Saturday, January 31, 2009

Beware portable office creep

Last night I visited Toronto's biggest shopping mall to buy an outfit for an upcoming special event. Let it be said that the last week of January is ,without a doubt, the saddest and most unproductive time of the year to shop for apparel. At store after store the offerings comprised leftover Boxing Day sales and a few pieces of "cruisewear" but that's another story.

The reason the shopping trip made its way into my etiquette blog is something unusual I witnessed at the mall. A particularly spacious part of the facility features oversized leather benches, which are quite comfortable by mall standards. One of these benches was completely covered by the various acoutriments of a gentleman who had decided that a busy shopping centre was the ideal place to establish a portable office.

He was tapping away on a laptop computer which was plugged into an outlet underneath the bench. In addition he had a BlackBerry connected to the computer, a massive leather briefcase open and lying on its side with its contents spilling out precariously, manilla folders stuffed with paperwork, loose pieces of paper, pens, notebooks, a bulky winter overcoat and an MP3 player. When I came upon him, he was having a conversation on a cell phone separate from the one which was charging in the computer.

Almost every inch of the bench was covered with his stuff and he was completely unperturbed by the admonishing looks of passersby (myself included). While this is the first time I've seen someone set up shop in a mall (pun intended), I've been noticing a trend towards people working in coffee shops, libraries and other public spaces, perhaps a casualty of the economic downturn.

I have no issue with the portable office concept. Technology has liberated us from the traditional work space and, with enough bandwidth, we can conduct business from anywhere. Add an expresso frapuccino and some jazz music and you're all set. Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises in some of Paris' finest and dingiest establishments.

Of course Hemingway didn't have to wrestle with electronic etiquette. In today's world, the portable employee needs to remember that they're not in their own home, office or home office and as such, be mindful of others with whom they share the space - people who are trying to relax, shop or just buy coffee. As always with etiquette, the golden rule is to always keep in mind the comfort level of others. Herewith, the five commandments of the portable office:

1. Thou shalt not leave your computer cables and wires snaking all over the floor for unsuspecting customers to trip over.
2. Thou shalt not take a table for four if you are a party of one. Your briefcase does not count as a person.
3. Thou shalt not conduct loud business calls meant for the privacy of a real office. No one else wants to hear about your plans to overthrow the global widget industry.
4. Thou shalt turn your cell phone ringer to vibrate. I'm sure you love Beyonce but maybe other guests would rather not listen to a tinny rendition of Crazy In Love while you use the washroom.
5. Thou shalt not buy one coffee and stay all day. That's just rude!

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