In the introduction to this series, I claimed that despite the revolution in consumer communication over the last few years, business communication has remained relatively unchanged. But of course, there has been one very significant recent change – the rise of mobile.
I find the term “mobile” somewhat hard to pin down. Business users have been able to access email remotely from a laptop for at least 15 years – is that “mobile”? And I am fascinated by the way Google Analytics considers access from a tablet device to be “mobile”, but access from a laptop is not. Someone suggested to me that a device can be characterised as mobile if you can use it standing up. I can see the logic in that, but any iPad user will know how difficult it is to write a message on an iPad outside on a bright, sunny day while standing up. So is “mobile” defined by device weight? By device size? Or by its always-on internet connectivity?
Of course, such definitions are not really necessary. What is important is the recognition that we have fewer barriers to staying connected while out of the office. This is obviously very useful, but it brings with it greater temptation to fall into poor communication habits. And while mobile offers greater opportunity to stay connected, it also raises the risk of missing important information.
An example: in late 2011, News International (NI) were under intense scrutiny in the UK for their alleged role in illegally accessing voicemails of celebrities and, in one particularly emotive case, a murdered schoolgirl. James Murdoch, CEO of NI, was questioned by a parliamentary committee after appearing to mislead them about whether he received an email in 2008 describing the extent of the illegal activity at NI. He apologised to the committee when it emerged he had indeed received the email, but he claimed that he had not scrolled down to read the full message because he picked it up on his Blackberry at the weekend.
Whether or not you choose to believe Murdoch (and many didn’t), it’s entirely plausible that it might be true, because we’ve all done something similar. I once had an long argument with a company who had billed me for renewal of a subscription service without notifying me in advance. During the course of the argument they demonstrated that they actually had notified me – but I had read the message on my phone while I was on holiday and completely forgotten about it. I still owe them an apology that I haven’t got round to making yet.
So while we can now read and reply to business messages on trains and buses, on the beach or in the bath, should we be doing so? I’m sure we have all received many typo-littered or bizarrely auto-corrected email replies that end with the ubiquitous “sent from my Blackberry / iPhone / Android device” signature. There are times when the urgency of the reply outweighs the loss of quality of the response. But there are plenty of times where it doesn’t, and the recipient would have been perfectly happy to wait an hour until you were at a proper keyboard in the office, rather than quickly typing a unintelligible reply on your iPhone while waiting for traffic lights to change. Just because real-time technology exists doesn’t mean we need to use it all the time. Twitter users are particularly guilty of this, where immediacy is considered more important than accuracy.
The same is true with voice communication. I have been on many conference calls that have been badly disrupted by the road noise from someone taking the call in their car, or the background sound of a home worker’s dog or children. It’s surely not that hard to learn how to mute and unmute your phone. Similarly, many people consider it the height of bad manners for others to answer phone calls during meetings . Yes, there may be occasions when it is genuinely essential to take the call as soon as it comes in, but more often than not it is an ego thing – deluding yourself that the business cannot survive without you being available every moment of the day and night.
Mobile business communication etiquette is still not very well defined and frequently abused. Just because you can reply now doesn’t mean you should. Ask yourself whether it would be better to wait until you were less distracted, and with a better keyboard. If you’re in a noisy public place, would be it be better to miss the conference call and catch up later? Not what’s better for you, but what’s better for the other participants in the discussion or the call.
The recent progress in mobile communication is a fantastic business asset. Let’s learn how to use it responsibly.