The rise of the concept Mobile Workforce is a tremendous example of how technology is transforming our personal and professional lives. As our society continues to adopt new technologies such as smartphones and enterprise mobility tools, more companies are allowing employees to become mobile. According to the recent Strategy Analytics‘ Global Mobile Workforce Forecast, the global mobile workforce is set to increase to 1.87 billion people in 2022, accounting for 42.5% of the global workforce (and these figures don’t take into account that current young generations, the future workforce, are mobile-only users!)
This reality demands a new area of expertise for managers: mobile workforce management. As defined by TechTarget, mobile workforce management (MWM) is a category of “‘software and related services’ used to manage employees working outside the company premises; the term is often used in reference to field teams.” In other words, it is a new-fashioned infrastructure for leading and organizing a distributed workforce that has emerged as a response to how digitization is shifting processes and rules in the workplace.
The implementation of MWM within an organization brings a lot of ideas, questions, and doubts to business leaders. When we first asked Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media and visionary of the “Next Economy” paradigm, about his thoughts on this, he shared with us a sharp diagnosis as a starting point:
“The heart of what is happening today is that digital technology is penetrating the real world, making new things possible, and introducing new risks.”
Wanting to address those risks, and other difficulties encountered when scaling and putting mobile workforce management into practice, we reached out to visionaries, CEOs, security experts, software developers and managers working at “distributed companies” to inquire about their experience and advice regarding the challenges of mobile workforce management for the next year(s). Here’s what they shared with us.
Mobile Workforce Management Challenges: 9 Experts Have Their Say
1. An urgent need to tackle employee trust and privacy concerns:
Scaling mobile workforce management hits the first hiccup when you think about…well… employees themselves. The success of your business is directly dependent on your staff, and any transition needs to be transmitted transparently to address privacy concerns and to avoid confusion and lack of trust.
Beau Vrolyk, managing director of Vrolyk Ventures, reminded us of the importance of being trustworthy and setting a business culture from the top-bottom:
The single most challenging part of leading a mobile workforce is trust. The people on the team need to trust each other. This has to be true throughout the entire organization. There can’t be exceptions for executives or anyone else; everyone has to be trustworthy.
Getting proper training about the processes of the company can superpower that trust, as Zoltan Horvath, information security officer at Tresorit, told us:
With a mobile workforce, employees themselves are the most prominent risk factor. The technology and infrastructure framework might be costly, but it can create a secure environment for mobile work. However, it is the employees who have to use these tools carefully and follow security policies. Companies need to provide security awareness training regularly.
With emerging data privacy laws (such as the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe), security is in the spotlight when dealing with a mobile workforce.
What happens when mobile work is also performed on personal devices? Horvath mentions the need for asset management:
We’re a security-focused company, so our team is more aware of security issues than the workforce at other companies. However, the most prominent challenge in mobile work is managing the human error risk factor. Asset management is also a big challenge: keeping track of not only company-owned but also personal devices where work is done, updating them and providing secure networks in the office that separate these to protect company network and information.
2. The absence of scalability models. Time for mobility as a platform:
Another big challenge for many is finding a business model that prospers with a mobile workforce. Teams need to be cohesive and reach growth goals even when distributed in different physical locations.
When asked about this, Tim O’Reilly called for a business paradigm shift:
Our challenge should be to develop mobility as a platform. Think about something like autonomous vehicles; they won’t replace drivers; instead, they will require drivers to get new skills, creating opportunities for new kinds of businesses.
Finding the right people that can innovate and move towards profitability will be an important step in scaling a business, says Beau Vrolyk:
A few aspects will affect profitability. It is difficult to find people who are good at this [mobile work]. Thus, a company will probably need to hunt harder and pay more for this sort of talent. This will result in higher salary costs but should yield higher profitability overall. However, during a transition to this kind of mobile management, there will be higher costs before the earnings arrive.
3. How to foster employee recognition and happiness from afar:
While keeping the focus on the challenge of scalability and growth, we need to go back to the importance of employees – let’s not forget about their happiness and satisfaction. After all, human capital is the risk factor moving your business forward and doing the heavy lifting. How can you make sure your staff feels appreciated and motivated when you don’t physically see them every day?
Kevan Lee, director of marketing at Buffer (one of the leading examples of ‘distributed’ startups out there) told us about the power of praising employees for their work – even if you’re located on the other side of the hemisphere, and gives us this great example:
One thing that I try to be quite mindful of with my remote team is making sure that we have enough avenues for public praise and recognition. It can be easy to stay heads down in one’s work or to keep any praise to private video calls or DMs. To overcome this, we’ve placed an emphasis on praise in public Slack channels (there are some neat Slack add-ons that can help with this, like HeyTaco), and we routinely share team-wide notes of praise for individuals through our internal forum, Discourse.
Make your staff feel part of the “tribe” and don’t lose them, says Nathalie Lynton, director of Shared and Halved Consulting:
Aside from the new technical challenges that remote workers bring to workplaces’ processes and procedures, easily the largest concern many companies have is how the can engage and retain their employees from the opposite side of the country or world.
Without the social aspect of work, employees can feel lonely, unsupported, and generally as though they’re not a part of the “tribe”. This means that many employees feel unappreciated (and you lose them) or forget the importance of their contribution within the company and stop working effectively or efficiently (in which case, they lose you).
A good way to show recognition in companies with a mobile workforce is by “amplifying the power of questions”, explains Bijay Binaya, CEO of Sparkwork:
Questions and answers are one of the best ways to learn, communicate and reinforce the knowledge into the organizational DNA. Enable your deskless workers to ask questions from their peers, supervisors, mentors or let them answer their colleagues’ questions and receive recognition. With the help of field-sourced, self-evolving and meaningful answers and questions, create a powerful knowledge bank that your field workers can access anytime/anywhere from their mobile device.
4. A call for “leadership for mobility” and “mobile workforce management tools”:
Former presidential speechwriter James Humes said that: “The art of communication is the language of leadership”. Indeed, maintaining open communication with everyone in your company can be difficult with a distributed workforce – but not impossible.
Sustained leadership reflects universal principles that apply regardless of the leadership situation – integrity, character, compassion, vision, and all of the many aspects of leadership must be part of the leader’s arsenal. Since the team will not be physically close to the leader to observe them regularly (the primary way that followers use to assess the character and integrity of the leader) it falls to the leader to realize that every interaction with the team carries much more impact. Your character, competence, compassion, and commitment must be on display clearly and unequivocally in every communication and interaction.
Beau Vrolyk adds:
The other operational issue is broad-based communications. I have found that various social media outlets are useful for this. Twitter, in particular, is excellent as it allows the leadership team to state publicly what the company mission, strategy, and goals are. It has a dramatic effect on the team when they see the leader state these things in public… The leadership needs to be much more actively engaged with and available to those being lead. Thus, the missive that anyone can email anyone, and that communications that skip management levels are just fine. Elon Musk wrote an interesting email about this. It’s well worth reading.
Let’s not forget about the importance of having all employees on board and connected Marc Monguió, CEO at JobFluent reminded us:
We are a job board focused on helping Startups, and Tech companies find the right talent. Many of the companies we work with have lots of difficulties in recruiting onsite talent, and they are choosing remote workers. This new way of working can be tough for management and communications. If they want to be successful, companies need to change their mindset and broaden the way they communicate within the organization: both onsite and remote workers need to be connected and have the right tools to do so.
And, when it comes to mastering the art of remote team communications, we should remember the suggestions made by Stella Garber, Trello‘s product marketing lead, to keep close contact by picking the right tools and setting guidelines. Some of her tips included:
- Use a reliable chat for Synchronous Communication.
- Have a shared plan that each team member can access to know what projects are being worked on.
- Make sure you have video meeting space.
- Have a trustable document storage service.
- Share your calendar with everyone.
5. How to overcome network failure and connectivity issues:
We’re used to a hyperconnected world, but there are still times when a network fails or is not available. As you can imagine, this is a real challenge for employees who travel or who work remotely for their companies.
Maxim Salnikov, Google developer expert in web tech, told us about solving this challenge through mobile development and the use of Progressive Web Apps (PWA):
The possibility to replay network requests performed while the user was offline is a game changer for the web platform. The companies using the latest browser API features like this (background sync of Service Worker API) will benefit from it by providing one unified code platform for the variety of devices.
What Maxim Salnikov states is that Progressive Web Apps allow us to create a service that will work even without network connectivity, to solve the challenge of connectivity in a mobile workforce scenario.
At Beebole, we clearly saw this advantage and solved two of the challenges mentioned here (scalability and connectivity) by developing a mobile version of our timesheet system as a Progressive Web App (PWA). The PWA technology saves us time and resources with faster updates and straightforward maintenance, which means we can deliver changes and improve our service continuously. On the other side, it helps with network failure as its PWA nature lets mobile workers use it regardless of network connection. If you’re interested in learning more about how we developed the Beebole app, read our post here on building a PWA for iOS & Android.
In hindsight, these are some of the challenges companies can encounter when managing a mobile workforce. And as we move towards a more mobile life, we’ll encounter many other difficulties such as task organization and scheduling, controlling expenses incurred by mobile workers, insurance, benefits, and training, to mention a few. But not all is lost, we’re also witnessing a transformation that is bringing many benefits to companies in cost, employee satisfaction, and even productivity. It is a matter of embracing the change and setting policies to ensure it goes smoothly.
Where do you think mobile workforce management is headed? What challenges have you encountered? Here’s a deck summarizing the main points of this article, feel free to share or embed: