As mobile technology increases, the future office may evolve to renting applications, bandwidth and data storage instead of desks and chairs
The rise of the mobile (tele) worker is a phenomenon triggered by powerful, yet portable, computers married with high bandwidth and reliable communications methods. Teleworking offers both companies and workers many benefits. Reducing office requirements is an obvious one but by allowing employees to work from more convenient locations, the creation of 24-hour day operations is made a feasible possibility.
Teleworking is often a big plus for employees. Capable staff who have parental responsibilities and employees who have to make lengthy journeys into a static office just to access the company intranet, would welcome a chance to telework. Companies can offer flexibility as a benefit, increasing employee morale while saving on the cost of travel expenses.
Admittedly, not all jobs will transpose to a mobile or teleworking model and the ones that do offer as many disadvantages as the benefits gained. However, in the UK, there is still a huge number of fixed location workers who could easily switch to the more flexible approach.
The question remains: why do some employers ignore the benefits imparted by flexible working and what technological hurdles are preventing us from making our working environment a better place for us?
A brief history
Although the terminology may vary between mobile, remote or teleworking, the culture of the workplace has evolved over the last two decades. The mobile computing revolution emerged with the growth of networking. When, in 1983, ARPANET first implemented TCP/IP, a standard was set. Before this point, competing proprietary technologies made networking a complex process. TCP/IP is still used today as the protocol of the Internet and the majority of intranets.
1983 was also an important year in the evolution of the laptop, with Toshiba's T1100 offering a 3.5in floppy drive and a LCD screen that did not require a wheelbarrow to move it around. As local area networks stabilised around a mixture of TCP/IP and IPX protocols, mobile workers started to appear on the edge of corporate IT structures. These pioneers caused untold headaches for IT supports managers. However, because they were considered high flyers, they were able to demand support for their unique data needs.
BT claims that there are now nearly four million mobile workers in the UK. A mobile worker is defined as an employee who regularly works in more than one location and can include an office executive reading reports on the way in to work or a salesperson negotiating deals from a mobile phone. The number of employees who do the most of their duties away from a fixed office is probably much smaller with the majority of jobs suited to a mobile model still stuck in a fixed office mentality. One of the primary reasons for the reluctance to switch to a mobile model is the current working infrastructure that is geared up for a fixed solution.
Infrastructure: finding a solution
As information becomes the core of many businesses, most companies' IT and communications infrastructure still tends to be focused on the 9 to 5 day with computers on each desk, open plan offices, a heavy volume shared printer and the obligatory fax machine. Many companies still have extensive paper based filling systems that require management and an internal telephone switchboard which needs a fixed address to route calls too. Infrastructure is not only physical; teams working together on projects or engaged in meetings need the proximity of colleagues to complete their duties, while the ability of all parties to see the same information or objects in real time, is often a necessity.
Some of the problems imposed by infrastructure limitations can be overcome through innovative software and hardware solutions combined with a willingness by companies to think about the long-term goals of the organisation.
Many jobs involve speaking to people on the telephone while manipulating data within a computer system. This type of job is particularly suited to a teleworking conversion. Core computer system applications like transaction databases and inventory control are starting to be moved onto company intranets and are ultimately accessible to external employees through the Web or dial in connections. Modern digital PABX system often have low cost upgrades allowing a phone call to be routed to another number without incurring additional expenses. If you add remote communication solutions, like ISDN or emerging technologies and cable modems, then the efficiency of the worker is the same whether at home or in the office.
Infrastructure problems can be avoided by simply buying into the process. Regus, one of the world biggest suppliers of office space, has geared up its worldwide operation to accommodate the mobile worker and offers a complete office solution (including IT infrastructure: ISDN lines; computer systems and data storage; call handling and video conferencing) under a fixed per-desk solution, rented out on a daily rate or as a place to meet clients or co-workers. If you combine this with Application Service Providers (ASP) like Deutsche Telekome and Oracle who are starting to offer computer applications such as accounting, stock control and project management via dial up servers with complete deployment, management, data security, user support and off line backup services handled by them.
ASP and managed offices means that virtual companies, organisations with no fixed assets, are starting to spring up. The Internet was another catalyst of the virtual office phenomenon as organisations start looking at more cost-effective ways of opening new departments or adding a workforce when and if required.
Even if you solve the infrastructure problems, managing a company environment littered with mobile and remote workers can be a tremendous headache for an IS department.
Integrating teleworkers can provide a huge challenge for IT departments. Calling a friendly support officer from an adjoining office to fix an errant program is fine, trying to convey a complex problem over the telephone with a technically challenged user can be a nightmare. Management doesn't just stop with technical support, implementing software updates, anti-virus and backup protection is made more complex by transient users.
Advances in technology are again addressing the problem of implementing a cost effective management umbrella. Where the temperamental PC desktop once ruled, thin clients offer increased levels of reliability due to a more rigid operating system and less opportunity for problems to occur through either accidentally or intentionally tinkering by end-users, or through operational problems like hard disk errors or unexpected power losses. Although traditionally thin clients have been desktop terminals, a new breed of almost anorexic thin clients are starting to appear.
The mobile phone combined to a PDA is the thinnest of them all, sending and receiving email, fax and voice mail in a pocket sized device which keeps key employees constantly in touch with their data. Trying to write a 1500 word report using a PDA may still be impossible but, for information retrievers and IT managers, these new devices require very little support or maintenance.
Management software is being adapted to cope with mobile assets, products from major vendors like Hewlett-Packard, NAI and Microsoft are starting to recognise that users are often transitory and not tied to fixed IP addresses. As users attach to the corporate backbone, policy managers activate software upgrades and anti-virus updates like a mechanic servicing a car. Management of these users is becoming more and more automated for mundane tasks.
Even if you have overcome infrastructure and management obstacles, the perception of the teleworker in the eyes of both employee and manager has to evolve.
The perception problem
There is often the assumption that working from home is a just an excuse to skive off. This mental attitude of management towards subordinates who would like to work from home expresses a loss of control. Often when companies move the majority of their staff out of the office to a more flexible regime there is a need to assess how productivity has been affected. If productivity has dropped slightly but operating costs have been dramatically reduced, then this trade off is acceptable. Often the introduction of teleworking can be viewed as a privilege for members of staff who constantly meet targets, with the withdrawal of such rights if performance should wane.
The corporate mentality is changing, especially within the IT sector. A great example of successful teleworking is 3Com, the respected networking company. They have managed to reduce operational costs whilst increasing productivity by setting up a location-independent working scheme for many of their staff in all of their five UK offices.
With between 10 and 15 per cent of 3Com UK staff currently attached to the scheme, users can turn up at the nearest office when necessary and log on to company resources, which are now entirely electronically held. The company's telephone systems enables scores of staff to participate in international conference calls while sharing visual data simultaneously via 3Coms corporate intranet.
Coming from a communications background, 3Com were quite aware of the potential for a mobile workforce, but they are not alone. Several major corporations like British Telecom, BP and Glaxo Welcome are piloting schemes that make their workforces more flexible.
A revolution - whether it's called teleworking, remote employees or the mobile workforce - has occurred due to a favourable technological climate and the need, by businesses, to find an edge over rivals. For this to continue, technology needs to be properly managed while the mindset of those charged with guiding their companies direction has to be turned onto the advantages. A leaner organisation, able to grow in times of need and downsize rapidly without the legacy of expensive infrastructure, is essential in low margin, highly competitive global markets.
When you consider that office space in a well serviced, central London location will cost up to £1500 per desk, then the idea of the virtual office - renting infrastructure, software and communications bandwidth when and if required - will become the norm for some departments or even whole companies.
The Internet does seem to be a motivating force in the move towards a more flexible workforce. Effectively a free global network, the Internet provides a low cost way to connect workers to the corporate infrastructure combined with a distribution method for information across nation frontiers over a range of dissimilar computing devices.
Some jobs will always be done form the "office" but for many of us the office of the future is likely to be mobile. Whether a stockbroker receiving a constant FTSE feed, a traffic warden issuing electronic parking tickets from a high-tech PDA to the salesman lugging a laptop full of electronic sales brochures around the airport lounges of the world, the mobile worker is definitely the way of the future.