Effective management of a mobile workforce

Most multinational enterprises have vast mobile fleets and so need to devise clear strategies to manage their mobile workforces.  With the worldwide global mobile worker population set to top one billion by 2011, there's an obvious requirement to recognize that office habits have irrevocably changed from the document-centric environment of the 1960s and 1970s, through the people-centric 1980s and 1990s to the community-centric workplace of today in which many businesses now count approximately 40% of their workforce as nomads. Traditional approaches to providing mobile devices and access to employees according to job title are inefficient as employees that don't fit established profiles fall through the gaps and mobile productivity gains are lost. The current economic climate means enterprises need to make sure they're making the most from their investments and directing them appropriately.

Certainly the days of letting employees choose their own devices and connections should be coming to an end. Personal expense receipts for Wi-Fi access, usage of unapproved applications and utilizing private devices for business purposes pose significant dangers for the enterprise in terms of security and brand image. Pitfalls such as inconsistent customer communications, uncertainty as to how to contact colleagues and the ever-present security threat mean that if you haven't started already now is the time to get your mobile workforce management strategy in place. The rewards are substantial - a large enterprise has been able to close one of two closely located office buildings to consolidate on one local site through making efficient use of desk sharing, generating immediate savings of €1.1 million in operating expenses.

So where should I start? 

The first thing to work out is where you are on your journey to a mobile workforce. Analyst firm Gartner has described five phases through which organizations evolve as their approach to remote working comes to maturity and similar models can be applied to mobile workforce development. By understanding how your employees work and communicate, and how you see your business developing, will enable you to identify what tools should be put in place to progress to the next stage. If you have no official mobile usage in your business, it's time to set policies and equip workers with basic equipment and access. If you've got widespread user buy-in and three quarters of your staff are engaged in mobile working, you're way beyond the experimental stage and need to ensure that mobile working is recognized as critical and is fully integrated into your organization. The future of your business will hinge on your ability to help your workforce come together and achieve more than they can on their own and this cannot be performed piecemeal. You need a holistic approach that encompasses everybody.

How do I segment my mobile workforce?

You need to gain an understanding of the nature and requirements of your workforce. There's no point equipping a 60-year-old technophobe who spends all their time in one office location with a dual-mode laptop, smartphone and armory of wireless access options. Equally, not giving a 30-year-old IT-savvy road warrior that type of equipment will result in lost efficiency. Although there is no such thing as a uniform type of employee, there are groups that have similar requirements, and it's important to segment your workforce along these lines - but don't fall into the trap of segmenting your workforce just by job title or pay grade. 

Several organizations have done studies on segmentation. Yankee Group has defined four mobile worker clusters to help organizations segment their workforce - desk jockeys, upwardly mobiles, tech ninjas and holster nomads - each with an increasing degree of mobility and varying levels of IT enlightenment.

Other analysts segment enterprise workers in different ways. Quocirca, with its pink, white, blue and steel collar split focuses on the business requirements of verticalized users to develop a segmentation rationale. You may choose other methods to segment your business according to its nature and requirements. But from our perspective, as a rule of thumb there are four headline types of employee that mobile workforce can be applied to:

Those with no requirement/need and no interest/aptitude

Those with some requirement/need but little interest/aptitude

Those with some requirement/need and a disproportionately high interest/aptitude

Those to whom it is a critical business tool and have huge appetite and aptitude

What tools and access should I provide to which users?

Mobile working can be a status symbol for some employees so you need to tread carefully to avoid excluding those who feel they should be equipped. Nevertheless, it's important to confine your provision of functionality to those that will use it most effectively. Low mobility workers will probably need only a Wi-Fi enabled laptop, a voice-centric handheld offering basic applications like SMS. Workers who are more mobile will need a multimode laptop (offering both 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity), a smartphone, mobile email, a CRM web client, consumer and corporate IM and consumer VoIP, in addition to the features provided to low mobility workers. International travelers will need a mobile access solution that is device and access agnostic and chooses the most appropriate connection means for their location. Equally, mobility is not just a productivity solution that should be confined to nomadic workers. It's applicable to the whole workforce and demands that everyone is engaged with fit-for-purpose packages.

How am I going to provide technical support to all these users?

Mobile workers by their definition are far more difficult to support than office workers. An employee travelling in a different country or even time zone trying to connect their laptop wirelessly in a hotel reception poses obvious, different challenges to a tech support enquiry regarding a desktop in your headquarters. They'll be using different devices and connectivity but will still expect the same backup from your business so you will need to set up internal or outsourced 24-hour support for all device types and access modes deployed across the mobile workforce. By defining the connectivity options for your workers, limiting device choice and setting usage policies you will be able to limit the variety of support calls you receive, but you will need to up-skill support stuff to support mobile workers and their equipment.

How am I going to provide management support to my mobile workforce?

Managing a team that is entirely mobile is a different discipline to traditional office-based management. Despite being mobile, the team will require facilities where they can interact, whether that involves physical meeting space, conference bridges or the provision of collaborative working environments. However, micro-management of mobile workers is intrusive and suggests a lack of trust, so it is important to strike a finely judged balance. It's also counter-productive to unleash swathes of mobile technology on untrained workers, so they will need appropriate coaching to ensure they are familiar with their hardware, software and connectivity options.

Setting clear policies as to appropriate use, access permissions and entitlements will also help remove confusion among employees as to what their activities should be. The last thing you want is an employee uploading proprietary software to your device which may contain a security threat, for example. 

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.