In medieval times, being a mobile worker was simple. Expected, even. You took your sword out into the field and slew enemies, dragons, what have you. Your tools were your horse, your suit of armor, your sword, maybe a pouch for the spoils of war. Mobile was the only way to go, really — it’s hard to pillage and plunder from your office in the castle keep.
OK, it’s true that not all medieval workers were knights, and I’m sure there were many professions that required an onsite presence. It’s also true that my references might not be strictly historically accurate and that I watch way too much Game of Thrones.
But back to my point — which was that while technology has made being a mobile employee in 2014 easier and more common than it was 10 years ago, it has also made it much more complex. Larry Barrett’s article explores the untethered office along with its many pros and cons. But the truth of the matter is, in spite of the flip-floppers and “back-to-the office” mentality of the Yahoos and Bank of Americas out there, there is a trend toward remote work. And it’s not only work-at-home employees. Today, more and more workers are mobile in another sense: The business trip is no longer time away from the office. Workers are expected to be as connected and productive from their room at the Marriott as they are in the office.
With those expectations, however, come needs. Needs for the right software, hardware, support systems, furniture, even — a toolkit that allows the untethered worker to do his or her job. What are those tools? The obvious ones that come to mind, of course, are collaboration software; SharePoint, Alfresco, IBM, Documentum, Box, Google, Dropbox — many flavors of products that help employees work together from wherever they’re located.
Of course, this short list still raises some questions — is there a line between true collaboration software and file sharing/syncing software? Yes. But it’s a fuzzy one depending on whom you talk to and how it’s used. No one will argue that there’s a huge distinction between SharePoint and Dropbox. But really, a good deal of functionality comes down to implementation. A knight’s horse is no good if it stays tied up in the stable, after all.
And along those same lines, software is no good without hardware to run it on, and no untethered employee worthy of the name doesn’t have at least one mobile device, be it a tablet or a smartphone (or most likely both). While the debate rages on over platform and device choice, an Apple, Android or Windows phone and/or tablet is a must-have in the remote employee toolkit.
What about the laptop? For some it remains a must-have, and that need depends partly on the type of work and partly on the type of worker. A designer doing graphics-intensive layout work is going to need a computer. An office worker who remains tied not just to the corporate VPN but the concept of the corporate VPN is likewise going to need that computer — not necessarily because it’s required physically to get the job done, but mentally. The adaptation curve to mobile technology works at different levels.
If you’re on the fast-adapting end of that curve, though, you’ve probably already discovered that “there’s an app for that” — whatever “that” may be. Microsoft’s recent release of Office for iPad cut the cord for a whole new group of people, although full utilization of Office as a remote tool requires an attachment to Microsoft’s cloud ecosystem — an Office 365 and OneDrive account.
And while we’re talking about hardware, let’s not forget the accessories. I’m sure there are some people out there who can type a multi-page proposal, article or epic letter on Word for iPad using the on-screen keyboard. Those people deserve their own act in Vegas. Myself, without my Bluetooth keyboard my iPad is nothing more than a Words-With-Friends playing, Facebook-checking, book-reading device. With the keyboard, however — and my Office 365 subscription and OneDrive account — I can write articles, edit articles and send articles to my art director for layout. I can write long-winded emails (some might argue this does not fall in the “plus” column). I can remote into my desktop computer and post articles to the Workflow website.
There’s another critical tool: remote access software. If we’re still using the Game of Thrones analogy, remote access software is the Valyrian steel sword — you can work without it, but when you have it, you are invincible. It’s just an extra layer of protection — of awesomeness. Software such as Splashtop, LogMeIn and Parallels Access allows the untethered worker to tether himself right back onto the desktop and access the file that isn’t in the cloud, the software program that’s not on the iPad or the VPN that’s not working on the tablet. It’s the final savior, for when you’ve gotten on that plane and then realized there’s some crucial piece of the puzzle left in tether-land. Because you may have all the tools in place to free yourself, but those tools are dependent on human implementation, and therefore are susceptible to human error. Just as files need backup, so do systems.
So there’s some irony, I suppose, in the fact that the ability to be truly untethered includes a requirement for access to the tethered equipment. But as both mobile software and devices become more robust that need will go away too.
Today’s untethered worker has an immense toolbox at his disposal, and this is just the broadest overview. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of individual programs, apps, systems and tools I could cite as essential. What’s your must-have?
What’s Your Must-Have Tool for the Mobile Employee Toolkit?
We asked some people — some of whom are remote workers, some of whom simply do a lot of traveling — what their must-have tools were when working remotely or in a mobile environment:
“As a remote worker, I cannot live without my headset. While I may look like I work a drive-through at a fast-food restaurant, the headphones and attached microphone allow me to conduct group meetings, conference calls and internal meetings with a consistent sound quality and the ability to mute on the headset. This also keeps my hands free to take notes or run presentations from my computer.”
— Sarah Henderson, West Point Products
“It all comes down to the necessity of a phone — it all started with Alexander Graham Bell and now we have the smartphone.”
— Erik Baklid, VirtualWorks
“If you’re going to work at home, you need a good chair. The couch or the chair you use to check occasional emails will not do the trick, so don’t cheap out. And one thing we need less of is email, not just for the usual reason, but also because it keeps us disconnected from the rest of the team and can lead to miscommunications. People who work at home need to make more of an effort to pick up the phone, use Skype and have personal conversations to make up for the casual interaction you don’t get when you’re not in the office.”
— Jaqueline Risley, Filebound
Quality Internet service; a quiet home office; effective communication back to HQ, be it end-of-day reports or scheduled phone calls; a printer/scanner — wireless and reliable; a smartphone; Skype or FaceTime capability because “out of sight, out of mind”; integrated CRM or ERP so management can see what you are doing — if you appear disposable, you probably are; and quality headphones — if you are in the air and constantly traveling, cancel out that noise!
— Jenna Mammoser, MWA Intelligence
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Workflow
is editor-in-chief of BPO Media’s publications Workflow and The Imaging Channel, and senior analyst for BPO Research. She has more than 20 years professional writing and editing experience and has specialized in the office technology industry for the last 15 years, focusing on areas including print and imaging hardware and supplies, workflow automation, managed print, document management solutions and software, business solutions and more.