This is what telecommuting looked like in the 1960s: taking work papers home in a dog-eared briefcase to dumb terminals and 300 baud modems. People have always wanted the freedom to work remotely part of the time, making telecommuting an important part of working culture. And while the mobile enterprise appears to be the next logical expansion of telecommuting, it is something entirely different.
The mobile enterprise breaks the employee-office connection common to telecommuting, and asks the employee to work with no connection to a physical office or location. It also asks the manager to keep track of and lead employees often seen only at the corporate Christmas party or in an occasional Skype session or teleconference.
Increasing the amount of time employees are allowed to telecommute before implementation won’t prepare them for the full monty of the mobile enterprise. Neither will it prepare bosses or HR departments for the different criteria involved in hiring successful mobile enterprise workers, nor the best ways to deal with reactions of existing employees swept up in mobile enterprise phase-in.
What’s more, implementation of a mobile enterprise -- even in a portion of an organization -- is one of those changes you can’t ease into gradually. Once you cut the cord between employee and a central office location, you enter a different world.
The Differences Between Office-Centric and Mobile Environments
While the industry talks a lot about the technological differences between today and a mobile enterprise world -- cloud security, collaboration support, communications and the like -- the real differences are human. People for whom there is no physical work location must create their own, often only in their mind. Studies, many of which lead by describing the productivity gains possible through the mobile enterprise, finally get around to also describing the loss of connection, team building, cooperation and, perhaps most important, job fulfillment, among remote employees.
And then there’s the problem, seen in the office setting but magnified in a remote environment, of all those non-work distractions like social media -- or a couple of beers during the work day -- just waiting for the isolated employee to fall into. For jobs that can be measured in number of transactions completed, policing non-work time may be manageable, but what about all those positions that depend on quality and commitment instead of repeated tasks? There are, to be sure, people who will work just as well remotely as in an office environment, but what about those who won’t or can’t? All the software and communications in the world won’t make them effective mobile workers.
Bosses who must ride herd on a mobile workforce also face new challenges in building the level of team cohesion and spirit needed to fully support the organization’s goals.
Keeping What You Have: the Current Workforce
Let’s take existing employees first: the people the firm hired well before any expectations existed for work in a mobile enterprise. They may not have the skills -- or willingness -- to function in a fully mobile environment. Throwing them into one later, then trying to upgrade their skills -- and calm their concerns -- is a recipe for months of difficulty even if they are committed to making a go of it.
Then there are those who just don’t want to work mobile. If they’re easily replaceable, one answer -- although not a good one -- might be to let them leave and replace them. But generating major upheaval in the workforce, especially if some of the attrition is among well-liked or highly skilled employees can be a problem in itself. There are few things more corrosive to a good working environment than disgruntled former employees who are still in touch with their former colleagues.
Balancing the Risks and Rewards of a Mobile Enterprise Strategy
There’s no doubt that fielding a mobile workforce can confer some level of benefits on some organizations, mostly in the area of cost, facilities and other tangible savings. But this must be balanced against the human and productivity costs likely to accompany the savings. This is especially true of organizations whose success depends on employee commitment, service and customer relations, all of which can suffer in a mobile environment. Saving even a significant amount on physical facilities probably won’t compensate for damage done to customer satisfaction, service and retention by an unstable and unhappy workforce.
Before You Take the Plunge
The mobile enterprise is one of those areas in which the technology has moved faster than the settings for which it is designed: what we can do is ahead of what we’re ready to do successfully. While it will take technology to make a mobile environment function, it is the people and organizations that will make it successful ... or sink it and its adopters with it if they aren’t careful.
With the software and communications industries touting the undiluted (they claim) benefits to be reaped from going fully mobile, and in-house IT groups salivating over all that new gadgetry, it’s a good bet that many organizations planning for implementation of a mobile enterprise have yet to even discuss their plans with functional managers or HR. That’s a mistake and one that may yield some bitter fruit down the line. The major impacts will be human and functional, and if you aren’t prepared for them, you could face a tsunami of personnel and management problems.
Here are a few considerations you should address before you plan for a mobile environment:
First: can your business truly profit from a mobile enterprise? Not every organization can, and those that can’t point to concrete improvements in their operation from a fully mobile environment would be well to weigh the costs especially carefully before they proceed. It may not make sense for your organization, at least not in today’s marketplace. It’s an old saw, but “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies here.
Second: would an increase in telecommuting support and encouragement provide some of the same benefits as a fully mobile environment? If you can get some good results without cutting the employee-office umbilical, that should probably be your first move. Remember that telecommuting may be elected by employees on an individual basis, but the mobile enterprise is mandated for all as the office environment disappears. No staff responds well to coercion even if it is for the greater good.
Third: does your business depend on a stable, committed workforce? If so, then try everything short of a fully mobile enterprise, and go mobile only when you absolutely have to.
Fourth: if you are convinced that a mobile enterprise is in your near future, is your organization structured to entertain mobile implementation in a small, pilot endeavor -- one division perhaps -- with a staff at least partially representative of the overall organization? Trying a pilot mobile enterprise probably won’t give you the full benefits promised for a fully mobile organization, but it will give you the chance to see just what kind of impact on your staff and operations you can expect. If you elect to go in this direction, remember that many impacts won’t show immediately so plan to give it at least a year in operation before deciding whether it did or didn’t work.
Finally: specifics aside, a good rule of thumb is to view implementation of a fully mobile enterprise in the same way you would a move from one city to another. There are major differences between the two, but the impacts, if less intense, will be similar and just as irreversible.
The mobile enterprise, at its core, is based on a simple proposition: “people will work better if they never have to go to the office, even if there is no office to go to.” Moving toward a fully mobile environment without determining if that is true for your organization, is putting the cart way before the horse.
Title image by Postbear (Flickr) via a CC License