More UK employees wish to take advantage of mobile technology for work purposes, but should they be allowed to?

The internet has been a major game-changer for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in many different ways - in terms of their structure, focus, strategy and route to market. But one of the most significant impacts of modern broadband technology has been to break down geographical boundaries, allowing such enterprises to look beyond the four walls of their office, shop floor or workshop.

The world wide web, and the mobile devices that support it, now enable SME bosses and employees to work irrespective of location. Whether they are on holiday, at home, stuck on a train or waiting at the airport, the office is a constant remote presence. Cloud computing, virtualisation, VoIP and online collaboration tools – these enable employees to continue working as if they are in the office, even if they are actually hundreds of miles away. Which begs the question – is there really any need for SMEs to have an office base anymore? Owners would love to reduce their overheads, and many employees are seemingly happy to avoid the commute by staying at home.

But can SMEs really work effectively using mobile technology on a day-to-day basis, or are such solutions best-used offering flexibility and variety on an ad hoc basis?

Employee desire for mobility is strong

The thought of letting employees stay at home 9-5 still fills many SME bosses with dread – with the TV, phone, housework and childcare duties all ready-made distractions for the home-based worker. From their perspective, staff should be able to work as effectively as in the workplace – or even more so, given their reduced travel time – otherwise mobile working is a non-starter.

But based upon a new Cisco-commissioned study, the majority of workers (60 per cent) believe it is no longer necessary for them to be in the office to maintain high productivity levels. Not only this, but 13 per cent of the 2,600 respondents said the ability to work remotely would increase their loyalty to their employer, while nine per cent said it would improve their morale. Another finding of interest to SME bosses is that 66 per cent of workers would accept a lower paid job, on the basis that they have access to a variety of mobile devices such as company laptops, smartphones and tablets.

So employees not only have faith in their ability to work away from the office, and would like to have this option, but are likely to become more engaged if they are given extra freedom. In this respect, employers who staunchly refuse to embrace modern working practices may be missing a trick – potentially evidenced in their staff attrition figures.

Mobile tech encourages employees to work longer hours

The apparent benefits of mobile working do not stop there. Cisco found that many of those employees able to access corporate networks, applications, and information outside of the office are putting in extra hours for the company, at no extra cost.

Some 45 per cent of such individuals work between two and three hours extra a day, the study found – suggesting that the time once spent travelling to and from the office is being put to better use. An ultra-dedicated 25 per cent confessed to spending an incredible four hours extra per day working – equating to 20 hours per week. This free labour can only be seen as a major boost for SMEs, especially with so many still under-staffed following the recession.

Cisco found that employees simply want the flexibility to manage their work-life balance throughout their waking hours. They appear happy to work early mornings and into the evening, if this means they are not chained to their office workstation for a designated period in the middle of the day.

High expectations of mobile technology

But in order for SMEs to capitalise on mobile working options, there is still a responsibility on behalf of the employer to equip their staff with the necessary technology. Of those questioned, 66 per cent said they expect to be able to access corporate networks, applications, and information on company-issued IT anywhere at any time. Not only this, but they value the diversity offered by mobile devices, are up to speed with latest market innovations, and expect their employer to make the investments necessary to support their working practices.

Some employees may choose to purchase their own notebooks and smartphones, but in the majority of cases, companies still need to set aside funding for business IT solutions. They cannot expect to enjoy all the benefits of mobile working, without some element of a financial commitment on their part. Cisco noted that in the future, employees expect their choice of network-connected endpoints "to broaden to non-traditional work devices like televisions and navigation screens in cars".

Such expectations may put some SMEs off. According to the study, 45 per cent of firms are not prepared technology-wise to support a borderless, more mobile workforce.Some 34 per cent said that budgetary pressures currently dissuade them from operating more flexibly, while 57 per cent raised another concern – the security of business data.

With the media hot on data-leak stories, often involving laptops, discs and USB drives, allowing confidential information to leave the office is some ask for business owners.But in reality, with more and more business software now delivered via the cloud, and server management conducted remotely, very little business data is kept under lock and key at the office anymore.

As with fixed office hardware, mobile devices can be password protected and data can be encrypted in order to ease employers' concerns.

Conclusion

According to Marie Hattar, vice-president for borderless networks, employees' desires to be more mobile and flexible in their work lifestyles is "extremely strong throughout the world".

"It is also evident that organisations need to embrace a borderless IT infrastructure to capture competitive advantage and increase employee satisfaction," she stated.

This appears very much to be the case, but it is important to remember than not everybody feels the same about remote working. Many employees enjoy coming into the office each day, valuing camaraderie with their colleagues and the variety it brings to their day. Customers, clients and even job applicants may also be more willing to deal with companies which have a tangible, physical base – an office they can come into with real desks, computers, and a coffee machine.

Mobile working can bring great benefits to SMEs, but it is still a case of horses for courses. For online businesses, the technology has been something of a boon; for high street retailers and small manufacturers it may have a more limited role to play. What is clear is that, whether it is used permanently and continuously, or merely for certain specific functions, mobile technology is bringing increased agility, flexibility and productivity to UK SMEs.

As Cisco futurist Dave Evans comments, "work is not a place anymore, it is a lifestyle" – and thanks to mobile technology, it is an increasingly attractive one.

Find out more about Microsoft solutions for small businesses

Find the technology solution that meets your needs