Managing a Mobile Workforce

Nearly every business owner will tell you it’s hard to find good people. Here’s one way to attract great employees to your company: use technology that lets your staff go mobile, so they have the flexibility to work anytime, anywhere.

Why Go Mobile?

Few people stick to a strict 9-to-5 schedule these days. They check email on their smartphones, they work from home, they travel for business…the list goes on. Providing the technologies to support these efforts will make your team more productive.

A more important benefit is that flexibility like this tends to create a very loyal workforce, because they can better balance work and life. Allowing mobility also requires trust, and good employees thrive in a high trust environment. You may see lower absenteeism, as people who might have to take off a day of work now have the flexibility to manage their schedule better and can still fit work in around family emergencies and the like. Sick employees can stay home longer to recover, so they get better faster and don’t infect other members of your team.

Staff in the field will make fewer trips to and from the office, which can reduce car and gas expenses. With fewer people in the office, you may be able to use your office space more efficiently, saving on rent and other office expenses. In larger offices, “hotelling” systems allow for shared space that is flexible depending on who will be in the office on any given day.

In addition, for those of you with an environmental focus, telecommuting reduces the company’s overall carbon footprint since staff will be driving to and from the office less.

What Tools Do You Need?

If your IT infrastructure is partially or fully cloud-based, you are already set up for remote access. Anyone connecting from your office to a cloud-based service – like web-based software (e.g. Salesforce.com or similar) – is already connecting remotely. Connecting from home or out in the field is really no different.

Most companies still have onsite infrastructure as well: servers that allow file sharing, additional software programs, email, and other services. For your team to access those, you will want a VPN connection, which stands for Virtual Private Network. This creates a secure, encrypted tunnel across the internet, between your office and the person connecting in. You may want additional technologies that will improve performance, like Microsoft Terminal Server or a Citrix Server, which create a virtual desktop. Many programs run faster this way than over VPN alone.

Instant messaging options, like Microsoft Lync or Google Chat, make it easy for your team to stay in touch throughout the day. Options are even available to use these chat programs on a smartphone or tablet.

As for phones, cell phones are an easy option. In addition, many VoIP (Voice over IP) phone systems allow you to take a phone home or make calls directly from your PC, just as if you were in the office.

You will face some increased technology challenges – the need for tighter security, management of more devices outside the office, remote access environments, etc. – but these are all items that can be easily addressed by the right team. The benefits of mobility far outweigh the costs of the additional technology and resources that may be needed.

How Do You Manage Mobile Staff?

One of the biggest challenges managers face is learning how to manage people who aren’t in front of them. Managers have to focus on managing results rather than managing activities. Training is available that will help you make this transition. It is true that it’s always easier to keep an eye on someone down the hall than someone working from another location, but everyone knows that the people who always appear busy aren’t always the ones getting the most done. Managing to results is actually a more effective management style. It doesn’t matter where someone is working as long as they are getting their work done. Just be sure to put checks and balances in place so that there is regular communication, and set company goals that everyone understands and can embrace in their day to day activities.

There will always be a few employees who abuse the privilege of mobility, but that’s a management issue and should not prohibit you from exploring the possibilities within your own company. Address problem employees as you would in any circumstance: be direct, explain your concerns, and set clear expectations on the changes you wish to see. Odds are, you can already predict who on your team might be a problem if given more freedom to work with minimal supervision. Technology isn’t the problem – the person is, which means management and communication are the solution. If necessary, curtail their privileges and bring them back into the office where they can be more closely overseen.

Where Should I Start?

To get started, consider running a trial, maybe three to six months. If you have employees who are out in the field on a regular basis, consider deploying new lightweight laptops or tablets; if you have staff who would benefit from a flexible work schedule, set up technology that will make it easier for them to work from home. Look into BYOD plans – “bring your own device” – that allow employees to work on their own computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Work with your HR leadership to set clear policies and expectations, both for managers and staff. Set boundaries for the trial as well as measures of success. Make sure that your IT team knows the end results you wish to achieve so that they can put the right tools in place and monitor performance. As you move forward, put checkpoints into place to ensure that the trial is going according to plan, and to address any issues. With care and attention, you will be able to create mobility for your team, generating staff loyalty and high productivity that will benefit you and your business.

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