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The mobility morass

June 1st, 2012 / By: / Uncategorized

Smartphones and tablets’ benefits are obvious. Their drawbacks can be harder to spot.

Handheld devices? Ask Dave Westfall. During a phone interview, we’re cutting out. He suggests we talk on his land line. A minute later, with a better signal, the Aurora, Colo.,-based consultant explains that his smartphone connections have been spotty since an upgrade. In one period the service dropped 37 of 39 calls. He can see the tower from his office. Apparently he’s in a dead zone.

Weighing just a few ounces, smartphones and tablet computers go anywhere with you. You can communicate with just about anybody and find out just about anything, any time. (Well, almost any time.) Moreover, sales representatives and others across the continent and the globe can get together as needed, even in a video conference. Stephen Balzac, a management consultant based in Stow, Mass., notes a subtle benefit: team-building. Staying in touch by handhelds, he says, “helps create a stronger sense of relationship and community among team members.”

So the pluses are obvious, unless you’re on the wrong side of a mountain … or unless co-workers download crucial company data that might be lost or stolen with their handheld device.

At their best, smartphones and other portable devices are remarkably convenient and incredibly useful. On the road, at home, on your shop floor, on a business trip or at a trade show, you can contact co-workers (or competitors), research product and market developments, check vendor prices or adjust a bid for a customer.

But while you’re doing it, watch for passing traffic. Staying in touch and on top of the big picture is an invaluable benefit of handheld devices, but there are immediate concerns that aren’t always so obvious.

Sleep on it

Here’s another thing about handhelds, at once a plus and a minus: They keep you in touch 24-7. But do you really need all-hours contact? “What is the benefit of waking somebody up at three o’clock in the morning to say there’s a problem?” asks consultant Balzac. His own smartphone has a convenient feature: silence. “It makes me very available,” he says, “when I want to be.”

Faraway time zones may have grasped this drawback earlier. Ndubuisi Ekekwe, with the nonprofit African Institution of Technology, blogs for Harvard Business Review that mobile devices “have exacerbated an always-on work culture where employees work anytime, anywhere.” Working constantly isn’t the same as working productively, writes Ekekwe. “Is the obsession of regularly checking email really helping anyone’s bottom line?” he asks. “Are the unrealistic expectations these devices facilitate not setting staff up for burnout?”

Ekekwe notes that his own Africa-based start-up adopted a plan to let customers reach the firm at all hours. “Six months later,” he writes, “we noticed that customer complaints were actually up, and team morale was down.” So let it wait until morning, Ekekwe suggests. Take time to think it through. Sleep on it. “Business will not collapse if we don’t respond to email at 11 p.m.,” he concludes.

Author Larry D. Rosen likewise wonders if handhelds are a curse. His book, iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) argues that iPhones®, Androids™, Blackberrys® and their ilk often drive us to distraction from what really matters—productive work.

Do you fall asleep watching television? Psychologist Rosen claims that’s healthier than constantly checking your email.

Watchword: security

Look again at handhelds’ benefits: They leave you ever and always in touch, with email, text and phone messages. A longtime customer who has been through a wind storm needs replacements right away? A sales person or CEO may be quite happy to take that message after hours. Another client is burning the midnight oil wondering whether her budget will accommodate your bid? You might well elect to get up and recalculate.

On the other hand, if you’re always on the job, are you ever really on the job? When do you have time to focus? Or to sleep, for that matter? And if you or your employees are losing concentration, there are more pitfalls in store, some potentially much more costly.

Perhaps the greatest concern about handheld devices is business security. Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., claims in a 2011 report that tablets and employee-owned devices “are crippling” to firms’ infrastructure and operations professionals’ existing mobile strategies and tools. How do you manage a variety of devices with a checkerboard of applications, some approved by the company, some not?

The Wall Street Journal notes that IT personnel once readily deleted company information on lost or stolen Blackberrys. What about a remote wipe of your lost iPhone? There goes corporate data—along with your family photos, favorite music and personal email.

Who’s in charge of this commingled data? It’s a tough call for your company. Suppose somebody downloads an application with a virus designed to steal company information?

Direct and support

Forrester’s advice: Different employees require different kinds of mobile support from an IT department. IT should ask users what they want in terms of support—and then selectively say “no.” He suggests creating a single clear policy for company-issued and employee-owned devices. Levels of security the company will provide should be clearly stated, as well as what kinds of support the company will offer, and which devices are covered. The company should take responsibility only for applications and services it approves.

And by the way, Forrester adds: “If you let employees use their own handheld devices, it takes some of the burden off your own IT department when employees need help. If it’s somebody else’s device, employees can call their own carriers’ support desk.”

Are you ready for all this? You can’t reach Fred the sales guy when he’s traveling? It’s the same story with smartphones as it is with cell phones: Maybe there’s a mountain in the way. But website traffic via handhelds is growing fast, says consultant Westfall. “Whether we want to admit to it or not,” he says, “it’s a reality and it’s something small businesses have to face.”

In a world of infinite access, both personal and professional, it’s not always so easy to separate the two. What if you catch Fred at his desk checking out some tweets? Is Fred scouring social media for sales prospects? Did he just happen to find one with a really interesting photo? Is he misusing company time? Or just manfully trying to wake up after three hours of cold calling? These are just a few of the questions you face as smartphones and other handhelds infiltrate the workplace.

That tweeter may actually want to buy some awnings. But you can no longer just pull a report of employee use of the company phone system and find out who’s making personal calls on work time. For security, for productivity, for clarity, for you and your employees, create and distribute a written policy on the use of company-issued and employee-owned devices, and stay aware of the risks as well as the benefits.

Marc Hequet is a business writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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