Tips for Managing Your Mobile Workforce

By Scott Archibald  |  Posted 10-01-2010

Tips for Managing Your Mobile Workforce

Technology and mobility in the workplace go hand in hand. Laptops have allowed us to leave our offices and have given us the freedom to travel anywhere in the world and still be able to access files stored in corporate databases. Cell phones and smartphones have extended that freedom, allowing us to set up virtual offices from just about anywhere. Cloud computing technologies potentially extend this mobility even further by providing access to critical files from almost everywhere on the planet. We're no longer limited to files on our computers, and we don't have to tunnel into the corporate network via VPN. Technology has untethered the world.  As Peter Parker quoted his Uncle Ben in Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility." We can amend the phrase to read, "With great freedom comes great responsibility," or even, "With greater mobility in the workforce comes a huge challenge for companies to manage."

The logical solution is to hire a mobile operations manager for the IT department to oversee the increasing use of virtual employees, virtual teams and the mobile technologies that allow this to happen.

In reality, the solution isn't so simple. In the last 20 years, since the evolution of technologies that enable mobility, the boundaries between work, leisure and family responsibilities have blurred. Mobile technologies are no longer just part of our work lives; they are ingrained in our everyday lives and are part of our culture. Therefore, CIOs need to look beyond managing mobility as a technology and think more about managing mobility as part of the company's culture.

The Corner of Mobility and Culture

Fortune 500 companies are at an inflection point: Call it the corner of mobility and culture. Mobility will change the fabric of how employees interact with each other, partners, vendors and customers. If companies leave mobility unmanaged or try to manage it from a narrow focus, such as IT or HR, the likely result will be a frustrated workforce, which will reinforce generational divides among workers.

As an example, in a recent conversation, a Fortune 500 CIO said, "Baby boomer workers think that our younger workers are lazy because they sit on couches with their laptops, and they forward their office phones to their mobile phones."

Leaving this situation unmanaged from a broad business and cultural perspective will create a divide between experienced and relatively inexperienced workers.

In addition, Generation X, Y and Z workers, who have grown up with mobile and wireless technology, have been entering the workforce in large numbers. These younger workers not only use technology, but are also eager to find new uses for it.

The bottom line is that mobility is not just about technology anymore. However, chances are high that IT, specifically the CIO, will be responsible for any mobile initiatives within the company. So, CIOs need to take a broad view of mobility and understand the effect this technology will have on departments such as HR, sales, marketing, legal, security and facilities, as well as IT.

Five Tips to Help You Manage Mobility

  1. Use it! Start using an iPhone, a Google Android smartphone, a Blackberry or similar device. If your company uses salesforce.com, try the mobile version of that application. Use TripTracker or any of the airline applications for travel information. Download your favorite news channel applications and get breaking news. There is probably a sports or special-interest application that may be of value to you as well. Then you'll understand what your workers love.
  2. Provide mobile device support. Create a process to support different smartphones and mobile devices used by employees as new form factors (such as the iPad) come to market. With the mobile landscape changing so quickly--and an increasing number of employees using their own mobile devices for work and personal activities--companies should reconsider which employees get mobile devices. Let employees purchase their own devices and ensure that minimal security is placed on the device. Let's face it, the days of supporting only one or two corporate-controlled smartphone platforms are behind us.
  3. Create mobility teams. Create a cross-organizational team to address facilities, HR, legal and security issues with employees who will inevitably be roaming coffee shops, soccer fields and the workplace while using mobile devices. Some companies are finding that, between telecommuting and shared workplaces, not every employee needs a dedicated cube. Understand the HR and legal ramifications of employees who plan to use their own devices to access corporate data.  A "We don't support that" attitude won't suffice. Gen X, Y and Z employees will figure out how to use their own devices to access corporate data. It's much better to get ahead of the issue and have processes and procedures in place to accommodate this behavior.
  4. Security isn't everything. Don't get bogged down in the security arguments that will inevitably happen. Your CISO will most likely want to lock down mobile devices to a point at which they become useless paperweights, but this is unrealistic. Security is, and always will be, important--especially as devices get smaller, get lost and get stolen more frequently with each passing year.  However, education and some security measures--such as password protection and remote wipe (in which the help desk can remotely wipe clean a device that's been reported lost or stolen)--will meet the needs of most businesses. Companies need to carefully balance risk, usability and cost.
  5. Go mobile. Challenge application-development teams to design everything for a mobile platform. This will encourage application developers to think about and embrace mobility, and will likely be a big hit with employees who are already using mobile devices. If your company is advanced in its approach to mobility and its value to the workforce, go ahead and create a mobile application that encourages feedback from employees to rate their mobile experience at work. Find out what their likes and dislikes are when it comes to using mobility inside (or outside) the workplace to get work done. Learn what improvements your mobile users recommend. You might be surprised at the feedback you get.

Scott Archibald is a managing director at Bender Consulting, an Austin, Texas-based consulting firm focused on transformation projects. He's had two decades of leadership experience in the high-tech industry.