Tying WiFi down

Wireless broadband is the latest casualty of burgeoning regulation in the workplace.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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In the upcoming UK general election, one issue is not being openly discussed: regulation. Only a few voices, mainly those of employers, are raised on this matter. Yet New Labour’s regulation of the workplace is just as pernicious as its attempts to regulate private life. In particular, government edicts make it harder to develop innovations in the workplace, and instead reinforce growing paranoia about what can and cannot be done.

The example of a useful technological innovation – WiFi, or Wireless Fidelity, a set of telecommunications standards that allows people to access the internet at broadband speeds, but without wires – brings this out. Throughout the European Union (EU), WiFi is spreading fast through corporate and public sector workplaces, as new laptops come equipped with chips that can pick up radio signals from special WiFi routers. Yet the regulators, whether they like it or not, act so as to prejudice the rate of take-up of WiFi – by ensuring that a censorious atmosphere surrounds every aspect of the workplace.

At the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), director-general Sir Digby Jones protests that civil servants will never seriously cut back on the regulation of business, for fear of doing themselves out of a job: ‘The view is that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, so is a UK civil servant going to do himself out of work?’ (1) Yet most of the political proposals to end regulation themselves involve new regulation.

The Cabinet Office already has a Regulatory Impact Unit. There is also a Better Regulation Task Force – but its latest report wants to cut back regulation by first measuring the administrative burden that regulation causes (through adoption of the Standard Cost Model by May 2006), and then, inevitably enough, by setting a target to reduce regulation (with the help of a new central coordination unit, naturally) (2).

The regulation of business seems to have an unstoppable momentum. Moreover, regulation is attended by a great amount of chaos. It is given in the modern concept of regulation that one must be confused once one has read it.

Employers complain about regulatory jargon. But the use of jargon extends even to regulation’s critics. For instance, have you ever witnessed their notorious ‘red tape’ in an office? Most of today’s regulation hits business instantaneously, because it is on the internet. There is no real red tape to be seen, even if it is everywhere.

More substantively, there isn’t even a clear view about who is responsible for foisting regulation on business. In his March Budget, UK chancellor Gordon Brown said that half the major new regulations faced by British business are the responsibility of the European Commission. Similarly, the CBI accuses British officials of ‘gold-plating’ the edicts of Brussels, so making them harder to conform to in the UK. However the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has said that the European component of the regulations faced by UK firms is small and actually declining (3).

It is given in the modern concept of regulation that one must be confused about who initiated it, who will enforce it, and how.

How fear and regulation stalk the corridors of business

No politician in the EU wants to say so, but, in the workplace, regulation has emerged because people at work are scared. This comes at a time when there are few major economic or political events that deserve to inspire fear in business. Despite high oil prices and the occasional corporate collapse, such as that of Rover, EU and particularly British firms are having a fairly good time of things. For many, profits are high. Corporate treasuries bulge with cash, buy back shares, or pay out dividends.

Nevertheless, the anxiety is out there – and it begins with corporate leaders. Since the scandals of Vivendi in France and Parmalat in Italy, the typical boardroom in the EU is worried, above all, by the risk of losing corporate reputation, of failing to comply with regulation on corporate governance. In financial services, a key sector in the UK, EU banks and related institutions worry about conforming to what are known as ‘Basel II’ regulations – which themselves took five years to draw up and are only due for full implementation in 2008 (4). Meanwhile, European insurance businesses such as Munich Re have come to learn that regulation can also begin with the ethical police of New York State attorney-general Eliot Spitzer.

Overall, the response that has been given to regulation by leading boardroom representatives has been very defensive. David Frost, director-general of the BCC, says, of Britain’s current bout of electioneering: ‘The concern is that the business interest [in regulation] will get lost over the next few weeks and the campaign will focus very much on social policies.’ (5)

The marketing department in corporations is also worried. It frets about a loss of brand reputation, and fears the difficulties that will come with making a full move away from television commercials and toward the platforms provided by mobile IT. And given the EU’s desire to follow Britain’s lead and crack down on every firm that can be blamed for obesity and every other health hazard, marketing people are understandably nervous about embarking on aggressive new consumer campaigns.

It is the same story with the management of facilities, procurement and suppliers. Professionals stay awake at night about the need to assure the physical security not just of the company HQ or data centre, but also of facilities around the world. Nails are chewed about the difficulty of arriving at common European standards for pan-EU facilities suppliers (6). In handling general suppliers, there appears always to be the danger that one will mistreat dozens of workers, or the environment, in some remote, but heavily publicised location. The 13 April web posting by Nike of the names and locations of its 700 suppliers around the world shows the kind of apprehensions procurement managers now labour under.

Meanwhile, the IT department is concerned about breaches of electronic security. From its inception, WiFi has been accompanied by fears of long-haired hackers sitting in white vans outside the office, grabbing vital data. Indeed, it seems that the fears are so great that it will be facilities managers who will accelerate the development of WiFi in the workplace more than IT managers. At the British Library, it is the head of estates and facilities, John de Lucy, who has made the library the Wi-Fi hotspot of London. In America, it isn’t IT managers who will soon be required by law to provide wireless access into all new high-rise buildings, but landlords (7).

The recent attempted cyber-theft of £220million from the London offices of Sumitomo, a major Japanese bank, has redoubled British concerns about every aspect of IT security, and especially that of mobile devices (although the attempted theft was foiled by the police). Egged on by Which? (formerly the Consumers’ Association), British IT departments promise to get even more obsessed about security, and especially the security of mobile devices – iPods included (8). And with Britain taking over the presidency of the EU shortly, we can expect a renewed, EU-wide offensive, led by Gordon Brown, to warn firms of the cyber-fraud taking place on their premises.

Outside the EU’s data centres, firms and the public sector now endure the workplace as an arena for three kinds of fear-based regulation: that concerning physical health, mental health, and saving the planet.

The regulation of health, and especially mental health

First of all, in the domain of health and safety, buildings and all the things that go into the management of a facility are now taken to be hazardous to human beings, and strict EU legislation surrounds them. Facilities managers, in particular, have added to their longstanding anxieties about back pain, Repetitive Strain Injury and Sick Building Syndrome. They now feel ill at the prospect of employees getting bugs from everything – from air conditioning systems and catering suppliers through to Jacuzzis in corporate gymnasia.

A complicated directive from Brussels on ‘physical agents’ at work now covers noise and risks to hearing, as well as vibration and risks to the hand, arm and whole body (9). Third and fourth parts to the directive – on electromagnetic fields and optical radiation risks to health from induced currents in the body, shocks, burns and absorption of thermal energy – are also planned. We can be sure that they will do nothing to assist the deployment of WiFi.

In the EU, workers used to go on strike about genuinely dangerous working conditions. That tended to bring about swift changes. Today, by contrast, an enormous number of man-hours at work are spent preparing for, reading, interpreting, seeking legal advice about and continuously updating EU legislation on health and safety. Much of the little trade union activity that still goes on in the EU revolves around the management of such risks. And whether the whole process will actually help prevent conditions such as Vibration White Finger is a moot point.

Second, in the realm of human resources, work is seen as a danger to mental health.

With strenuous manufacturing in decline, EU human resources specialists, like their American counterparts, now make most fuss about the mental side of employee ‘wellbeing’ – emotional intelligence, work-life balance, bullying, and so on. Not for nothing is Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster Business School and chief publicist of the view that we suffer from a ‘long hours culture’, also president of the British Academy of Management. Yet if Britain has longer hours than those that exist in the rest of the EU, the UK working week is actually falling. Between 1998 and 2003, the median weekly hours worked by full-time workers in Britain dropped from 37.9 to 37.3 hours, only rising, in 2004, to 37.5 hours (10). The number of people working long hours in the UK has also declined over the past decade (11). Moreover working hours in Britain as a whole are well below those of America or Asia.

Advocates of WiFi, however, cannot escape anguish about work. They are part of what is known as the ‘community wireless movement’, which in the EU is especially strong in the Netherlands and Greece (12). They tend to perpetuate the myth that WiFi is free, intrinsically democratic, and a preferable alternative to 3G mobile networks; and they have promoted it as a key to urban regeneration, social inclusion, and even third world development. Yet for all these exaggerated hopes of a WiFi revolution led from the armchairs of Starbucks, there are much more influential fears that WiFi will add to stress.

Wireless working in the office, it is held, will mean fewer desks and more sharing of tight spaces. As WiFi workers are supposed to grow more nomadic in their habits, they may, it is also suspected, be less prepared to share knowledge with their colleagues, meaning that WiFi’s longstanding promise of better knowledge management by organisations will remain unfulfilled. Finally, the advent of WiFi to the homes of teleworkers is taken to mean both that such workers may never be able to rest, and that their managers are likely to distrust them for skiving off at home. At Lewisham Council in South East London, project manager Lorraine Trenchard wants to extend mobile working to almost 4,000 staff, but reports that it’s ‘quite difficult’ to give up management control of workers ‘when you’re used to having a group of people who you can see and sort of monitor visually’ (13).

No wonder a new report on mobile work by the Institute of Directors and Vodafone, though it talks up the benefits to business, devotes no fewer than nine of its 66 pages to ‘Setting company policy’ and ‘Knowing the law’ (14). No discussion of mobile working today is complete without hand-wringing about workplace etiquette, work-life balance, the problems of the office at home, the undesirability of never meeting one’s colleagues, and corporate liability issues.

Recently, the Harvard Business Review devoted a special issue to the subject of ‘Managing yourself’. Denouncing what he called ‘overloaded circuits’, one contributor had sharp words for email, mobiles and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), arguing that such devices were responsible for Attention Deficit Trait (ADT), whose symptoms are ‘distractibility, inner frenzy and impatience’ (15). It is certain that these doctrines will influence EU regulators in their attitude to WiFi.

Failure to recycle becomes an offence

The third way in which a vicious circle of fear, regulation and more fear is established at work relates to the natural environment. Emissions must be curbed; chemical analysis must be applied to every piece of IT; and as wired-up broadband routers are thrown out in favour of the WiFi sort, lawyers must be called in to decide who does what with the old black boxes.

By 4 January 2006, EU Member States must comply with Directive 2002/91/EC on the energy performance of buildings (16). Moreover, the European Commission plans a Framework Directive on what it calls the eco-design requirements for energy-using products in the workplace (17). With rising oil prices, there can be no doubt that an energy panic, confusion and heavy-handed policing are all on the cards.

On 13 August 2005, the EU Directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) comes into force (18). Producers of IT equipment will have a ‘whole of life’ responsibility for their products, and must collect their discarded kit from clients so that they can recycle and/or dispose of it. One summary of the WEEE directive spells out the implications for general workplaces, which are worth quoting in full:

‘Anyone who has ever managed the large-scale removal or migration of computer equipment know the dangers the business continuity. When it come to recycling, professional decommissioning is highly desirable and should include options for data back-up, disaster recovery, asset tracking and a full audit report.

‘… [Recycling firms] may insist that all of the departing equipment is available at a central collection point. You may also be responsible for data back-up and removal, or even packaging the kit for collection When choosing a recycling partner it is important to have a clear understanding of just how much they are prepared to do.’ (19)

Did you get all that? It is clear that a ‘full audit report’ on chucked-out computers has now become as vital as actually doing something intelligent with new ones.


From new rules for corporate governance to directives that tell you not to drop that old wire-laden router into the bin, it seems that Whitehall and Brussels want to govern every minute and every corner of the office, factory, warehouse or customer service facility. Alongside official regulators such as Britain’s Health and Safety Executive stand innumerable unofficial ones: the ‘Health at Work’ section of the BBC’s website, for example, covers carpal tunnel syndrome, working abroad, emotional wellbeing and 29 separate organisations to turn to in the event of feeling unwell at work (20).

The upshot of all of this is simple. The attention of management, and that of workers, is inexorably turned away from the production of wealth, getting on with things and innovation. Instead, the focus of work shifts toward covering one’s back, ticking boxes, and reading the small print.

Regulation can never be a force for progress. It impedes the potential for real, productivity-raising technologies like WiFi to raise the EU’s chronically low rates of economic growth. It forms a massive displacement activity in the workplace, drawing human energies away from clear-cut creative and political tasks and into a black hole of impenetrable prose, ridiculous precautions and arbitrary enforcement. Altogether, regulation is too insidious a matter to be left to employers, who are completely on the back foot about it.

In the future, it should be possible for millions of office workers in the EU to use WiFi to make wireless calls for free, using a Voice over Internet Protocols (VoIP) provider such as Skype. They may be able to make such calls more comfortably than they do now, for the chunky piece of plastics we call a phone will be incorporated on their laptop displays. They will be able to sit back with Bluetooth headsets, writing by hand into their screens, watching for when Indian and Chinese colleagues are at their desks, and videoconferencing with them at no extra charge. Moreover they may care to record the meetings they have and play them back – to catch important details – on their iPods (21).

How soon will that future arrive, though, so long as people at work are more afraid of new regulation than they are of failing to introduce an innovation? Human beings are endlessly adaptable. They will be able to adapt to WiFi working, just as they have begun to adapt to working with mobile phones. Teething pains will accompany the introduction of every new technology, WiFi included. But such pains will only be compounded, not eased, by the intervention of the regulators.

Work dominates our lives, and the legalisation of work is set to dominate them more than ever. These issues will not be part of the election debate in Britain – but that only makes them more important.

James Woudhuysen is Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and co-author of Why Is Construction So Backward? (Wiley, 2004). Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

(1) Better Regulation Task Force, Regulation – Less is More. Reducing Burdens, Improving Outcomes, 16 March 2005

(2) Quoted in Bob Sherwood, ‘Business sceptical in spite of Brown pledge on “gold-plating”’, Financial Times, 29 March 2005

(3) Tim Ambler, Francis Chittenden and Chanyeon Hwang, Regulation: another form of taxation? UK Regulatory Impact Assessments in 2003/4, British Chambers of Commerce, 4 April 2005

(4) Bank for International Settlements, Basel II: International Convergence of Capital Measurement and Capital Standards: a Revised Framework, June 2004

(5) Quoted in Jean Eaglesham, ‘Business frets it will slip down electoral agenda’, Financial Times, 6 April 2005

(6) Richard Buckley, ‘Pan-European Bidding. Is the market ready? Can the client manage it? Can the supplier deliver?’, paper to the European facilities Management Conference, Frankfurt, 19-21 April 2005

(7) James Woudhuysen, ’Building on the desktop’, IT Week, 30 November 2004

(8) See Will Sturgeon, ,, 6 April 2005, ‘iPod security still a stumbling block for firms’ and Iain Thomson, ‘Warning on iPod threat’,, 6 April 2005

(9) See Directive 2003/10/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 February 2003 on the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to the risks arising from physical agents (noise), Seventeenth individual Directive within the meaning of Article 16(1) of Directive 89/391/EEC;
; Directive 2002/44/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 June 2002 (vibration)

(10) ‘Annual survey of hours and earnings: Median earnings and hours of all full-time employees by industry sector’, Table E.13, Labour Market Trends, March 2005, pS64

(11) Kate Bishop, ‘Working time patterns in the UK, France, Denmark and Sweden’, Labour Market Trends, March 2004, p113

(12) See the excellent Dutch website

(13) Mark Beishon, ed, Mobile working: how businesses can improve efficiency and productivity, Institute of Directors/Vodafone, February 2005

(14) Interview, ‘The WiFi office / knowledge management’, Nice Work, BBC Radio 4, 29 March 2005

(15) Edward Hallowell, ‘Overloaded circuits: why smart people underperform’, Harvard Business Review, January 2005

(16) ‘32002L0091, Directive 2002/91/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2002 on the energy performance of buildings’

(17) ‘52003PC0453 Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council On establishing a framework for the setting of Eco-design requirements for Energy-Using Products and amending Council Directive 92/42/EEC

(18) ‘32003L0108 Directive 2003/108/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 December 2003 amending Directive 2002/96/EC on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)’

(19) Paul Sharville, ‘Long live the PC’, FM World, 4 March 2005

(20) The Health and Safety Executive published semi-legal standards for the management of stress at work on 3 November 2004. See here

(21) Ben Charny, ‘Share and share alike: Skypecasting for iPods’,, 30 March 2005

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Topics Science & Tech


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