The Mobile Office
Nearly Two Decades in the Making
In 2000, I began working in marketing for a software development company that was designing applications for the Palm™ handheld computing device that were set to revolutionize the consumer packaged goods industry. At the time, mobile phones were just used for making phones calls, and BlackBerrys® were the “cutting edge” device that allowed users to text…
The Palm Pilot however, would offer applications that would enable a workforce that traditionally collected its information on paper out in the field to streamline its efforts by inputting the information they needed into a handheld device, which would then be uploaded directly into a database. This would save time and money by eliminating the extra step of manually entering the info collected into a desktop computer or laptop from home or a hotel room while on the road.
As we now know with technology, however, things evolve quickly, and within five years, Palm technology was surpassed by the rise of applications being designed for use on a mobile phone. Palm usage also began to dwindle. Tablets and “smart phones” were offering more flexibility, and applications for these devices were being developed for pretty much any entertainment, educational and business requirement.
Now virtually everyone has a smart phone, and they are not only being used for personal convenience, but also as a tool in the workplace when people are out of the office. The terms “mobile office” or “mobile workforce” are common jargon associated with the usage of smart phones for business, and many sectors have embraced the efficiencies that mobility has to offer.
Techopedia.com refers to a mobile workforce as “a group of employees who are scattered across various physical locations and are connected by computers, smart phones and other devices via the global Internet.” These other devices and methods include tablets, wearable computing, videoconferencing, cloud services and Unified Communications (a hosted system that integrates landlines, smart phones and computers into a communications network). All of this technology enables file handling and digital transmission over the Internet, therefore enabling an employee to be more productive and work from virtually anywhere in the world.
Having a truly mobile workforce provides many benefits to both a business and its employees. There are cost savings in the form of smaller office space requirements, reduced travel costs for in-person meetings with remote workers, an opportunity to collaborate across a variety of platforms with more people, and the ability to be productive from virtually anywhere.
For some, an office environment can be a noisy and disruptive place, so it can be much easier to accomplish work goals while on the road or at home. Educators have realized over the past decade that not all students respond to the same teaching methods, and have since adapted their teaching practices and homework requirements to accommodate the different learning styles with the hope that children will have better outcomes. The same principle can be applied to adults with regard to work styles. Not every employee is wired to sit at a desk and be productive between the hours of 9am and 5pm, so with the ability to work from home or on the road, employees can work during their own peak performance times. In fact, businesses that demonstrate trust for their staff by encouraging them to work from where they are often have a more satisfied and empowered workforce overall – which means cost savings in the form of lower staff turnover and less sick time taken. The trick is for the employer to manage results, not a time card.
With every benefit that new technological advancements provide, however, issues can also arise; many businesses allow their staff to use their own technology – BYOD – bring your own device – for work, and not only their own device, but also their own productivity applications – BYOA – bring your own app – which can result in an IT security nightmare. Without the ability to directly control which networks the devices connect to, what applications they access and what items of data they share, addressing BYOD and BYOA security concerns becomes a major issue for the IT department.
In a 2017 survey of mobile technology decision-makers by CSS Insights, 42 percent were concerned with network security, 39 percent were concerned with device security, 25 percent were concerned with app security, and 24 percent were concerned with the security of connections arising from the workforce mobility trend. The study went on to conclude that because the global mobile workforce is expected to grow to 1.75 billion people (roughly 42 percent of the global workforce) in 2020, these security concerns will only increase.
Businesses that let their staff consistently work outside of the office also have the challenge of creating a corporate culture that is inclusive and often struggle to ensure their teams feel connected to one another. Regular team video conferencing, group chats and a robust Intranet that can be accessed outside of the office can help mitigate the disconnect, but sometimes there is no replacement for face to face interactions.
Work-life balance is also trickier to maintain from both perspectives. Employers come to expect that their staff are always available, day or night, and so a 40-hour work week can easily become a 60-hour work week without a difference in compensation. And employees may not be able to mentally shut off at the end of a work day if they are working at home or on the road, so they are not spending enough time in leisure or non-work-related activities. This can lead to burnout, and more cases of stress leave, illness and demand for paramedical services paid for by employer healthcare plans.
As rapidly as technology evolves, it is often a struggle for people to evolve at the same pace. Today’s workforce is composed of four different generations who have had vastly different experiences with the usage of mobile technology. There are the Baby Boomers who are in the later stage of their careers, and Generation X (of which I am a part) who are at the stage where many are in leadership roles. These generations grew up using typewriters and filing cabinets for storing their information, not tiny handheld devices. Computer usage in the workplace didn’t really begin until the early 90s and when mobile phones hit the scene they were roughly the size of your forearm. The mobile workforces of these generations were the travelling salesmen with giant briefcases or clipboards.
Then you have the Millennials, or Gen Y, who are getting established in their careers and working their way up the corporate ladder, and Gen Z, iGen or Centennials who are beginning their careers. Both of these groups have very different expectations of what lay ahead than the previous generations.
When my 13 year-old daughter was nine she asked me, “what was your favourite app when you were growing up?” When I told her computers and smart phones weren’t even invented yet she looked at me with horror and expressed her sympathy for my deprived childhood. For Gen Y and Gen Z there was no life before technology, so there is no appreciation for the evolution of where today’s business leaders have come from, which presents challenges on many levels.
The Boomers and Gen Xers are making the decisions that impact an organization as a whole, while having to learn not only how to use the variety of devices and applications that seemingly become available and evolve on a daily basis, but also how to manage staff for whom using technology is second nature. Gen Y and Gen Z have grown up with high speed Internet, smart phones, tablets and social media, and they expect instant access to whatever information they require. For these generations, mobility and technology resources are a given. In fact, a 2015 Forbes.com survey showed that “technology provision has the potential to become more of a differentiating factor in choosing where to work.”
Whether they fully understand mobile technologies or not and all of the benefits they provide, it is clear that mobility is top of mind for most businesses. The Forbes survey showed that 81 percent of CEOs see mobile technologies as being strategically important for their enterprises. The top three technology priorities of industrial manufacturing CEOs were mobility (73 percent), cybersecurity (72 percent) and data mining and analysis (70 percent). And 86 percent of CEOs said that having a clear vision of how digital technologies including mobile could create competitive advantage.
A 2017 Softchoice report showed that 74 percent of North American office workers would quit their job to work for another company that allowed them to work from home, even without a pay bump, and 85 percent of employees expect their employers to provide some sort of technology that allows them to work from wherever they choose. Not surprisingly, Millennial respondents were twice as likely to feel more productive and better-equipped when working from home than their baby boomer counterparts, the report found.
Maybe it’s time for the older generations to embrace the mobile solutions available to us and realize it’s ok not to be at a desk eight hours a day, and then online for another eight hours at night. And maybe it’s time for the younger generations to realize there are lessons to be learned from “old school” ways as well. Perhaps each generation can help the other strike the right balance between work and play, and face-to-face interactions and texting, and maybe Gen Z will be the generation that figures it all out and eliminates the need for the term “mobile workforce” – because their workplace will be wherever they are at the time.