How mobile technology created a workforce that never stops working

remote work technology

Smartphones and tablets let employees work anywhere—as long as IT is on board. 

Is the end of the cubicle upon us? 

For most people, the answer is “not today,” but the mobile worker—rarely in the office, getting most work done on a smartphone, tablet, or laptop—is becoming an increasingly large presence in corporate America. 

Take Chad Burton, an attorney who founded Burton Law in Ohio. The members of his eight-lawyer team all work remotely. Burton himself almost never uses what most people think of as a “computer.” 

“My three main work tools are my iPhone, iPad, and the Moleskine [a paper notebook that integrates with Evernote’s iOS app],” Burton said in a phone interview. These devices—along with cloud services and apps for file management, document creation, and other tasks—help Burton “create the same workflow regardless of where I am.” 

“I’m an early riser. I get those out at four in the morning, get to work, and I can carry that on to the rest of the day,” he said. “When we hang up here, I’ll crank out some more work before heading to a meeting, and then I’ll pick up those three things and head out the door.” 

Burton’s case is a little bit extreme now, but in a few years it may not be. Forrester Research has been tracking the rise of mobile workers, saying in its 2013 Mobile Workforce Adoption Trends report, “Gone are the days when employees wielded a simple set of tools to get work done. In today’s world of anytime, anywhere work, employees use whatever device is most convenient: desktop at home, laptop at work, tablet in a client meeting, or smartphone everywhere.” 

While people can now work pretty much anywhere, they haven’t been able to completely give up more traditional devices. Forrester’s survey of 9,766 information workers in 17 countries found that 84 percent of respondents use a desktop computer for work at least once a week, and 63 percent use a laptop every week. Nearly half, 48 percent, of workers use smartphones for business each week and 21 percent do the same with tablets. 

More work on smartphones and tablets plus a longer workday 

Even if they use a desktop, they’re not always at their desk. “None of the numbers we’ve seen in the past few years indicate the bulk of the workforce is tethered to their desk,” Forrester analyst TJ Keitt told Ars. “People do spend time working from home, whether sanctioned or not, people do spend time working on the road either as frequent or intermittent business travelers.” 

This goes hand in hand with the “elongation of the employees’ work day” and the blurring of lines between personal and work lives, he noted. 

For most people, the first step toward becoming an anytime/anywhere worker is setting up e-mail on a smartphone, typically connecting to an Exchange server. Next, they’ll try viewing documents on the tiny screen and possibly even edit them if they’re desperate. 

The larger screen of a tablet obviously offers a lot more flexibility, with apps that attempt to replicate the advanced functionality people are used to on PCs. Burton’s workflow is a great example. 

His firm uses Box, a cloud storage and syncing service, and integrates that with Clio, legal practice management software. While the iPad lacks the type of file manager Windows and Mac users are accustomed to, that isn’t a problem for Burton because Box acts as the firm’s file system. Instead of attaching documents to e-mails, he just copies and pastes a document’s link. 

Practicing business law and litigation, Burton spends his time advising companies, drafting contracts, and taking on cases ranging from breach of contract to intellectual property disputes. He estimates he spends an hour or two a day writing, using Apple’s Pages application to draft legal documents in Microsoft Word format. While many types of employees cannot do without Microsoft Office because they need perfect compatibility with Microsoft’s format, Burton said Pages has done well enough for his purposes. 

Burton and his coworkers use DirectLaw, a Web-based platform that makes it possible to deliver legal services online. They also use Yammer, an enterprise social network that serves as the law firm’s “water cooler and place to bounce ideas off each other.” 

Burton has been an iPad user since the original came out in 2010, and he now uses the third-generation iPad with LTE connectivity. He used to carry a Bluetooth keyboard but now just types on the screen and uses voice-to-text dictation. 

“I didn’t like having that extra piece to carry around, so I just trained myself to type as proficiently on the screen as I do on a keyboard,” Burton said. 

Burton stopped using his desktop computer on a regular basis three or four months ago. However, he can’t just send it to the recycling bin even if most days he only uses mobile devices. 

Scanning documents is usually best done with a desktop, he noted. His iMac also keeps local copies of his firm’s documents, and Burton needs to use the Mac to upload files to the courts’ electronic filing systems. He doesn’t have to be in front of his Mac to actually do that, though—he just logs into it from his iPad with the LogMeIn remote desktop management tool. 

Most lawyers using tablets aren’t using them for much more than e-mail, Burton said. But he’s been helping fellow attorneys become more proficient on mobile devices as part of his side gig teaching seminars on using technology in the legal profession. 

“This isn’t just a shiny object,” he said. “It’s not just about consumption.” 

Obstacles to going mobile-only 

So why doesn’t everyone work like Burton? The truth is that tablets—with the exception of tablets running Windows—can’t do everything PCs can. 

“For the vast majority of employees, what is available on a tablet or a phone still does not compare to what is available on a computer or a PC,” Keitt said. “x86 applications, so many of the productivity tools or line of business applications that employees rely upon by and large aren’t available to be run on tablets or on phones, unless you’re talking about some of the emerging cloud services that have native applications for those devices.” 

The exceptions, of course, are Windows 8 tablets, which can run anything a PC can, albeit on a smaller screen. Because of the ubiquity of Windows software, companies like Citrix sell expensive packages to businesses allowing them to stream Windows apps to just about any device, including iPads. While this can be useful in a pinch, it’s not as pleasant as using a PC. 

For non-Windows tablets, basic applications that are useful for a huge percentage of workers, such as e-mail, file syncing, and Web conferencing, are readily available. Office suites for tablets are typically fine for viewing documents, and they’re steadily getting better at editing and creating documents. 

Yet there are many specialized applications whose capabilities haven’t been replicated on most tablets at this point. 

“Each part of the business has separate applications that are important for it to do its work,” Keitt said. “A sales force can be beholden to a range of enterprise resource planning applications and customer relationship management applications. Someone in finance could need to access a range of financial planning and human capital management applications, depending on their responsibilities for invoicing as well as expense management and so on.” 

Even where such capabilities exist, workers may still prefer a PC on a desk. For example, there are plenty of programming applications for tablets that let developers work on code while they’re on the go. But many developers use multiple monitors while they’re building software, and they would loathe giving up the screen space and more advanced programming environments afforded to them by a desktop. Multiple monitors are common for employees with complex workflows in general—think stock traders. These workers aren’t likely to replace PCs with tablets. 

This list from Forrester shows that mobile devices are starting to replicate PC functionality, but that usage of basic apps like e-mail, word processing, and Web browsing far outnumbers anything else. 

Enabling—and blocking—employee access 

Businesses are enabling mobile workers in a variety of ways. One common scenario is a place of employment where workers must be in a specific physical location but aren’t tied to a desk, such as retail stores. As an example, Verizon Wireless deployed a mobile app to its sales staff on store floors to provide real-time updates on inventory and their performance, according to Keitt. 

Office-based businesses are taking numerous steps to let the prototypical desk worker take greater advantage of mobile devices. As we detailed nearly two years ago, companies are building private app stores that let them deploy custom applications to iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phones. 

Several new technologies are helping businesses enable work on smartphones and tablets without putting company data at risk. This is especially a concern for bring-your-own-device scenarios in which employees use devices they bought themselves in both their personal lives and work. 

One solution is “dual-persona” technology that creates a secure workspace within a phone or tablet that contains only work applications and data. Data can’t move from the work container to the rest of the phone and vice versa. IT shops can also manage the work container separately from the personal side of the phone, letting them perform remote wipes without deleting an employee’s personal items. 

VMware is enabling dual personas with virtualization for Android, while BlackBerry does the same for its own phones with BlackBerry Balance and for iOS and Android with BlackBerry Secure Work Space. Several third-party applications do this as well, such as Good for Enterprise and Divide

In addition to isolating work applications and data from personal apps and data, IT shops are using cross-platform management tools to control devices from a central location. This can mean ensuring that applications are updated, only providing employees access to data they have clearance to see, and remotely deleting the contents of phones when an employee leaves the company or the device is lost. BlackBerry enterprise management tools, Microsoft’s System Center Mobile Device Manager, Good, Air-Watch, and MobileIron are among the top competitors here. 

While these tools address many security concerns about mobile devices, businesses aren’t opening the company networks to smartphones and tablets across the board. There are often good reasons, particularly in government departments and highly regulated organizations where mishaps can lead to lawsuits. 

IT departments have been known to block apps like Dropbox, Facebook, Netflix, and Google Drive. Though according to another Forrester report, IT attitudes toward mobile devices are changing slowly: 

IBM lets employees work from anywhere, without sacrificing security 

Few companies have spent as much time thinking about how to let their employees be productive on mobile devices as IBM. With about 500,000 workers including employees and contractors, “over half of our population is not sitting in a traditional IBM office,” Barb Mathers, director of Workplace and Collaboration Solutions for IBM, told Ars. Mathers herself works at home. 

Very few IBMers use only mobile devices instead of laptops and desktops. But the company has a pilot program in which “we’ve equipped people with [iOS and Android] tablets and said, ‘For the next bunch of weeks, just use this tablet and let us know how things went,'” Mathers said. 

The goal is to see how close tablets can come to being PC replacements. Smartphones are already integrated into IBM’s business operations, with 30,000 BlackBerrys hooked up to the corporate network and 29,000 additional smartphones (iOS, Android, Symbian, Windows) according to IBM data released last year. About 50,000 employees are reimbursed for wireless expenses, mainly those with customer-facing sales roles. IBM has some major advantages that smaller companies don’t. Much of its business is developing and selling apps that help customers improve mobility, so IBM uses those internally. IBM also has custom apps built for its own workforce and a private app store for delivering them to mobile devices. 

These include a file syncing tool within the IBM Connections social platform, SameTime instant messaging, and a people locater that lets workers identify which IBMers have the right expertise for a particular project. Third-party applications can’t be used for business unless they meet strict security requirements. For example, IBM won’t store confidential information about clients on third-party services, so data has to be synced using IBM’s internal tool rather than with Dropbox. 

While IBM uses a VPN (virtual private network) to let employees connect to the IBM network securely from a remote location on a PC, the company takes a slightly different approach to mobile devices. Instead of an entire smartphone or tablet connecting to a VPN, each IBM-specific application connects to the IBM network using a reverse proxy, which is similar to a VPN but limited to one application. This provides a bit more “control that helps us with being able to secure the specific data,” Mathers said. 

Naturally, IBM uses its own Endpoint Manager to manage all of its employees’ mobile devices and enforce security rules—such as a ban on jailbroken iPhones. IBM is also starting a project to transform its intranet to make it more mobile-friendly, and the company is examining the possibility of using dual-persona technology for employees who use their own phones for work. 

Getting the security model right takes work, but IBM goes to the trouble because it doesn’t want technology to impose any limits on employee productivity. Employees need mobile applications “as they travel around the world, travel to customer sites,” Mathers said. IBM also wants to attract a younger generation of workers, and that means letting them work “the way they want to work.” 

“I’ve been at IBM for 20 years now and this is a big, big deal,” Mathers said. “It really is changing the culture and the way we work, day in and day out.” 


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