’s ethos is this mobile-centric approach. In a recent blog post, the company wrote, “You can write or edit your work on the go, whenever inspiration strikes. You can be sitting in a doctor’s office, on a train, or standing in a line while you read, edit and refine your work, or write a new chapter.”

So, what can we learn from a glance at cell phone novelists and Wattpad writers? First, there are organizational best practices. Keeping an organized and accessible system enables oneself to get in and get out of work activities quicker and with less friction. Say you have a great idea, but it takes 30 minutes to get a chance to relay that to your team; the idea could have disappeared into the ether. Cell phone writers will often create a mobile system to record thoughts when they occur, usually jotting down a quick note in their own unique short-hand in an organized system that may only be interpretable by them.

Second, there are different ways to think about interruptions. The school of thought in the workplace is that we need time for deep and concentrated work. While this remains true, and pulling oneself in and out of deep, focused work can be painful, I sense that cell phone writers do not think of interruptions with as much of a negative lens. The skill exercised to write an entire novel in stolen moments requires comfortability with managing, and sometimes just accepting that interruptions will happen. Have we considered that we over-emphasize deep-focused work? What if, instead, more of our work was better suited for a stream of conscious, stolen moments of concentrated work?

Third, working asynchronously might look and feel differently. Wattpad enables its community members to add comments and emotive reactions as in-line feedback on texts. Littered in books written on the platform are small encouraging and helpful comments from readers. In the more remote workplace, we miss some of these small interactions, like the pat on the back walking out of a good meeting or the eyebrow raised questioningly. Work that is done asynchronously with colleagues does not always need to be extensive and robust. It can be tiny moments, a text, a smiley, a mobile moment.

If I have had any broad takeaway from a year working remotely, it is that the future, much like the past, is in our own hands. It’s up to employees to work on building skills and good habits. If mobility stays as ubiquitous in the workplace as it has this pandemic year, it is well worth getting some practice.

Time to flex those thumbs.

New York City-based digital product designer, currently at Accenture Interactive. I write on Medium about behaviors, trends, and digital. Views are my own.

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