The globalised business environment in which many firms now operate not only demands workforces become more mobile, but also that their mobility is paramount.
Done right, creating a mobile workforce, which can be deployed to secure work in one continent and execute it the next month in another, can bring considerable benefits in terms of the bottom line and resilience in uncertain times.
Without sufficient co-ordination and thought, though, it can slow down key processes, harm governance mechanisms and create long periods where important staff members are not operating at full capacity, with obvious knock-on effects for consumers and clients.
This challenge has now fed into how managers are defining workforce “mobility”, which has taken on the meaning of being adept at moving geographically as well as being armed with the right capabilities to operate on the move.
Unsurprisingly, the story of how firms can successfully make their workforces mobile has technology at its heart, both as a cause and as a crucial enabler. By creating new business models, technology is making it imperative that workforces are mobile and, at the same time, is delivering the means to achieve new objectives.
“The workforce of today is fundamentally different to the workforce of ten years ago,” says Chris Boorman, chief marketing officer of cloud software company Huddle. “We published an Ipsos Mori survey which found that 50 per cent of UK office workers wanted to work from anywhere.”
Helen Hopkin, head of UK resource management at PwC, agrees that mobility “provides the variety and the development that people [staff] are looking for”, but she says it is also a priority for her firm’s clients and leaders. “It [mobility] meets the need of our clients and it helps the business to achieve its growth aspirations,” she says. “It means we can give our clients the right people with the right skills at the right time. It’s absolutely at the core of our strategy.”
EY’s Global Mobility Effectiveness Survey 2013 reported that 49 per cent of companies were deploying more employees into growth markets, including China, Brazil, India, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, compared to other locations. Having a workforce, who can redeploy efficiently and quickly to “hot” areas to find new clients and customers, and take on new work, will often determine the success of such projects.
Once people are deployed, a business faces a new set of challenges in making them as efficient and productive as they would be at the company’s headquarters
Ms Hopkin says PwC have recently altered the firm’s policies on relocation so that its staff feel more comfortable about spending weeks and months in different outposts, and can do so more easily, responding to changing expectations.
“If you think of families now, which are often dual income, we see fewer people moving lock, stock and barrel to a new location permanently, and more people doing a weekly commute, rather than moving their whole family.” As a result, Ms Hopkin says, the firm is “altering relocation packages, to make sure it caters for people who want to keep their families at home and rent a second place”.
Maggie Buggie at Capgemini Consulting illustrates the problems that can arise when a company can’t deploy the right people where it needs to. “We are working with a retailer at the moment and they are really struggling to attract the people they need to work in a new location,” she says. “The upshot is that they are contracting staff in the short term,” giving their newly-located operation a less settled, and possibly more expensive, start.
Ms Buggie notes that encouraging mobility is more of a challenge when senior people are involved. “It becomes more difficult at exec level, because those people have put down roots,” she says.
These kinds of practicalities are not the only challenge for a business trying to elevate workforce mobility to the top of its agenda. Those who have achieved it say getting the culture right is key.
“You need really strong sponsorship and leadership from the top about mobility; that means encouraging people to pick up new skills and competences,” says Ms Hopkin. “Inevitably there is a tension between keeping good people and supporting them with their career development,” she concedes, adding that a resourcing team needs to broker this situation between the business and the individual to come to the right answer. The intention is to have a workforce that is enthusiastic about going to different outposts and doesn’t feel uncomfortable when asked.
Once people are deployed, a business faces a new set of challenges in making them as efficient and productive as they would be at the company’s headquarters, surrounded by its usual support staff and using the standard desktop technology.
The Strategies for a Mobile Advantage report from CEB’s 2013 mobility forum found that 35 per cent of employees think their company’s IT is as effective in a mobile setting as it is in the office, and noted the considerable danger of “mobile sprawl” when companies are growing their mobile presence. Another report, from IBM Global Business Services, says that a proper strategy for the use of mobile technology – including phones, tablets, wearable tech and even things like sensors – has to be at the forefront of a company’s mind.
Gustavo Gomez, chief executive of business automation software company Bizagi, says the task for technology providers is to help companies overcome the natural challenges of making a workforce mobile, including mismatched time zones and periods when workers do not have access to company workstations.
“It’s about being able to carry on following the procedures and governance systems of the company away from your desk,” he says. “For example, you might need some credit-analysis checks done. Normally that can only be done with the software on desktops at work, but our system spreads the reach of the organisational processes outside of the office.”
That means a company doesn’t have to wait for managers to reach an office or hotel to sign off on spending requests or grant workers holiday leave, for example, but can do so on their tablet on the train or on a foreign client’s site. The productivity gains are clear, as are the potential improvements in customer service.
A system like Huddle’s cloud-based collaboration software can benefit a company for the same reason. A firm that has people around the world, some of whom are moving and some of whom need to share bits of content with clients or partners, can jointly work on the same document hosted by Huddle, some of them on mobile devices and some on desktops.
And, unlike an e-mail attachment being forwarded around, a secure audit trail means that management can see exactly who has done what to the content. As with Bizagi, the aim is to make work processes manned by people around the world, some of them on the move, operate as efficiently and safely for the company as possible so the benefits of mobility can be maximised.
All of which amounts to a much more comprehensive challenge than merely persuading staff of the need to work in global outposts or settling them in. Successful workforce mobility involves harnessing technological solutions that maintain governance structures, boost productivity and find new customer-service gains while you’re at it. Global, mobile working has never been so necessary or so competitive.