Office on a Bus

The rise of the mini-tablet computer should be a boost for urban mass transit. For workers who can focus in small bursts while going from place to place, the highly portable computer makes it possible to extend the workday from the office to the bus. Then it doesn’t matter quite so much how long the bus ride takes.

Buses, subways, trolleys, and ferries provide an energy-efficient way to get from one place to another, but often at the cost of going slower. The longer commute on the bus is a real cost if it takes time away from the rest of the day. It can make a big difference, then, if people can work on the bus.

The challenge is maintaining focus. For most of us, it is hard enough to focus in the relative quiet of the office. On the bus, the scene is one of continual change, one distraction after another that can take attention away from the work at hand. A partial solution is to break work into pieces that require strong focus for only a few minutes at a time. Fortunately, some work is already broken up this way. Consider the email inbox. Part of the work is just sifting through the messages to find the content that matters. This is a task that can be approached a minute at a time. Composing the simpler answering messages may also be broken up in this fashion.

It is not just email that divides easily into small-format tasks. For students, most homework assignments break up in similar fashion to tasks that can be attempted in five minutes or less. To be sure, not all work fits on a small screen and a small time slot, but it seems reasonable to think that you could find enough small-format work to fill up a daily bus ride or ferry ride. If a few people’s livelihood depends on learning to work on the bus, it seems a good guess that the culture will assimilate the necessary skills over time.

There are institutional obstacles to overcome too, but we may as well get used to seeing people working on the bus. The lower cost of a mass transit commute, when circumstances allow work during the commute, will be hard to ignore.

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