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Supporting the Mobile Worker

Many people now use smartphones and tablets in their personal life, but what about work life? The corporate sector has been moving in this direction for many years, but it's less common in the nonprofit sector.

On Tuesday I attended a NTEN Toronto Tech Club meeting where Doug Bastien from OCASI shared his thoughts about how to support mobile workers (i.e. people doing work on a mobile device such as a tablet or smartphone). As many of us in the room had some level of experience with using mobile devices for work or working remotely, there was lots of good discussion about different approaches.

My key takeaway from this session is that in order to be a mobile worker, you need the right systems and hardware, and you need a supportive culture. Here are some thoughts on what each of these involves:

Technology (Systems & Hardware)

In order for it to be logistically possible to do work on a mobile device, you need two things:

  1. Data and systems must be in the cloud, so that they can be accessed remotely on a mobile device
  2. A mobile device (i.e. smartphone or tablet)


4 aspects of mobile workingIf your organization’s systems (or some of them) are already in the cloud, then the first part is pretty much looked after. For example, many nonprofits use Google Apps, a cloud platform that includes email and calendars - so all of your email and calendars are now potentially accessible via mobile. Ideally, these cloud applications/platforms will also be designed to work well on a mobile device (e.g. have an app or a mobile web interface).

Doug also pointed out that the more serious your commitment to supporting mobile workers, the more systems you will need in the cloud. For example, it may be great to check your email on the go - but if you need information that’s on an intranet which is only available internally, then your productivity is definitely limited.

On the other side of the equation, mobile workers need mobile devices. Some options for this include:

  • Give your employees/volunteers mobile devices, paid for by the organization
  • Let your employees/volunteers use their own mobile devices. This is known as “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD), and can be less expensive/easier to manage. If you’re thinking of going this route, Lasa and TechSoup.org offer some things to think about.
  • Have organization “floater devices” to give to employees/volunteers in specific situations when it will be useful, such as at an event. Doug pointed out that if you want to go this route then make sure to only buy as many mobile devices as you will actually need at any given time - technology is always changing and your devices will go out of date/lose value.

Culture

As we know, the technology itself is never enough. Both the mobile worker and the organization need to be on board for mobile working to be successful.

For organizations that struggle with change (and don’t we all sometimes!), Doug pointed out that this doesn’t have to be extreme: you aren’t going to hand all your staff smartphones and then kick them out of the office so they can go be “mobile workers.” The focus is on supporting each staff person to enable them to be the most productive and work in the style that best fits their needs. You may find you have staff that:

  • prefer a traditional work environment where they can be in the office from 9 to 5
  • only want to be mobile workers in certain situations such as at an event
  • work in the field or with clients and can save time by entering/looking up information on the go
  • expect to be able to work anywhere, anytime - in the office, on the bus, at home, in a coffee shop, etc.


As an organization, this forces you to focus on results rather than on the amount of time someone sat in your office. Doug suggested that organizations should take this into account when hiring new managers, to help transition to a more flexible culture.

So what are some strategies for making this work in practice? Mostly it comes down to building trust. Various people in the room shared these ideas:

  • As a mobile worker, create a rough log of everything you do each week. This gives your manager and co-workers a sense of what you are up to while out of the office.
  • Have organization core hours where everyone is required to be in the office. This ensures that there is always some face time and helps to build relationships. (This is assuming your mobile workers are in the same location, which isn’t always the case.)
  • As a mobile worker, if you say yes to an in-person meeting then make sure to be there.
  • Be open to using tools such as Skype or Google+ Hangouts to allow mobile workers to join in an office meeting.
  • See the office as a meeting point, rather than as the place where everyone works.
  • Agree on when mobile workers are expected to be available online. Set boundaries - being a mobile worker doesn’t mean you have to be available 24/7 - but also make sure that you can be reached at the times you agree on.


Do you have any mobile workers in your organization? What are some of the challenges and benefits? What suggestions can you share?

P.S. Here's Doug's presentation:

Comments

Thank you.

Thank you for the thorough write-up about this meetup! I actually had a follow-up email from an attendee who was kind enough to share a sample policies document about flex-time and location. If anyone is interested in seeing it, I can connect you with the person who emailed it to me! Hope to see you all at our next NTEN Tech Club event.

Thanks Tierney and TechSoup!

Kelly

kbergeron (at) 211ontario.ca

(Ontario 211 & the NTEN Toronto Tech Club organizer)