It has been two years since Yahoo! chief Marissa Meyer hauled her remote working employees back into the office, intent on eliminating flexible working. The concept is becoming more popular, though, whether people like Ms Meyer like it or not.
In June 2014, an amendment to the UK’s Children and Families Act came into effect. It broadens the scope of employees who could request flexible working arrangements from their employers and forces companies to respond. Employers can say no, but it still raises the issue for them.
In the UK, flexible working already has a significant foothold, according to a 2014 report (pdf) from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the Agile Future Forum.
Drawing on a survey of more than 1,100 UK employees and 500 HR execs, the report found 73 per cent of companies offered a home-working option. Seven out of 10 firms also offered mobile and remote working options. Half of all companies offered multi-site or hub-based working arrangements.
Twenty five per cent of organisations even had employees working in their cars. We knew office space in the southeast was expensive, but that’s ridiculous.
There is a lot to be said for flexible working. Done properly, it can lower the cost of operations (think about those real-estate savings) and can improve employee morale (especially if they can work lying down).
If the concept gets enough steam behind it in your organisation, then you are going to have to put the technologies and processes in place to support it. How will that work, then?
Who’s out there?
Before you make the technology choices, there are some basic questions to ask. What kinds of employee will be working flexibly? Divide them into two types: structured workers and unstructured ones.
Structured types handle repetitive tasks, although they are not always simple ones. A typical example is a call-centre representative, who might handle incoming calls all day.
Until recently, these workers had to be in the office but now cloud-based call centre management solutions and thin clients with voice over IP (VoIP) capability make it feasible for home-based workers to participate.
These roles can often benefit from thin-client systems as they minimise client-side complexity and cost. Losing, say, a Chromebook and headset in the field will be far less expensive than a fully-specced PC, and they will be perfectly acceptable tools for many structured working scenarios.
They may need a broader array of applications as they hop from task to task
Unstructured work tends to be a lot more fluid and less repetitive. Managers, creatives, academics and software developers all do this type of work. They may need a broader array of applications as they hop from task to task, and if those applications aren’t all cloud-based you will have to accommodate them on more than a thin-client system.
Depending on the nature of knowledge workers’ jobs, though, they may still be able to make use of centralised resources. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) runs an operating system (typically Windows) on a virtualised back-end system, streaming it to a suitably-specced endpoint.
This can minimise software complexity on the client side while making it easier for paranoid IT staff to control what is going on.
Naturally, security is one of the biggest concerns for IT staff facing the spectre of flexible working. Virtualised desktops enable them to control what is installed and run on client devices, while also giving them complete control over software patches and upgrades.
VDI may not work for you. Storage and back-end compute costs may make it prohibitively expensive compared with buying relatively cheap PCs, and depending on your internal resource the whole thing may simply be too complex for your IT department to implement.
But that’s ok. There are other options. You can let them have their mobile devices and just protect them from afar.
Mobile data management used to be the answer for mobile protection, but IT analyst firm Gartner has since switched that term for enterprise mobility management (EMM), which also encompasses other functions.
It includes the use of software containers on a mobile system designed to sandbox applications and data sensitive to the workplace. It also focuses more on application inventory, and mobile app deployment and configuration.
EMM also emphasises remote actions, including the remote management of mobile content and off-site troubleshooting, enabling IT departments to manage aspects of mobile devices while in the field.
That will help to remove some key headaches if companies send their flexible workers down the bring-your-own-device route.
One type of technology tool pertains to both structured and unstructured working styles: unified communications and collaboration.
This is a broad term covering many different types of synchronous and asynchronous communication across different channels. It incorporates instant messaging (with presence information), web video conferencing and VoIP-based telephony.
Helpdesk operatives and call-centre workers need to collaborate just as much as marketing types do. Contributing to a knowledge base and reaching out to experts for quick answers are collaborative processes that help to deliver better customer service.
Similarly, knowledge workers can use collaborative tools to work on complex projects involving multiple steps and multiple people. Unified communications and collaboration is important because flexible working often makes it difficult to get all of these workers into the same room at once.
Whichever endpoint solution you choose, you can take advantage of cloud-based services for the collaboration part of your flexible working ecosystem.
Just as IT can centralise some of the controls that keep its flexible workers safe, so companies can offload some of the services that are not mission critical, such as web conferencing and file sharing.
These services can be operated by a third-party provider with specific expertise. Given the challenges on the corporate network of managing the low-latency communication streams required by unified collaboration systems, that can often be a good strategy.
If you are going to do any of this, though, make sure that all of the human elements are in place. You will have to manage your people.
That means user security training that actually works, and a clear policy governing such things as encryption, what data users are allowed to take out of the workplace with them, and how they do it.
Flexible working may be a nice benefit for employees, but it creates a bit of a headache all round for IT. ®