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What Is a Mobile Workforce? Definition, Benefits, Mobile Workforce Management, and Security Concerns

(Article by Puja Lalwani originally appeared in HR Technologist)

The advent of technology has made it much easier to be a mobile worker. With employees being major consumers of technology outside the office, companies are working to keep up with the growing demand for seamless tech (and infrastructure) for employees. This is especially necessary to simplify mobile workforce management and offer the flexibility the current generations demand. We delve into the basics of what a mobile workforce is and how you can effectively manage it.

The concept of a mobile workforce may seem relatively new. But it isn’t. In 1972, when Jack Nilles worked on a complex NASA communication project remotely, the word telecommuting was coined. Organizations slowly began to adopt the idea that their employees didn’t necessarily have to be physically present in the office to get their work done.

But that’s not all, a mobile workforce also consists of field workers. Managing such a workforce requires the same amount of tech infrastructure as managing a remote workforce. So, in this introduction to the basics, we cover everything you need to know about a mobile workforce.

What Is a Mobile Workforce?

As mentioned, a mobile workforce is defined as a workforce comprising individuals who work outside of a physical office location. These professional workers are not limited to employees who work from home. Deskless workers such as retail employees, insurance salespersons, and gig workers such as Uber drivers are all considered part of the mobile workforce.

A mobile workforce is more common in industries such as manufacturing, construction, retail, and healthcare, where workers are out on the field and not in an office. They are commonly known as deskless workers or field workers.

A mobile workforce is not defined merely by the type of worker. It is also defined by the technology associated with enabling members of this workforce to do their jobs. A mobile workforce is indicative of the shift to the mobility of data and location to aid the “anytime, anywhere” nature of modern work.

A technology that has facilitated this major shift is cloud technology. With data being stored in the cloud, employees can access it anywhere, making it easier to remain connected yet be mobile. Flexibility is another key feature of a mobile workforce, with workforce scheduling technologies making the nature of work and the pressure endured by hourly workers to stick to rigorous shift timings less challenging.

The mobile workforce has slowly been growing over the years. Consider this extract from an article published in the Washington Post in 1979 titled “Working at Home Can Save Gasoline”: “Portable machines now are widely used to record dictation previously taken down in shorthand by secretaries in an office. It is also possible for persons working at home to use the telephone to dictate directly into machines located in their offices and to listen to playbacks of relevant passages.”

Now, we record conversations on our phones, we have transcription software, we can click pictures of troublesome issues and send them across in a minute, and armed with the right technology, we can even use augmented reality to fix a refrigerator that’s giving customer trouble.

The Benefits of a Mobile Workforce

The rise of an increasingly mobile workforce can be attributed to the millennial generation, who have grown up with the efficiency of portability and the ability to make work happen at any time and any place.

The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey of 2019 surveyed 13,416 millennials across 42 countries and territories. From this survey, they found that 49% of those surveyed would quit their jobs in the next two years if they had the choice. For organizations looking for a stable workforce, this can be quite a challenge. But organizations looking to take advantage of this generation – which will make up most of the 75% of the global workforce by 2025 – can achieve some form of stability by catering to their need to be mobile and work from anywhere.

Some of the benefits that having a mobile workforce can offer are:

1. It helps to access and utilize talent from the remotest parts of the world. For example, NASA uses crowdsourcing to hire workers for its projects, and this allows the organization to access high-quality talent with a short turnaround.

2. It makes employees better customer managers. Organizations now arm their deskless workers with mobile apps that help them communicate quickly and directly with their customers. This not only enriches the employee experience but also the customer experience.

3. It makes your business cost-efficient. With the reduced demand for physical space to house employees, your biggest – and most worthwhile – expense becomes the high-end technology and devices to manage your mobile workforce.

4. It offers deeper insights into employee behavior and efficiency. Mobile workforce management solutions have analytics features that give you insights into employee locations and time stamps and capture key metrics of their work to help you understand what’s working. You can then use this data to tweak your mobile workforce management strategy.

5. It enables quick and open communication: Communication becomes much easier when you have the right technology to support your workers. You can communicate with them while they are on the go, giving them important information as it happens instead of waiting for them to report back to work to receive important news. Similarly, they can log in and communicate with their co-workers, giving them the freedom to remain connected. This also reduces the chance of isolation in the case of employees who work from home or freelancers.

Managing a Mobile Workforce

Mobile workforce management (MWM) software is used to help employees working outside the office to receive schedules, communicate with their colleagues, and receive updates about the company, among other things. They also help with invoicing and managing work orders.

Some solutions offer specific tools to manage off-site field employees, while others offer wider solutions to manage remote, temporary, and contract workers.

MWM solutions are now required when the workforce is out on the field more often, interacting directly with customers and performing jobs at customer locations. Such solutions help employers:

  1. Schedule employees’ work
  2. Track their movements through GPS as they complete jobs
  3. Communicate with them in real-time for quick updates
  4. Plan schedules based on predicted workloads
  5. Track the amount of time taken to complete a job by identifying start and end times
  6. Apply employee ratings by customers as a measure of employee performance
  7. Help employees manage their leave and attendance

And these solutions are available for the phone and computer. Solutions such as Mitrefinch mobile workforce management help manage off-site workers in industries from construction to healthcare, retail to hospitality, and government to manufacturing.

Kronos Workforce Central is another very popular solution in workforce management, allowing companies to manage a widespread mobile workforce. Oracle too has a great solution allowing the management of deskless workers, enabling automatic shift scheduling and rescheduling based on status updates.

Bitrix 24 comes armed not only with the essentials of workforce management technology, as mentioned above, but it also has videoconferencing tools to ensure easy social collaboration for remote employees. The easy-to-use mobile interface allows communication on the go. Strong MWM solutions are powered with features to make your mobile workforce more agile. An MWM should support easy but useful communication between the organization and employee.

Henry Albrecht, CEO of employee experience tech provider Limeade, says, “Messages need to be relevant enough to add value and efficient enough to fit into their busy lives. For example, floor workers might need to see an updated safety procedure during a 20-minute lunch break, while a barista might want an update on same-store performance while riding the bus to their next shift.”

Any solution you choose must be able to deliver not only messages from the workplace but also support learning and development on the job.

Mobile Workforce and Data Security

With an increasingly mobile workforce comes the increased threat of data security. Personal phones that house company data are ripe potential victims of cyberattacks and are as vulnerable as work laptops left unattended in a café or connected to a public Wi-Fi network. There is also always the possibility of actual theft of the device in use.

This may be one of the factors that hinder the further growth of the mobile workforce. In such cases, organizations must first look into strengthening their IT infrastructure and securing the apps and devices they provide to their employees to perform their jobs outside the office.

Add to this the security threats of bring your own device (BYOD) systems at work, and the chances of vulnerability are higher. To reduce the chance of this, here are some measures you can take:

1. Educate employees about the threats of cyberattacks and breaches. Ensure that they know what measures to take to prevent this.

2. For remote employees, make logging in through virtual private networks (VPNs) mandatory. This creates safe encryption even over less secure networks and keeps company data safe.

3. Create provisions to remotely erase hard drives in case of mobile or laptop theft.

4. Move to the cloud instead of allowing storage of sensitive data in physical devices. Then, simply by blocking access or erasing the user, you can protect sensitive data.

Key Takeaways for HR and Managers on Mobile Workforce Best Practices

The mobile workforce will grow whether organizations are ready for it or not. And preparing for it through meaningful strategy is always a great idea.

“The biggest missed opportunity I observe with enterprises is thinking they have more time to act. Many large enterprises are still stuck in traditional processes. Inefficiency alone is not enough of a driver for them to embrace new ways of engaging talent. But work is changing rapidly, and businesses that assume all their talent needs can be met with FTEs [full-time employees] alone risk falling behind their competition. Innovative companies are embracing flexible teams to help scale and grow their business to meet market demands,” says Zoe Harte, Senior Vice President, Human Resources and Talent Innovation at Upwork.

However, it will be a bit of a challenge. So, Brynne Kennedy, CEO & Founder of Topia, recommends starting small: “It can be expensive to have a mobile workforce. I often advise companies to think of their workforce as a set of people and opportunities. Their job is to match people to opportunities that are needed for business growth. These opportunities for mobility do not need to always be fully loaded long-term moves; they can be shorter rotations, assignments, remote work and commute or frequent business travel. By thinking more flexibly about mobility, companies can optimize costs. Ensuring tax and immigration compliance for mobile employees also protects against any expensive penalties that may be a surprise!”

Getting a mobile workforce to be efficient requires that organizations start thinking of technology in terms of a mobile-first mindset. Any technology deployed for workers outside an office should be accessible so that efficiency improves. Organizations must keep in mind that their employees now have access to better technology outside work than they do at work. They expect any technology they use – for work or personal use – to be intuitive and engaging. To keep them engaged and efficient, a mobile-first mindset is critical.

As mentioned, it is much easier to manage a mobile workforce now, as it is to be a mobile worker. For organizations, this requires a clear vision of the goals to be achieved by deploying technology for mobile workforce management. Then, even if the technology is rolled out in phases, with a strategy, each phase will deliver measurable effective outcomes and enrich the employee experience for mobile workers.