Mobile working - discussions from CIEHF 2016 conference workshop

The CIEHF annual conference is a great place to exchange ideas about ergonomics issues. Mobile Office held a workshop to give delegates an opportunity to discuss their views on mobile working, and to allow us to identify the concerns of the UK ergonomics community.

It was interesting hearing other speakers at the conference, notably around the issues of using mobile technology in the healthcare sector. Mobile devices – use of tablets and smartphones to help with patient data recording and other care functions is something which a number of other countries around the world have embraced and which the UK is catching up with.

Some key issues raised during workshop discussions, and our thoughts on those, are set out below in more detail.

Group breakout discussion - defining 'Mobile working'

The first breakout session simply asked delegates in groups to come up with a definition of mobile working. Uncontroversial enough – or so we thought!

For some delegates there was uncertainty over the term – questioning whether that phrase means using the technology / mobile devices or being able to move around when working, or both.

It was also mentioned that there was potentially some ambiguity in the word mobile, and the crossover with other areas like agile working and remote working was also acknowledged across the groups. However others felt that mobile working was a good generic term that most people would understand – not perfect but possibly the best one that we have at present. Another group understood mobile working as meaning Smartworking or better working (as terms which they were aware of and used more often), and that connectivity and working across a range of locations was a key part of it.

Working on mobile devices – smartphone, tablet, laptop, online or offline, in a range of different locations was another definition given. Wearables were also mentioned – for example reading texts or emails via a smartwatch. Connectivity to other devices such as sat-navs, and technology such as Google Glass were also included as needing some consideration under the banner of mobile working.

It's mobile working now – but will it soon just be 'working'?

An interesting comment was that what we are now calling mobile working will in the not too distant future simply be 'the way we work' and that it will be about working primarily through apps and networks as opposed to using fixed devices.

Comments on our definition of mobile working

Our original definition for mobile working was:

"Any use of smartphone, tablet, laptop or other portable display screen equipment for work activities (with the exception of using a laptop at your normal desk)."

When we put forward our original definition one comment was that it potentially excluded people who work in modern, hot-desking or fluid office environments, i.e. if someone doesn't have a 'normal' desk the definition might be seen as excluding them. This was definitely not our intention! But we understand the concern about the wording and our revised definition is:

"Any work activity carried out using mobile devices such as tablets, smartphones and laptops (with the exception of using a laptop at your usual desk, if you have one)."

The comments and discussions in the workshop were very useful, they highlighted that although mobile working is a term in fairly common use, in the ergonomics community – which is a key stakeholder – there are still differences in how it is understood. It is a key part of all types of flexible working – agile, remote, nomadic, and it spans across concepts such as Smartworking and Better working. In our view mobile working relates to the physical aspects of using mobile devices for work, and it is those physical / user aspects which are central to employers' legal risk management duties, if and when they apply a formal risk management process.

Group discussion - defining a 'Mobile DSE user' in the UK legal sense

The second breakout session asked delegate groups to come up with a definition of a 'mobile DSE user' in the legal sense (UK) – i.e. someone who uses mobile DSE to the extent, or in such a way, that their employer should take steps to manage the risks from using it for work e.g. provide training, assess the risks, implement control measures such as providing ancillary equipment like external keyboards, stands and risers.

Criteria for defining or declaring a mobile DSE user ranged through the following:

' Simply anyone using a mobile device for work, with consideration given to how long (e.g. not needing to manage risks if people are only using their device for 5 minutes or so)', through to, 'employers applying the criteria in L26 as it currently stands'. In response to that latter point, we mentioned to the group our the concern that L26 effectively sets a 1-hour threshold for classifying a DSE user, and that the additional strain which mobile working potentially puts on someone, means that 1-hour is, in our view, too long as a trigger point for risk management.

One delegate group suggested that a 15-minute continuous work threshold was an appropriate one for defining a mobile DSE user. Although interestingly this is in line with our own current views based on the research we have seen, others in the session did raise concerns that, particularly given the amount of outside-work use of this technology, this threshold could risk making the ergonomics community appear unrealistic and erode confidence in our judgment as a profession. We certainly understand that is a very real concern and it will be important to put out clear and qualified messages whenever encouraging employers to consider mobile working under their risk management strategy.

At the moment, without a clear steer from the HSE (Health & Safety Executive), employers have almost complete discretion over whether they decide to use a mobile dse risk assessment, but very little by way of useful thresholds or triggers.

HSE's balancing act

This raises the interesting point that ultimately, when L26 is revised (possibly towards the end of 2016), it will be one of the HSE's key tasks to set a definition or thresholds for who is a mobile DSE user. It's this definition which is currently lacking from the guidance in L26 – understandably given the fast rate of change in technology and work methods - and it leaves employers unclear on when to formally manage the risks.

HSE has the tricky task of having to balance the need to protect workers, against government pressure to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on industry. This policy role of HSE has long been a difficult balance and is made additionally difficult by the current economic climate and possibly even the forthcoming EU referendum (bearing in mind that the DSE regulations are based on an EU directive).

In our experience however, responsible employers do want clear prescriptive directions from HSE on when to carry out a risk assessment and implement risk control measures. We know from our time working in HSE that establishing that is not easy, and requires input from a range of stakeholders. The pace of development and change in technology adds to this task the challenge of future-proofing any definition – taking into account things like the uptake and use of wearables linked to work activities, and possible shifts in business demand e.g. from tablets and laptops towards tablet-laptop hybrids such as the Microsoft Surface Pro and the iPad Pro with keyboard.

One option suggested during the workshop was that it might be more appropriate to set out the circumstances when formal risk management for mobile working is not necessary. This approach could offer the best solution to this challenge for HSE, we will need to keep watching this space to find out!

Other issues raised during the workshop

Other issues which came up were – what is the employers' legal position if someone is using their own mobile DSE equipment for work? What are employers supposed to think about the fact that people use devices in many cases quite intensively at home – but they are expected to manage the risks?

We will look at both of these issues in more detail in separate blogs in due course.


Many thanks again to everyone who came to the workshop and we hope everyone had a safe trip home.