Giving workers flexibility in when, where, and how they work is a hot topic right now. The US federal government has passed legislation to make telecommuting easier and multinational firms, like State Street, are instituting programs to let employees choose when and where they work. Why are organizations emphasizing this so much? Mobile and remote employees have more control over their work/life balance and won't have to stop working if circumstance prevents them from coming to the office. Furthermore, they can easily be collocated with clients and allow the company to reduce its real estate and carbon footprint. However, as this chart from my new report, Demystifying The Mobile Workforce, shows, information workers may be moving more quickly to this flexible way of working than their companies currently acknowledge: 66% of the North American and European workforce work outside the office at some point during a month.

If business leaders and their counterparts in IT are to get in front of this trend, they have to understand their mobile and remote workforce. For example, who is shifting work between the office and home? What technology are they using to do so? Do they believe that the company is doing a good job of providing them the policies and technology to work in this way? If business and IT leaders can't answer these questions, they will be hard pressed to accurately:

  • Judge how to develop the corporate IT infrastructure. If portions of the workforce are mobile and/or remote, IT has to decide how to provide these groups remote access to applications and information. Of course, you need to know who the employees are that are leaving the confines of the office to decide which tools they need to be delivered over some type of secure connection. And you have to know where these employees are outside of the office in order to decide on how to make those connections. For example, an employee spending the bulk of her time on a client site may not be able to use a VPN client to access applications, meaning that IT should provide them as a service through an employee portal.
  • Evaluate the devices IT should (or shouldn't) support. Depending on where an employee works, their device needs will be different. Understanding what these employees need will help you make the right decisions on what to provide employees and what to bring in on their own. For example, our data shows us that employees that shift between the office, home, and locations on the road want to use multiple devices, particularly smartphones and tablet computers. Why? They want to be able to pick the device that best fits their location.  
  • Plan content and collaboration strategies to keep workers connected. We know that IT leaders are investing heavily in collaboration technology. The wrinkle the mobile workforce throws into this is the number of different types of devices collaboration tools have to support. For example, to cover mobile workers participating in web meetings via smartphones and tablets, you need to look at web conferencing solutions like WebEx which has native applications for BlackBerrys, iPhones, and iPads.
  • Anticipate how facilities costs will change. With fewer workers coming into the office full time, you have an opportunity to rethink how the provide workspace to their employees. For example, workers who work primarily from home offices may sign up for desk space in an office if they need to come in for a meeting. The key to making these kinds of arrangements work is understanding how often employees are working outside of a corporate office to determine what percentage can do without a permenant desk.

As we show in the aforementioned report, gaining this needed understanding of the workforce begins with a formal research process. This can include both in-depth interviews with selected business and IT leaders, as well as rank and file employees, and an online survey of some or all of the workforce to verify the findings of the qualitative interviews. The bottom line is that if businesses are to smartly plan for and provision a mobile workforce, they need to have a firm grasp of what the issues are related to these workers. That being said, is your business really ready to handle the bulk of your employees doing work full or part time from outside your firewall?