Is the mobile workforce viable?

Is the mobile workforce a practical reality in corporate Africa? Elingo's Karl Reed discusses the technicalities of this much touted organisational dream.

One of the most common misconceptions currently at play in African economies is that mobile workers must operate at management or executive level.

This opinion, which is widely held, amounts to a misreading of what is possible and effective in today's business world. 

Management level employees have been operating as 'road warriors' quite effectively for over a decade, thanks to a combination of email, consumer-focused tools such as Skype and rapidly advancing levels of internet access, through smartphones and other mobile devices.

This often informally utilised combination has allowed managers and executives to work from home, or on the road, or from the client's premises. The key internal benefit of flexibility is matched by the ability to spend more time on-site or at the client's offices, allowing for the building of high quality, lasting relationships.

In more recent years, ‘road warriors’ have been able to log into the company communications or ERP system from a remote location. This vital shift has reinforced the integrity of the organisation's larger communications structure, which can potentially be undermined by too much ad hoc and unstructured off-site communication. 

When it comes to other, mid level staff, deeply rooted fears still exist that operation outside the office walls will create slacking off, taking advantage of the system and so forth. Let's brush aside the clear signs of hierarchical prejudice apparent here and analyse the reality of what is and isn't possible. 

If the organisation utilises a communication system that is open in its structure, it is not only feasible to have contact centre operators working from home, the step can actually cut costs and improve efficiency as well.

With such technologies the operator is able to simply log into the system from any location via a medium sized ADSL line, using standard equipment that can be found in any computer shop. Once the worker has logged in, the line manager will receive exactly the same performance feed as if the employee was sitting in a cubicle next door. All the key indicators can be tracked and managed in real time.

Because the employee is not housed at the office, important basic infrastructure costs (from chairs and tables through to parking bays and workstations) no longer accrue to the company's account. Viewed from this perspective a mobile workforce becomes a very attractive organisational cost cutter and a powerful motivational tool for staff, many of whom relish the lifestyle flexibility the paradigm offers.

The crux is the communication technology being used, of course. If the technology is open and easily integrated in terms of software and hardware the organisation should have no problems in establishing a mobile workforce. Proprietary systems, in contrast, carry with them major expenses, including the need for a heavy duty ADSL line and specialised hardware and software, which must be installed at the remote location. Add these costs up across every remote site and the expense is prohibitive. Conversely, while you probably wouldn't want your contact centre agent operating from a coffee shop’s wireless zone, with open communication architecture this is entirely possible. 

As attractive as a mobile workforce can be, it's important to note that in Africa we remain delayed in the bog of our base-line telecom costs. Our country is one of the most expensive in the world when it comes to basic bandwidth, and this is clearly fettering our ability to take full advantage of the benefits a mobile workforce offers. As we see bandwidth costs fall locally, I have no doubt more local organisations will go mobile – thanks to the flexibility and cost reductions on offer.

The shift can't happen soon enough. Mobile work opens the employment door to sectors of our society currently cut out of the mix. One immediately thinks of the disabled and mothers of young children here. For mobile work to take off nationally, it could only benefit countries struggling to offer opportunities to people highly motivated to work. 

A mobile workforce is not a quick fix intervention. It is only achievable if the organisation's over-arching communication infrastructure is of the appropriate type.  Organisations that are intrigued by the idea but are structurally unable to pursue it should focus on talking to a communications service provider possessing proven credentials in developing and delivering open and easy-to-integrate systems.

As always, the inter-play between business strategy and technology is the central point; the technology must support the business strategy and vision rather than define its limitations. For the companies that have achieved this state of structural readiness, there are few limits as to what can be achieved in the mobile world.

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