Advantages (and Challenges) of a Mobile Workforce

 

Workforce mobility climbed its way to the top of many CIOs’ lists of priorities in 2014. Many of the old barriers to workforce mobilization have broken down. IT leaders realize that a mobile workforce does not just mean greater flexibility and freedom for employees; it means fewer expenses and better access to top talent.

In fact, it has become more common each year for for-profit companies to make telecommuting an option for their employees, according to the research firm Global Workplace Analytics. From 2005 to 2012, the number of employees who ‘teleworked’ grew at an average of just under eight percent per year.

Of course, with any radical shift, concerns exist and must be addressed. However, when managed correctly, increasing the mobility of IT employees would be a good idea for most companies.

Cost Savings

“In simplest terms,” writes Ryan Galloway for Forbes, “a mobile workforce lowers overhead. No more sprawling offices. No more vast IT infrastructures.” Indeed, those are simple terms, and the real picture is slightly more complex. While it’s true that office space becomes less of a concern, only on very rare occasions can it be eliminated entirely. And while mobilizing a workforce means that much of the infrastructure formerly managed in-house will be moved to the cloud, that comes with its own set of challenges.

Still, cost savings can be significant. If average full-time employees were given the option to work from home for half of their work week, their employers could see around £7,000 in annual savings per employee. And that number doesn’t even take into account the gains made by happy, free employees now motivated to increase their productivity.

Happier, Freer Employees

U.S. office supply giant Staples conducted a study on telecommuting that confirmed what many assume about employees who can work from home: they’re happier, healthier and do better work. Of those who participated in the study, seventy-three percent improved their diet. Stress levels decreased significantly. Last but not least, ‘work/life balance’—a subjective but important measure of employee satisfaction—improved for 80 percent of employees.

That statistic may be more meaningful now than ever before: A study by McCrindle Research showed that work/life balance is the number one factor in employee retention. Given the high cost of employee turnover—thousands of pounds per employee at least—it’s safe to say that creating happy employees is in the best interest of the entire organization, top to bottom. Further, it may be wise to use telecommuting privileges as an incentive for those higher up on the company ladder: the cost of losing any given employee correlates highly with salary.

Decreased Commute, Increased Productivity

At first glance, decreasing employees’ commute time seems like a one-sided benefit. However, just like work/life balance, improvements for the lives of employees can have major positive impacts on a company’s bottom line.

One of the principal factors is worker interest: the likelihood that an employee will be disengaged nearly doubles when he or she has a long commute. On top of that, telecommuters work as many as seven more hours per week than office-bound employees. Why? More often than not, they still have more time to devote to their lives outside of work once a commute no longer becomes necessary.

Access to Better Talent

As the pace of innovation increases, agility becomes very important. How fast can your company shift direction? How fast can teams adjust to shifting priorities in the middle of projects?

Often, company agility comes down to a question of talent acquisition and management. If it becomes apparent that a project will need a SQL expert, but there’s none available, trying to find a new employee who can come in to the office and work full-time will probably not be worth the time or money. The project manager will have to cut corners or even eliminate vital elements from the project, undermining the results and essentially coming up short. Moreover, even if the manager hires a SQL expert, the options will be limited to people in the vicinity of the company office. That’s not so bad for a London-based company, but it can be a death knell for companies trying to thrive outside of urban areas.

If telecommuting is an option, companies have access to talent from across the country, and in many cases, the globe.

Challenges of a Mobile Workforce

Workforce mobility isn’t all roses and sunshine. There are both qualitative and quantitative downsides to ditching the office requirement. It discourages communication between employees. Some experts claim that rates of innovation and decision speed also decrease. Telecommuting employees may be less likely to ask questions and might feel less liable for their mistakes. A reduced sense of ownership can have a negative effect on the quality of work that employees produce.

Perhaps more importantly, mobilizing your workforce raises serious security concerns. In a regulated office environment, employees are far less likely to leave their laptop screens open in coffee shops, mistakenly leave classified documents on the ground, or expose their systems to malicious spyware. One of the worst security breaches in the history of the U.K. government occurred when a civil servant left sensitive documents in a briefcase on the train. Of course, that can happen on a commute too, but the likelihood of such an event occurring increases dramatically when employees spend most of their working hours outside of an office.

Conclusion

Workforce mobility is not an all-or-nothing issue. It’s possible to add elements of mobility to the workplace without completely abandoning the office, which for many companies is an absolutely essential element of culture and productivity. Having a place to interact with other employees and focus on work has a real value, even if it can be difficult to quantify.

But most companies would do well to reexamine the benefits of telecommuting. Not only does it make employees happier, it almost always makes them more productive. Optimizing workforces for mobility yields greater access to talent, not to mention significant cost savings. Each year, more enterprises make telecommuting an option. There’s good reason for that.