The ubiquitous nature of smartphones and tablets coupled with the proliferation of cloud-based applications has meant businesses have begun reaping the benefits of a mobile office, resulting in improved internal collaboration, enhanced staff engagement, reduced costs and increased revenues.
These benefits are particularly attractive for smaller businesses because they don't necessarily have to invest in capital expenditure to gain advantages as most staff already own at least a smartphone and probably a tablet too. Even in businesses that resisted change or took no action, mobile devices have found their way into the workplace and employees are using them to get their jobs done.
According to Forrester Research’s Forrsights Global Workforce Benchmark Survey Q4 2013, around 56 percent of Australian and New Zealand (ANZ) workers state that they need a smartphone to do their job. Two-thirds of ANZ smartphone owners who use their device for work believe that it makes them more productive, and 61 percent believe that having a smartphone makes it much easier for them to get their job done.
"As smartphones as we know them did not even exist six years ago, this is quite a statistic, implying that smartphones have changed information workers' roles so much in the past few years that these devices are now a basic necessity for these workers to be able to do their jobs. Smartphones are dictating how we work," said Tim Sheedy, Senior Analyst at Forrester Research.
The rapid pace of mobility adoption in the workplace isn't just a local phenomenon either, with 54 percent of SMBs in the wider Asia Pacific region using mobility capabilities and a further 13 percent that have a Mobile Device Management (MDM) strategy in place according to the 2014 IDC Asia Pacific Enterprise Mobility Survey.
Putting mobility to work
What are the potential applications of mobility in business? While it's a given that most workers use these devices as an email, calendar, and collaboration tool, small businesses are also realising the full business benefits that the mobilisation of processes allows.
They're streamlining internal operations using booking tools, accessing up-to-date sales information, recording and managing expenses and time while on the move, and engaging with customers through mobile point of sale (POS), Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, and social media platforms. Small businesses today are using mobile-ready applications to perform sophisticated business tasks that would have been out of reach for cash-strapped small businesses a few years ago.
Take the Manly Food Co-operative, a thriving not-for-profit that has been transformed by simply acquiring two iPads and running cloud-based POS software, Vend, which enables staff to serve customers freely from anywhere in the store. The automated inventory reporting process lets staff monitor stock levels even when they are out of the store.
"Before, we didn't really have inventory control, CRM, or any great reporting capacity via the custom written software. Being able to run stock reports, sales reports, download customer information for mail outs etc. is great. Best part if you don't have to be in the store. As it is all web based it can be done from anywhere," says Director Mark Kelly.
Many small businesses say mobility helps them work how they have always wanted to, but were previously unable to do due to cost or complexity of integration.
An example is Marketing Management Partners (MMP), a small Sydney-based outsource team that had outgrown its ageing internal IT infrastructure. MMP required a software system that better supported the day-to-day operations of the business. Crucially it also had to accommodate MMP's growing internal team, client base, and third party suppliers, all of whom work from different locations and time zones.
"With our cloud-based business system and employees being device independent, it means that technology and systems are not holding us back anymore," says Director Anne Cueoff.
Putting sales people where they should be
In Smart Commercial Solar's case, figuring out how to make mobility work best has been critical.
The solar industry is a volatile and fast paced arena where government, market, and hardware technology change happens quickly. Founder Huon Hoogesteger says mobility has been vital in keeping his staff on top of industry movements, enabling them to react quickly to changes by accessing and sharing information quickly.
"Mobility means all the team remains responsive no matter where they are, and since we are constantly refining and improving the workflow, having collaborative input when we need it in real-time is so important."
"It keeps sales people on the road, where they should be, meeting with our current and future customers. If we can catch up online easily at any time, I don’t really want to see my sales team in the office.”
Of course, being smaller than the big guys has its advantages as small businesses can make decisions and pivot to new systems like mobility relatively quickly. They don't have expensive legacy investments to depreciate over time.
Melbourne-based marketing agency, Optimising, jumped onto a mobile workflow after it saw its employees bringing in and using their own tablets and smartphones to be more productive.
Founder, James Richardson, highlighted the increased visibility in staff output and the ability for employees to access whatever they needed easily from any device and location as key drivers in making the switch.
"Having everything cloud-based and available easily on mobile devices allows us to be a more flexible workplace, whether that be working from home, interstate, or maybe just from our rooftop terrace," he said.
Not all plain sailing
While small businesses have been benefiting from the various applications of mobility, it has also brought with it a fresh set of challenges. The hidden costs of mobile phone plans and usage, security of critical company data on mobile devices, encryption of data moving between device and servers, and culture issues such as when employees are expected to deal with company issues in their own free time are just some of the issues that a mobile workplace needs to contend with.
Founder of online travel company TripADeal, Norm Black, who armed his staff with smartphones and iPads equipped with Salesforce Desk to address his 24/7 support centre issues, says the key challenge for him was the need to spend more time and care recruiting staff who were self-motivated, mature, and reliable enough to work flexibly and remotely.
"We screen all applicants carefully, monitor their performance week on week, and invest a lot of time into people management to ensure that all staff feel valued and in turn work hard to achieve overall business goals," he said.
Making sure you have technologies in place to support the switch to mobility is a recurring theme among the small businesses ZDNet has recently interviewed. They often lack the resources and investment dollars to customise applications, so selecting the right 'off the shelf' services and devices that work well together is all the more important.
"Our team runs different technology and this leads to some troubleshooting, which can waste time," says Hoogesteger,
"Knowing what product to use has been a bit difficult, there is a lot of advice out there, and some paid services like TeamViewer start out reasonable but get expensive very fast," he added.
"We need to be able to share screens, have remote control capabilities and VOIP, but we're not at the stage where we'd be considering major hardware investments like Polycom. So our transition has involved doing things like using a combination of mobile for sound quality and standard Skype or TeamViewer sessions for screen sharing."
MMP's Cueoff suggests a pragmatic approach to mobility adoption so that employees can hit the ground running post-deployment.
"A good start is to document all your business' functions and processes you need covered. You can then look into options that might address all of your needs with one integrated system. Or you may have to build your own by cherry picking individual services that integrate well with each other.”
Making sure employees are aware of processes and procedures around using mobile devices for productivity purposes were also highlighted as challenges by a number of small businesses.
Mobile employees are happy employees
At IMARI consulting, training was key.
"Early stage training and adopting plans with each team member was important. Basically showing a workflow and spending the first week familiarising them with the various systems in place. I have a Dropbox document repository that everyone gets access to with a policies, protocols, and procedures manual that outlines how the company works," says Arna Jade, owner of IMARI Consulting.
Jade manages her company of ten staff almost entirely on mobile devices and apps, using tools such as Xero, Dropbox, and project management tool, Asana.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for many businesses is in embracing the flexibility mobility brings into the workplace. Whether it's the concept of shifting from a traditional office-centric mindset to embracing mobility as a catalyst to improve processes and productivity, all businesses will have their own unique set of challenges.
What is evident, is that a solid mobile setup within a business not only improves efficiency but makes for happier employees and less distracting IT issues.
Employees have already enthusiastically embraced mobile technology; the challenge for businesses is in helping them to use it effectively and securely in the workplace.
The mobile future for small business
Mobility tools and services have played a critical role in levelling the playing field. Business applications that once required teams of IT specialists to develop, and were affordable only by larger businesses, is now an app download away.
Mobility is reshaping the way IT is purchased, managed and delivered — what is more commonly referred to as the consumerisation of IT. As the cost of creating new capabilities continues to fall and mobility adoption continues to surge in the business world, small businesses can now compete like-for-like with the bigger guys across a number of different industries.