The impact of a mobile workforce

commentary How much does mobilising your workforce really mean to your bottom line?On the one hand I feel that WLAN is the best thing since sliced bread but then the lack of decent security in any basic WLAN installation always tends to quash my enthusiasm.



commentary How much does mobilising your workforce really mean to your bottom line?

On the one hand I feel that WLAN is the best thing since sliced bread but then the lack of decent security in any basic WLAN installation always tends to quash my enthusiasm. We are now seeing "add-on" security measures for WLAN that goes a long way towards alleviating those fears, but I won't go into that right now.

Why was I so enthusiastic about WLAN in the first place?

Quite simply, the convenience the technology brings is amazing. In a previous column I talked about my implementation at home but it's the convenience in the business environment I want to explore this time.

In purely infrastructure terms, the benefits of WLAN are obvious: you can expand your office space and there is no need to extend a cable to every new workstation. Given the low cost of access points and WLAN cards, this can end up being quite a cost saving. And, let's face it, that's going to make the Board much happier.

And when I talk about convenience, I am talking about the users' convenience. Want to grab a bite to eat at the company café and still work through a thorny problem on the laptop? No problem if the café sits in a WLAN cell. What we are starting to look at here is a potential increase in productivity.

I can safely say that the installation of our access point boosted our productivity enormously.
But how much of an increase?

Intel was curious about productivity gains too, so they planned a large-scale rollout and before bringing the system online surveyed the company's various user groups to determine how they currently work--complete with timesheets. This same survey was then conducted after the rollout and users were also asked to estimate how much time the WLAN saved them each day.

It was interesting to see, in Intel's case at least, that the user perceived savings were most notable in marketing, followed by engineering, support, manufacturing, and (last by a large margin) sales. But even in the case of sales the perceived daily time savings were still 0.67 hours. Contrast this with the next lowest, which was manufacturing at 1.33 hours.

The benefit for the sales staff might not have been as noticeable if they were glued to their phones, or out visiting clients. But perhaps as commercial WLAN hotspots become more prevalent, sales staff's productivity will improve.

It is interesting to note that the staff perceived time savings were not taken at face value but first "massaged" to allow for overly optimistic estimations. Then they were massaged a second time to reflect actual productivity gains. The two adjustments were each 50 percent so the overall figure used to calculate the increase in dollar terms was just 25 percent of the users perceptions.

Now while I feel the "adjustments" may also be a bit optimistic there is no doubt in my mind that Intel did see a marked improvement in worker productivity, more than enough to compensate for the initial investment in the WLAN in the first place.

If I just take the Test Lab and its small number of staff as an example, I can safely say that the installation of our access point boosted our productivity enormously (even though we have a wealth of readily available wired LAN connections). The freedom to roam around the systems under test taking notes and the like while remaining connected is a great timesaver.

If you have a potentially mobile (in an office sense) section of your workforce it would certainly be worth your while investigating the potential benefits.

For more information on the "Intel experience" you can download the whitepaper here.

Steve Turvey is Lab Manager of the RMIT IT Test Labs.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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