Making a mobile workforce

28th August 2013

home-office

Whether it’s flexible working hours, or conducting business from multiple places, including at home, there is a definite trend for employees to become more mobile in their working patterns.

Forester Research's 2013 Mobile Workforce Adoption Trends shows 37% of European and US employees work from multiple locations. Whilst that's still a minority the trend is only going in one direction.

Why?

For both employees and employers, remote working can improve the business environment and boost performance.

Flexible working

The 9am - 5pm daily work-routine is being eroded by flexible working. Colleagues are increasingly able to build a working pattern around their home lives (for example leaving the office at 3pm to pick up school children, then work for two hours from 7pm when the kids are in bed).

For employees the flexibility helps them maintain an effective work / life balance, and employers benefit from a) less staff churn and b) effectively extending the working day – which helps improve customer response times.

Reduce office space

How many desks does an office need? By encouraging remote working, and introducing hot desking, a business can reduce its office headcount considerably. Smaller office spaces mean lower running costs and can even lead to a company moving into a smaller space; keeping rents as low as possible.

Improve efficiency

A mobile workforce means being able to respond from any location. Customer orders, and queries, can be processed without returning to the office. This gives a competitive advantage and increases company efficiency.

Lower business costs

The benefits already outlined add together to lower running costs for an organisation. Fewer desks, smaller offices, less electricity being used all bring down the day-to-day business charges. Added to this are the potential savings from lower travel expenses, which have both financial and environment benefits.

The dangers of mobile working

If mobile working makes strong business sense, why do the majority of organisations still make their workers come into a building each day?

Sometimes there are genuine business reasons for having to keep a fully-staffed office, other times though it comes down to fear of how the business can operate remotely, and a lack of technology to enable a mobile workforce.

Common fears include:

  • Lack of communication – Remote working can lead to less communication within the company. The snippets of tacit information that passed amongst employees can disappear without an active office environment in which flourish.
  • Lack of collaboration – Getting together to discuss a customer query, or planning business strategy, is easier to organise when everyone is already in the same building. How can people working in multiple locations get together in real-time to discuss issues creatively and reach conclusions?
  • Access to information – Concerns over how remote workers access company data come from both how documents can be delivered from the office to other locations, without creating multiple versions of the same files, and the security implications of having documents available outside of the office network.
  • Business security – IT departments are justifiably concerned about the potential risks of remote working from a security perspective. Having workers off-site potentially opens up a security risk. Laptops, mobiles and tablets can be stolen or mislaid, and home computers can become infected with viruses or similar.

Enabling a mobile working environment

The move from on-site email and storage servers to cloud-based alternatives is helping businesses deliver a secure remote working environment, and overcome the fears and obstacles.

Secure working

Hosting email data in cloud data centre can be more secure than hosting it on-site. Big data centres pride themselves on offering the highest level of security available. Physical access will be restricted to authorised people only and the risks of online attack are kept to a minimum.

Few businesses have physical security to their in-house server as locked-down as data centre access is.

For document access, using a modern cloud storage solution like Microsoft SharePoint, or OneDrive for Business (as part of Microsoft Office 365) enables the IT department to control who can access individual documents, and provide them with either read-only or editing functions.

Communication

Modern email platforms, be they Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft Office 365, or IMAP-based, have solved the problem of giving remote users access to their email. Now every business can give users safe access to their emails across any device and from every location.

Other technologies, such as Microsoft Lync, can enhance communication by providing instant messaging. Using the right software employees can quickly chat to each other, get answers to their questions from the right people straight away, and break down organisational barriers.

For example, with Lync one employee can instantly find someone in a different department who can resolve a query. In an office based situation those two employees may not be aware of each other’s skills and so never communicate.

Remote collaboration

Web conferencing is the simple way for remote workers to collaborate as easily as if they were sat next to each other. A modern virtual conference solution allows mobile workers to instantly hold a group conversation to discuss issues, including a whiteboard and desktop sharing.

There are many technologies that enable web conferencing for remote workers, from expensive bespoke solutions, through to off-the-shelf services such as Microsoft Lync. Some companies even use consumer-level software (eg Google Hangouts or Skype) however these are not recommended due to security implications.

Going fully virtual

For businesses looking to offer the maximum security and flexibility for remote working, there is one option that provides everything in a simple package.

A Hosted Desktop service delivers a virtual working environment for an employee working anywhere, using any PC. All data, applications and the OS is stored on a cloud server, with the user logging (either directly via a remote connection or using a web browser).

Once logged in the computer desktop is replaced with a normal work environment, including all the applications and documents they would have if sat in front of an office-based computer. The connection between server and user is fully secure, and because no data is stored locally the company does not have to worry about equipment going missing / being stolen.

Business concerns over communications and security can be mitigated and overcome through planning and selecting business-grade cloud services. Many organisations start by moving their email to the cloud, then move onto other cloud services once it has proven itself reliable and secure.

With cloud-based technologies a mobile workforce is much easier to create. Businesses save money on office infrastructure and operating costs, whilst employees can build a working pattern that offers flexibility and rewards their commitment.

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