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IT strategy – Gonna get myself connected

Our lives are dominated by mobile technology: faster connections, wireless broadband, 3G and the irresistible rise of smaller, more powerful machines. The commuter trains and coffee bars where business people would read newspapers and magazines are now inhabited by executives wirelessly synched to back-office systems through their laptops, and workers tapping out emails frantically on their PDAs or glued to Bluetooth headsets.

Over the Christmas period, the mobile devices multiply as the latest smartphones, handheld devices and wireless gizmos are exchanged by loved ones. Some of the latest devices have MP3 players built in, email capability, video messaging, texting and personal organisers: apparently, they can also be used to make phone calls.

Recently, one public relations executive even described a new gadget as a ‘one-device solution’, implying that it will solve all business problems at a single stroke.

Mobile devices are the electronic equivalent of the Swiss Army knife, equipping staff for any business eventuality when they are away from the office. But the convenience and benefits of mobile technology have a worrying side effect as the boundaries between personal and professional lives for many mobile junkies are becoming blurred.

According to analysts and vendors, the mobile workforce is revolutionising the way we do business. They say employees are now empowered by technology; we can check emails on the train, take conference calls from the garden or tweak budget forecasts while in bed.

But it seems that nobody is taking time out to relax anymore. We are told it is more important to be connected and fill all that dead time moving to and from offices with more work. And, as a result, the work-life balance for many employees is steadily being tipped in favour of work. It is not unheard of for executives to be seen tapping away at their Blackberry devices – nicknamed the crackberry – while on holiday or, if the story is to be believed, one businessman was lying in an operating theatre doing business on a mobile, while waiting to be wheeled in for heart by-pass surgery.

Straightened times means that business is stressful enough without having to be always connected to the office, especially if mobile gadgets are temperamental.

Research by IT vendor Citrix and Professor Cary Cooper has identified a phenomenon Cooper terms ‘access anxiety’ – a measurable increase in stress levels caused by trying to synch laptops and other devices to back-office systems.

According to the research, workers take an average of four minutes to get external access to email, which equates to about 24 hours a year wasted per mobile employee. Most worryingly, our addiction to mobile has gone so far that 14% of respondents say they would gladly take a pay cut in exchange for better external access and more modern mobile devices. (Finance directors should take note: if employees want less money and more work, why deny them the opportunity?)

Technology companies are generally at the fore of rolling out mobile working. Vodafone has recently thrown out all the desktop telephones in its Newbury headquarters. Instead, employees were given mobile phones so they can be called on one number whether they are at the office or not. At Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading, staff can work from home, or if the sun is shining, wirelessly work by a lake outside the office while ice creams are handed out by their grateful employer.

Of course, mobile technology has been a great addition to businesses that employ it sensibly. Forward-thinking employers connect their staff to the office remotely so they can work at their own convenience. It would also be financially prohibitive for many businesses to comply with flexible working legislation without a policy on working remotely from home.

Yet in our quest to be ‘always-on’ we rarely switch off long enough to take stock, think about strategy, take measured decisions, or read a magazine on the way home.

Companies need to assess the cultural implications of employing a mobile working strategy. It is all very well empowering employees to make their own decisions whether to log on to the office or not, but if you provide them with the tools to work all the time, many will feel implicitly compelled to do so. As one colleague on Financial Director said when he got wireless connection to office email from home: “Broadband means never being able to say, ‘I’m going home now. See you tomorrow.'” l

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