Reflections on the Month of Mobile

It’s been a couple weeks since I returned from my month on the East Coast, and I’ve had a chance to catch up on some sleep and otherwise recover from the grand experiment of working 100% remotely on mobile devices. I have officially gone “back to the office”. (Though, was I ever really gone, technically speaking?)

I’ve already shared some of my learnings over the past month, but curious folks have been asking for a recap and I wanted to address some of the most common questions that I’ve been getting. In some ways, the experiment was a success (I definitely proved I could do all my work while away from the office with only mobile devices) and in some ways it was a disaster (I’m pretty sure I shaved off a couple years off my life due to the stress). Let me explain…

Was it hard?

Yes, it was d*mn hard. But not for the reasons you might think.

A lot of folks assumed I would be fumbling all over touch keyboards and struggling to read documents on a small screen but I never had those issues. I’ve become proficient with all manner of touchscreen keyboards (Swype et al) and I had an attachable keyboard for the times I needed to compose long form documents (like blog posts). Also, my smallest screen was 4.7″ (the HTC One) and I’ve read everything from news feeds to books comfortably on that. 🙂

No, the struggle was not with hardware. Rather, it came down to managing expectations for the people around me and my colleagues back at home. There were several factors that worked against me:

  • The additional commitment of customer visits. Really, this was more my fault for being overly ambitious to volunteer for 13 visits to customers while I was on the East Coast. Don’t get me wrong – the visits were eye-opening, inspiring, and led to great feedback for our product – but the fact that this was in addition to my daily responsibilities basically meant I was taking on a second job. Visiting a customer is not just waltzing into an office and chatting it up with an IT admin; there is prep work to be done beforehand, tons of notes to be taken during the visit, and lots of writeup and follow up actions afterwards. It really could be a full-time job to visit customers, but I set the expectation that I would be doing it without any impact to my duties back at home – meaning no Out of Office message or block on my calendar. It was a stress-inducing mistake, one that was exacerbated by…
  • The time zone difference. 3 hours between the East Coast and California meant a lot more than it originally seemed. It meant that even though I would have to be at a customer’s office at 10am EDT, I would still have to work until at least 8pm EDT (5pm PDT). And that would just be the meetings… everyone knows meetings just block real work from getting done, so all my long form writing, email, and any tasks that take real concentration would drag the day on past 2am EDT. Pretty much every night – for a month. In some ways, the extra 3 hours “gave” me more time to work, but in the end it was really just shredding off time from my sleep schedule.Another troublesome side effect of the time zone difference is that it disrupts any meals you might have planned. I stayed with family throughout most of my trip, but I rarely ate with them because “dinner time” was right smack in the middle of my workday back in California.
  • The lack of good network connectivity. When working remotely, the importance of a solid, reliable network connection cannot be overstated. You need it to make smooth video calls, VPN into company servers, and transfer large files (through Box, of course). I was operating most days primarily off of a 4G LTE Verizon MiFi card, in a neighborhood where it would flip to 3G every once in a while. Painful to say the least…
  • The excessive amount of time I had to be in transit. Again, probably my fault for trying to take on 4 cities during the trip, but there was a lot of time burned in just moving myself around. Some customers were also in rather remote areas, which required extra research and attention to transit/transfers – all additional chaos which was typically invisible to my colleagues back at the office. Of course, they had their own problems…
  • Crises back at the office. Just as it is difficult for folks back in the office to understand the challenging schedule I was working with, it was also difficult for me to follow along with some of the fire drills that broke out while I was remote. We shipped updates to most of our mobile apps while I was remote, some more urgent than others – and I’m sure there were times when there would be a piece of the story I missed just because the communication didn’t happen through a recorded channel (like email) or a meeting. It’s understandable, but it also made things more challenging for just me as I was the only one remote, and the only one that had to ‘catch up’ in several circumstances.

Clearly, the challenges I experienced were more about the nature of remote work rather than the difficulty of using mobile devices – but if anything, that is a good sign for the future of mobile productivity. I had my fair share of device-related mishaps (e.g. running out of power on all my devices without a charger), but working on mobile devices was not troublesome for the most part.

How did you stay productive?

This question usually stems from the assumption that being remote and mobile meant that I was mostly unproductive – which really couldn’t be farther from the truth. On the contrary, my levels of productivity – and stress, for that matter – skyrocketed. I was taking on more responsibility (i.e. the customer visits), I was more responsive to communication (because I was constantly on IM or email), and my sheer amount of output was far higher than at any other time I’ve worked for Box. In fact, the only time I can recall I was more productive (and similarly stressed about it) was when I was playing BizDev with 45 web hosting providers before a launch date at Microsoft…

Now, the price I paid for these experiences was high – it meant I had very little opportunity to interact with the people in my direct vicinity and little chance to actually explore/enjoy my surroundings. I visited New York City, Boston, Washington DC, and Toronto on this trip – and the only sightseeing I could do was in between meetings/calls/emails/fires. So to people around me, I was absorbed in my phone pretty much 90% of the time.

Here is an actual picture taken of me while in a hotel lobby (not staged). I was plugged into a meeting back at HQ and was basically holding up dinner:

Mobile warrior pose

Conclusion here: Mobile devices keep you productive, all the time. To a fault.

Which productivity apps did you use? Did you cheat at all and have to use a full computer at any point?

Well, to be truly honest, I did have a bit of an unfair advantage in this experiment because I was using a Surface Pro as my primary tablet… So my “killer app” was Office. Also Box:

The Box app for Windows works great!

Other than that, while on my other tablets/phones, these were my primary “work” apps:

  • Box (of course!) – for accessing content and creating shared links for sending in email, but also for light collaboration (commenting on files) and the occasional (very small) edits on simple documents
  • Google Hangouts (Talk) – because being on IM day and night was essential
  • Skype – I gave in and subscribed to a month of Skype Unlimited so I could make calls to landlines without using my minutes
  • QuickOffice – I would open files from the Box app in this to make minor changes, and Box would upload them back after saving
  • Office Mobile – I only used this for PowerPoint files when I needed to see the slide notes
  • OneNote – Only until Box Notes on mobile is ready 🙂
  • CamScanner – for scanning receipts and business cards (though several other good options are detailed in this post)
  • Concur – for expense reports
  • TripIt – for keeping track of my ridiculously complex travel schedule

At the same time, during the course of the month, I found the need to download these other apps as well:

  • Glympse – to let people know where I was as a meeting approached
  • Speedtest.net – to test my 4G connection before doing anything bandwidth intensive
  • Hotel Tonight – used one time to get a last minute place to stay in Washington DC
  • Spotcycle – for looking up bike sharing stations to get around town
  • Stitcher Radio – to get my tech podcast fix
  • TripAdvisor – for the little sightseeing that I was able do

It’s important to consider that my role is not that specialized (i.e. I’m not like a construction worker or in a medical profession that might need industry-specific apps), so my primary mobile use cases revolved around communication and Office documents – hence the limited diversity of apps above. I have a feeling that anyone willing to try this mobile-only experiment would end up with a completely different list of apps, with “email” as the only surefire commonality.

What now?

Well, now that I’m settling back into a much welcomed state of normalcy, I’m going to catch up on a month’s worth of sleep and take some time to slow down and enjoy my surroundings again. Maybe take a real vacation. 🙂

Back in the office, I seem to have gotten so acclimated to the Surface Pro that I can’t stop using it… my old laptops are still sitting powered off in my drawer. So it looks like I’m going to continue being mobile-only for the foreseeable future!

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