IT managers need to be able to provide the tools and support to help traveling salespeople, jet-setting executives, and telecommuters, but they also need to protect business assets.
The success of today's mobile worker largely depends on IT support.
For anyone inclined to challenge this statement, consider the word choice that comes from your prototypical mobile worker when he or she can't achieve an Internet connection.
My last column on the mobile workforce covered the importance of standardizing both hardware and software as well as establishing the rules of engagement.
Now I'd like to delve into other issues – giving your mobile workers the tools and support they need while protecting your business and your business equipment and data.
Work from home vs. on-the-go employees
As you take a look at your employee base, it's important to distinguish the true road warrior from the work-from-home (WFH) user -- as if we need yet another acronym -- scenario.
The WFH user requires nothing more than an office environment in the home; i.e., a computer (laptop or desktop), printer, fax, phone, etc. This one is easy. The environment is static and controlled.
On the other hand, mobile workers by definition are always on the go. Like the traveling salesman of yesteryear, they're on the road, at home and on the customer's site. They need the tools to be productive from a multitude of locations, whether it's a Starbucks, library, or municipal hotspot.
As my company, The Hoffman Agency, has evolved to embracing mobile working, my role has also evolved. The management team has not only turned to me to manage the flow of bits and bytes beyond our office corridors, but also for my perspective on what makes a successful mobile worker. They recognize that I'm the one on the front lines interacting with mobile employees.
In short, I've found that four attributes characterize the person who successfully adjusts to an ever-moving office:
Self Discipline: For some people, out-of-sight-out-of-mind brings out the worst of human procrastination. It takes a certain amount of mental toughness to maintain productive work habits in diverse settings without 'the man' lurking.
Organized: No question, working on the go puts a premium on organization skills.
Resourcefulness: Mobile workers encounter the unexpected on a regular basis. If they call IT every single time something goes awry, you'll need to add a call center in Bangalore. I've found that the person who can safely secure a cup of coffee while working on a laptop without a tabletop bodes well for this characteristic.
Pack Mule: I know several people who carry so many laptop batteries that the weight exceeds that of the actual computer. If you can't figure out an easy way to lug the stuff, you're starting in a handicapped position.
Tracking company-owned assets
Related to this 'stuff,' IT needs to track the assets of the company-owned equipment. And our employees sign a document of good faith that they're responsible for the loss or damage of equipment from negligence or what we term lack of common sense. Checking a laptop computer as baggage, then discovering a cracked screen upon pickup is not normal wear and tear.
There are a number of tools available that make the mobile worker's life a lot easier. I'm a fan of a Web-based conferencing product called GoToMeeting that gives your mobile folks an easy way to pull together a virtual meeting. Attendees don't need pro-loaded software on their computers in order to participate. They simply click on a URL address sent from the meeting host, and they're up and running.
I also find the unappreciated flash drive (or thumb drive) is a must-have tool for folks on the move. It plugs into your laptop via the USB port, becoming another storage drive and allows employees to carry electronic files from the office and home computer for easy access to their laptop.
We can't overlook the challenge of security. My last column touched on security between the home office and the outside world (via the Internet Service Provider). For flash drives, I strongly recommend using either an encryption and/or password-controlled program.
The bigger security question lies in how you secure such a disparate 'playground' associated with mobile computing.
In the good old days -- five years ago -- users would dial into the corporate network via a modem. That made security easy, since it was controlled by our server in our office.
Today, it's much more cost-effective to let companies like Boingo, Dialer.net, or T-Mobile manage the connections. These come in a variety of flavors: dial-up, broadband or wireless, and the companies also handle the security issues. Because they require a login and password, they automatically encrypt all inbound and outbound Internet traffic (e-mail, Web, IM, VoIP call, etc.) on any access point you use in their services.
It becomes more complicated when your users are connecting through hotels, Starbucks, etc. and you have no control over the 'free' connection. This is a favorite vulnerability preyed upon by worms, viruses and hackers because they know it's a potential back door to Nirvana. Here, you need to make sure you've installed personal mobile firewalls on all of your laptops. Windows XP and Vista include a basic firewall with the operating system at no extra cost. While it's adequate, I recommend an industrial strength mobile firewall from companies such as ZoneAlarm, Comodo, and Symantec that protects you from both inbound and outbound traffic (the Windows product only addresses inbound traffic).
Recently I was at the Denver airport and struck up a conversation with one of the security people who gave me a tour of the lost and found. At first glance, it seemed like Wal-Mart's computer department. He told me they average roughly 100 laptops and 75 other mobile devices (cellphones, PDAs, etc.) every two to three weeks, with about half of these left when people go through security.
It was a reminder to me that security for mobile users needs to come in two forms: technology and common sense.
And if you come off as a nag in 'nurturing' the common sense piece, so be it.
Linda Wilson is the IT director of http://www.hoffman.com >The Hoffman Agency, a global public relations firm with 120 employees.