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Workforce mobility, productivity and security: Significant challenges ahead

Cloud services, trends for mobile and flexible working, and the rise of business applications have all led to growth in mobile devices in enterprise organisations. Strategy Analytics suggests that the global mobile workforce is set to grow from 1.32 billion people in 2014, to 1.75 billion in 2020, which will account for 42 per cent of the global workforce. 

I was part of a recent enterprise mobility workforce roundtable discussion along with some of the UK’s biggest public and private organisations, where it was unanimously agreed that demand for mobile working is now ubiquitous. This is driven by the requirement to be ‘always connected’, and a business desire to achieve greater employee satisfaction and staff retention, as well as support recruitment drives.    

Many organisations have had to adapt their internal employee and IT processes and policies in line with new mobile ways of working. In the past year organisations have generally “matured in how they manage employee mobility and now have more centralised control”, according to CCS Insight’s latest annual enterprise mobility employee survey from October this year. However, there remains some important technology, security and businesses challenges ahead.    

The challenges of data security

Data security is still the top concern for most organisations and this is intensified by mobile working practices. Businesses know they have to protect data on mobile devices, but there still seems to be a lot of confusion about what’s required, how to assess risk and what’s appropriate for individual businesses. Knee-jerk reactions and a tendency for IT teams to say ‘no’ to new technology, or enforcing rigorous unnecessary controls, make tech unusable and alienate staff. For example, one of our roundtable attendee cited a 10-digit mobile device passcode enforcement by their IT security team.    

Specialist technology vendors can work with their customers to understand what their individual security needs are, and provide the hardware and software encryption and other security measures needed to protect devices and data. But this becomes harder when individuals are using their own mobile phones or tablets; according to the recent CCS Insight report, 71 per cent of employees surveyed said they would be concerned if “their company required them to install software on a personal device used at work in fear of violation of their privacy.”    

There is also continued debate over the type of device that mobile workers should use. Ultimately, the business goal is to deliver mobility and productivity requirements to staff as efficiently as possible. To achieve this, many organisations have a goal to move to a single, multi-purpose device for staff, such as an all-in-one device that combines PC functionality within a smartphone. To date, there have been prototypes, but no suitable converged solution is yet available. In the meantime, there is little consensus what the best device is for mobile workers. 

The issue with consumer-grade devices

It’s common for employees to want to use consumer-grade devices for their work because they’re familiar, intuitive and have street cred. So some businesses have made deals with telco providers for a fleet of mobiles and contracts. Others would rather simply use their own personal phone or tablet, rather than manage multiple phone numbers, bills, chargers, operating systems, applications and so on. But this adds massive complexity for IT departments, who struggle to manage a range of mobile devices, ensuring, for example, that they all meet data security and mobility policies. Instead, some businesses are investing in technology specifically designed for use out of the office or in the field, such as rugged tablets - which are often deemed more appropriate for mobile workers.    

However, not all workers’ needs are the same, so devices should be selected in line with task-based roles. For example, to be productive, if a salesman just needs to make calls, send some emails and browse the web while commuting or going to a customer site, a consumer-grade device can often suffice. And it’s better in a protective case to avoid costly screen damage! But if mobile workers are required to do more, for example, processing, mapping, accessing specialist or legacy applications, or working in environments where there is dust, dirt, water, or the possibilities of dropping the device, a more powerful, protected or rugged device would be required.    

There are other technology considerations too, like connectivity, data speeds and battery life, that can make devices unfit for purpose and limit productivity of mobile workers. The CCS Insight report reveals that 32 per cent of respondents rate data speeds and connectivity as the single biggest problem to mobile working, directly impacting productivity and efficiency.

Mind the battery

As working days become longer and expectations that workers are ‘always on’, there is more pressure on devices to last more than a day, but reliable, long lasting batteries are uncommon. The top selling consumer-grade smartphones and tablets are renowned for their poor battery life, conking out after just a couple of hours’ consistent use. Battery life tends to be better in devices built specifically for field workers, who frequently need them powered up for eight hours or more each day. These often come with hot-swappable batteries that can provide the backup needed for uninterrupted power, without ever shutting down.    

Businesses today have too much technology choice and are being bombarded with ‘technology and feature narrative’ from device vendors and employees. IT complexity is making consumption and roll outs difficult. They’re also juggling complex IT management, data security challenges and employee demands, all while trying to maximise productivity and efficiency. To help simplify purchasing decisions, businesses should be informed by roles and tasks the devices need to support. They need to think about what those jobs involve and what is needed to maximise efficiency and productivity. 

From there, they can build a picture of the technology requirements needed. Often, lighter and thinner are not the main requirements for task workers who should compromise on consumer bells and whistles (which they have in their private life) for work durability and reliability. 

Chris Bye, President Getac UK (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/Undrey

Chris Bye, President Getac UK, has extensive industry experience having previously spent 15 years as Managing Director at Panasonic Computer Products Europe before joining Germany’s AVL DiTEST as UK lead.