8 steps towards a more flexible, mobile workforce

1. Ditch your desktops

The last decade has seen a shift away from the traditional concept of the desktop business computer. Portable computers have been around almost as long as the IBM PC, but the rise of the laptop in the 1990s has been followed by smartphones and tablets, resulting a cacophony of mobile computing devices. Studies have shown that the adoption of mobile computing can make your staff 34 per cent more productive, gaining 240 hours of work per year, as they take advantage of spare moments when in transit.

This is particularly pronounced amongst Millennials, who will make up three quarters of the workforce by 2025. So it’s clear that ditching your desktops for the majority of your workforce and going mobile will pay productivity dividends, and even be expected by your employees.

2. Combine worker needs with hybrid devices

Mobile working is no longer just providing your employees with a laptop instead of a desktop, although, as previously stated, that’s a good place to start. There are lots of other options.

For one, they don’t necessarily need a tablet as well as a notebook. Most of the leading manufacturers now offer hybrid devices that can cover both bases very effectively. Some of these will have a screen that rotates into a tablet mode. Others house all the main electronics in the screen, which can be detached from the keyboard and used separately as a tablet. The advantage here is that these devices usually run a standard desktop operating system, so will support all your business software. Alternatively, larger tablets with keyboards such as Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or Apple’s iPad Pro now have almost the same capabilities as a notebook, but with superb battery life and portability.

3. Provide your employees with a powerful smartphone

If there’s one device a mobile worker will always have with them these days, it’s a smartphone. Although telephony itself has reduced in importance, the range of tasks a smartphone can complete is approaching that of notebooks and desktops, as the hardware becomes ever more powerful.

Employees may not favour Windows Mobile for their personal smartphone, but it makes increasing sense in business. Running Microsoft Continuum on Windows Mobile 10 gives your workers access to the full suite of Office applications via their smartphone, and potentially other Universal Windows Platform-compliant (UWP) software too. Add a compatible docking station, and the smartphone can provide a desktop experience via an attached screen, keyboard and mouse.

So a single mobile device that fits in your pocket can be the hub of a unified work experience wherever you go. Kitting your workforce out with devices such as this can really help them be productive on the move.

4. Improve company connectivity

The first 802.11b WiFi only offered a theoretical maximum bandwidth of 11Mbits/sec, which would rapidly become congested with multiple devices sharing the signal. Now the latest 802.11ac devices can max out at 6.77Gbits/sec, although individual devices only get a proportion of this, and most everyday routers will only provide less than 2Gbits/sec. Even if your company keeps up with the latest standards, maintaining your WiFi’s usability is a constant arms race.

More and more devices are arriving on the network, as employees connect one or more smartphone as well as laptops and tablets. The activities employees perform are increasingly bandwidth heavy, too. Online backup, increased video usage, and virtualisation (see below) are all putting a strain on wireless networking provision. When the time comes to upgrade, it will pay dividends in the long run to over-provision on the speed and number of access points on the local area network.

Similarly, when employees are out and about, they will need rapid access to any storage and virtualisation on the private cloud. This is where a technology like Carrier Ethernet will pay huge dividends. This extends Ethernet-like performance out to the WAN and Internet, with local connections up to 10Gbits/sec and beyond, and distance tiers from metro (250km) right up to global. It can also be managed in ways that will be familiar to IT support staff already used to administering LAN technology. With so much of what is great about the mobile computing revolution relying on Internet bandwidth, making sure your company is connected as robustly as possible is the fundamental first step.

5. Support BYOD

The acronym BYOD – bring your own device – almost sounds old fashioned now, since it has been in circulation for a number of years. But it remains an important consideration. You might have allocated an employee a notebook, a hybrid device, a smartphone, and even a tablet, but they still might want to use their own alternative from home from time to time.

On the downside, this inevitably poses security risks, as the system administrator won’t have full control over these devices, so they might bring viruses or malware onto the local network, amongst other dangers. But making your employees comfortable with their work computing experience will make for greater productivity, so BYOD should be highly considered, as long as appropriate security precautions are taken.

6. Adopt cloud storage

One of the most important ways you can make your workforce more able to operate wherever they find themselves is to make all their data and documents available via the cloud. That way, whether in the office, at home, or out and about, so long as there’s an available Internet connection, so will be a user’s data. There is a plethora of public cloud services to choose from, from Dropbox to Box and Microsoft Azure.

Alternatively, a company can set up its own storage servers for a private cloud, for example using OpenStack technology. This is preferable where the added security and mission-critical assurance of local control is required. Many companies are opting for a hybrid cloud, however, where public and private cloud provisions are combined, for the best of both worlds depending on the requirements of specific workloads.

7. Virtualise your software

The next step onwards from simply making data and documents available anywhere with an Internet connection is to make your application software available on any device in a similar fashion. At the basic level, Microsoft Office Online can provide browser-based access to reasonably powerful office applications. HP has launched a service called Workspace which provides turnkey virtualisation of non-UWP applications inside a Microsoft Continuum wrapper, via a managed service.

But if you really want to make a complete desktop environment available to your workers wherever they are, more potent virtualisation from the likes of Citrix or VMware will be necessary. Citrix can be deployed either on a private server or via a public cloud, and VMware is similarly available via locally hosted services, or a hybrid cloud. These provisions do require a company size and technical ability that might be beyond some SMEs, but they are the final cut that breaks the cord tying workers to a desk or indeed any specific location of work.

8. Provide flexible employee contracts

As we explained in our first tip, mobile employees can be in excess of 30 per cent more productive than their deskbound colleagues. But this is only the case if you let them. Part of this is technological, as described above. But it’s also fundamental that the contracts of employment provide for this style of working. 

Hot desking may not be the panacea it was thought to be in the 1990s, with employees preferring to have a place they can call their own when they are in the office. But employees also need to feel they are permitted to work in the most efficient manner, whether that be at their desks one day, at home another, or in a café. Employees who can balance the demands of their personal lives with work more effectively are happier, more committed, and will get more done.

In fact, employees are choosing where to work based on these factors. So providing a flexible mobile work environment isn’t just good business sense – it may be a necessity to remain competitive over the coming decades.

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