The ways in which people in their 20s are accustomed to using smartphones and mobile phones can potentially provide a significant boost in employee productivity for organizations savvy enough to capitalize on it. But it comes at a cost to the patience and mental stamina of IT departments.
The convergence of smartphones and social networking among teens and young adults -- helped along by the popularity of the iPhone among this user set -- saw the devices becoming instrumental to every part of their lives. The byproduct of this evolution is a young workforce that lives, sweats and occasionally bleeds by its handheld mobile devices, and its social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
For this generation, the concept of separate work and personal devices rarely exists. The 30-something workforce is similarly inclined, although their use of social networks seems to have less of the obsessive intensity of younger users. Older executives are also starting to follow suit.
"In just two years, expectations have changed," says Margaret Lucas, Youth Marketing Manager for Internet Sexuality Information Services, Inc., a nonprofit that develops technology to promote sexual health and healthy relationships and prevent disease transmission. "It's safe to say that when shopping for a device, it must have Internet access capabilities and somewhat fast speeds. We want information at the tip of our fingers at all times, and to be connected to our social networks. This is part of the cultural shift of people in my generation."
What makes some business and IT managers nervous is the thought of sensitive corporate information or inappropriate comments slipping out via Facebook, or Twitter. According Steve Reneker, CIO for the City of Riverside, CA, "We have a policy on what kinds of things you can't say on Facebook, and violation of this policy could lead to unemployment. Even though you're on your personal time, you're still a representative of the city."
Other organizations may restrict use, but not because of security. Says Charles Hewitt, CIO for the City of Providence, RI, "We're more concerned with time wasting. Department heads are nervous about having people use Facebook for family and personal reasons. We block access to all of the social networks by default, but we'll unblock it for anyone who requests us to, such as the Arts, Culture & Tourism Department."
While it is true that an organization's top priority is to protect its devices, servers and the data that reside on both, there are major management issues that bear re-evaluation. First among these is the question of corporate-liable versus individual-liable device procurement, configuration and management.
Not long ago, smartphones were procured by the organization and purchases were standardized and centralized. Employees were usually offered one type of device, choice of one or two carriers and access only to specified applications.
Nowadays, many workers are bringing their smartphones with them to the job -- and fully expecting to use them in the workplace.
Recent college grad Blair Hood, Director of Legislative Affairs for the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), says "I knew that I would need some sort of mobile device in my employment after college, so I made the initial investment. I've been lucky enough to have every employer reimburse me for my mobile device and its use. It's a benefit to my employer as well. I'm accessible 24/7, I can answer questions when I'm out of the office, and I can push important information out to NECA and NECA members through Facebook and Twitter. The majority of young professionals I know expect to receive a device, or have theirs paid for as part of their employment."
Hood is not alone. In August 2009, Vanson Bourne, a technology market research specialist based in Berkshire, U.K., surveyed 300 IT decision-makers at U.S. and U.K. enterprises of 500 employees or more. Nearly eight in 10 respondents to the survey (78%), which was sponsored by Good Mobile Messaging, reported an increase in the number of employees wanting to bring their own mobile devices into the workplace in the last six to 12 months. Just as many (79%) believe that employees would rather use their own devices to access the corporate network than a company-issued device.
And nearly three quarters (74%) think employees will use their own devices in the workplace if their requests for IT support aren't met. Three quarters of respondents said they must provide support for multiple mobile device platforms, and 63% say they are under more pressure than ever to increase compatibility with people's personal handsets in the workplace.
Corporate concerns about security are proven in the research. More than one quarter of respondents (28%) said they've had to cope with a security breach resulting from an employee using an unauthorized device. Among the largest companies surveyed, that percentage is even higher, with 31% reporting that an unauthorized device has resulted in a security breach. Among the 200 U.S. companies surveyed, 51% of respondents said they would let workers use their own devices if they were assured of security and configuration.
Security is not the only issue IT directors face in accommodating these requests for support, according to the Vanson Bourne survey. While almost half cite security as their biggest concern, there's also the time involved in management and configuration (28%), and lack of control over the device (19%). Interestingly, reduced productivity based on personal usage of applications such as Facebook was last on their list of concerns, cited by only 8% of respondents.
Nonetheless, more than half (54%) of respondents are considering making more applications available via the handset than they previously had done. Chief among these are expense reports, sales data, and forecasts.
It behooves an organization to consider devices not only for employees who are out in the field but also for workers who are mobile while on the corporate premises. Kara Stewart, now VP of Communications for A.I.M. Insight, says one of her previous employers was not so enlightened.
"Getting a phone depended on your place in the org chart," says Stewart. "I ran special events for our retailer customers that were held almost daily. They were on our [corporate] campus but in rooms without phones or computers, and I was always away from my desk. I had to use my personal cell phone for business calls and run back to get email. I was appalled they wouldn't give me a smartphone for a job with so much responsibility and that much mobility. They thought, 'oh, she's on the premises already.'"
Top tips for accommodating a changing workforce:
- Your employees will find ways to use their personal devices at work, with or without your approval
- Be sensible about policies. You might be surprised by the productivity benefits.
- Understand that social networks play a legitimate role in business.
- Consider the needs of your mobile employees on campus as well as those in the field.
- Look for solutions that can help IT handle security, configuration and device management.
- Don't make mobility a hierarchical reward. Junior employees need it to be productive too.