Workers' revolution

There is more to supporting mobile working than getting the technology right. Jessica Twentyman reports on the importance of staff education and understanding different working practices

Towards the end of 2003, Carsten Sorenson, senior lecturer in IS at the London School of Economics, issued a call to action to any company embarking on a mobile working strategy. The barrier to the complete uptake of mobile technologies, he said, was not restricted to the technology itself, but also to the social aspects of flexible working.
Sorenson’s research, commissioned by
mobile phone operator Orange, made it clear that the forces shaping the mobile revolution go deeper than technology itself. “Deep social and organisation issues such as trust, routines and culture need to be addressed and are equally important, if we are to see mobile technology truly take off,” he wrote.
More than a year on, however, there is plenty of evidence that, in the race to acquire new end-user devices, synchronise them with the corporate IT infrastructure and put them in the hands of remote workers, organisations continue to underestimate how mobile working will affect the lives and working practices of their employees.
“Too many companies focus on what
mobile technology can do for the company without really examining what it can do for their employees,” says Arun Shenoy, director of small and medium businesses and public sector at chip maker Intel. To get the full benefits of mobile working, firms need to take a more holistic and considered approach.
That is certainly the direction taken by Intel, says Shenoy. The company’s 80,000 employees use about 100,000 mobile devices and it has a clear strategy for providing them with support and training. Many remote workers, for example, receive an allowance as part of their salary to pay for the insurance costs, utilities and office furniture and equipment they require to work from home. Home offices, meanwhile, undergo a health and safety assessment to ensure that the furniture and equipment used meet ergonomic standards. And every Intel employee is trained in data confidentiality to ensure they understand their responsibilities.
But few other organisations are so clear about their mobile working strategy.
According to Jamie Allender, mobile business manager at IT supplier Computacenter, companies need to realise that it is happening anyway, even where they do not have a strategy.
“We see a lot of disjointed, on-the-fly projects, where employees are already using a wide range of devices and synchronising these with their desktops,” he says. “At best that creates an IT management burden, and at worst, it can seriously compromise the security of corporate data.”
Organisations must set a clear mobile working strategy, says Brownlee Thomas, an analyst at Forrester Research, and do so quickly if they are to keep abreast of changes in the underlying technology. “Large-scale telecommuting programmes that require IT to provide support to hundreds or thousands of remote workers create big challenges that are not likely to get easier with the proliferation of new telecom technologies and increasing network security threats,” she says.
Thomas has investigated the best practices that ensure a successful mobile working
strategy. These include: standardisation of supported technologies; a formal, written telecommuting policy; adequate remote worker training; and a clear and comprehensive remote support strategy that defines the different levels of IT support that will be provided to different kinds of mobile workers.
Standardisation is vital if companies are to get the benefits promised by mobile working, says Dave Marshall, head of product management at mobile services supplier Orange Business Solutions. “There is no way you are going to be able to get costs and support issues under control unless you decide early on which devices are the best for your employees and how they are going to use them,” he says. “Once you start mixing and matching a large range of different clients, you start introducing all sorts of unnecessary burdens.”
His advice? “Understand the sorts of tasks that your employees perform remotely, equip them with a small range of devices that can support those tasks and do not deviate from that range just to suit the whims of individual users.”
Orange Business Solutions holds “device clinics” at prospective client sites, where users can handle and experiment with different mobile devices. “Those users are not drawn from the IT department, either,” says Marshall. “They are the end-users who will actually be carrying the devices and know how they need to use them.”
According to Marshall, by involving end-users in the standardisation decision companies are more likely to achieve end-user buy-in when the devices are up and running, and higher rates of end-user satisfaction.
A formal, written mobile working policy can ensure that employees use the devices in the intended way. “It should provide guidelines for teleworkers and telecommuters about IT’s role in enabling and supporting telecommuting as well as the telecommuter’s own responsibilities to protect the enterprise network and data,” says Thomas.
This kind of policy should provide end-users with clear advice in two areas, says John Lilliestone, senior marketing manager at Vodafone. “First, mobile workers need to know how and under what circumstances they are intended to use the device, and what constitutes acceptable use. Second, they need to know what to do if the service is interrupted. That is especially important in situations where the device is lost or stolen.”
Andy White, programme director at IT services supplier Atos Origin, agrees. “It is a big concern that devices are getting smarter and holding more potentially sensitive commercial data. Once those devices are mobile, there is a far greater risk of theft or loss. That is why it is essential to communicate in a formal way that it is not the device itself that has premium value to the company, but the data it holds, and that procedures are in place for reporting theft and loss of that device.”
The mobile working policy, says Thomas, should be reviewed periodically by IT, human resources and line-of-business managers, and should be posted on the corporate intranet as well as being circulated to mobile workers. The challenge for the IT department is to ensure it can respond to the growing demand for better IT support for a range of employees: mobile workers who spend most of their time on the road and in the field; home-based remote workers (teleworkers); regular telecommuters (those who work from home more than once a month); occasional telecommuters and day-extenders (employees who access e-mail and files using a home PC or a laptop in the evenings or at weekends).
These profiles are changing and expanding rapidly, says Thomas. “Five years ago, regular telecommuting was mostly done by day-
extenders, mobile sales forces, and professional consultants. Now, telecommuting and remote work are mainstream practices for more workers and a variety of job functions. Indeed, they are recognised by a growing number of firms – particularly high-tech, insurance, pharmaceutical and transportation companies – as critical to lowering operational costs and ensuring competitiveness.”
But employees in each category require a different level of support from IT. Mobile workers need remote IT support often. They regularly work in a variety of environments, often including a home office. “These workers often rely on more expensive, lower-performance access technologies to which heavy surcharges often apply,” says Thomas. “It also tends to be the most expensive category of workers for IT to support remotely on an ongoing basis, mainly because constantly changing connectivity means they are likely to call the helpdesk frequently.”
Permanent home workers, by contrast, require a lot of “getting started” remote IT support. Regular telecommuters, who work at least once a month from home, expect their off-site work environment to perform essentially the same as it does on-site, and will call the IT helpdesk the moment they experience a remote connection problem, cannot access data immediately or experience slower than usual application performance.
Day-extenders and occasional and emergency telecommuters expect only “best effort” support from IT. “When day-extenders need remote IT support, it is usually outside of office hours, so they will probably be out of luck, unless IT’s strategy for remote support includes on-call staffing cover during extended hours or weekends,” says Thomas.
Fortunately, this group of users is generally tolerant, she adds. “After trying a few workaround solutions they are familiar with already, they will usually give up trying and will call IT when they are back in the office to evaluate the problem.”

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