From the first mobile phone, to the Osborne 1, the first commercially available portable computer, technology has revolutionized the way we conduct our personal and business lives. Can you imagine how different things would have been for The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy if she had an iPhone with Google™ Maps? She would have found the Wizard, taken care of business and been home in time for dinner with Auntie Em.

The days of sitting behind a desk in order to complete work are gone. Businesses worldwide have discovered the value of enabling employees to communicate and collaborate while away from the office. In fact, nearly 75 percent of organizations are making their business applications remotely available to varying degrees, according to a recent TechRepublic study. By 2009 mobile workers will account for one quarter of the world’s working population, according to IDC.

BlackBerrys and laptops and VPN -- “Oh my!”

According to a recent study by Cisco, a mobile worker is defined as “those who work at least 10 hours per week away from home and from their main place of work e.g., on business trips, in the field, traveling or on customers’ premises, and use online computer connections when doing so.” Sounds familiar, right?

With all of the technology that is accessible today, that definition has changed and will continue to change as advances are made. The availability of personal digital assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones, which place the Internet and e-mail in the palm of your hand, has already altered the definition of a mobile worker, as business can be conducted whether you are sitting on a subway, at home on the couch, or in a meeting.

And your little Treo™ too!

The benefits of a mobile workforce are clear: increased business productivity, enhanced competitiveness, and improved communications to name a few. Often times small-to-medium businesses have few employees wearing a variety of hats, jetting from one meeting to another or managing an array of situations. The ability to access company information from the road can be critical to the success of their business.

However, for many business owners enabling a mobile workforce can be a daunting task. Though the technology is available, will the costs outweigh the benefits? Will mobile workers feel isolated from the rest of their colleagues and not have as much company loyalty? Then there are the security risks that need to be considered when giving employees access to the corporate network and company data via wireless or un-secure devices. 

Follow the Wi-Fi signal. Follow the Wi-Fi signal

As the mobile workforce increases, how can managers ensure that they are making the right decisions enabling these workers, and protecting the company at the same time? Here are some dos and don’ts that will help you as you “follow the yellow brick road” to facilitating a successful, and safe, mobile workforce:

Don’t ignore the company’s cultural makeup. Every company differs in its acceptable use policies related to technology. Some businesses may allow employees of a certain level to connect a BlackBerry or PDA to the company network, while others may provide all employees with access. It is important for leaders to examine the company’s culture and create policies that cater to the environment and the employees at the company. It may not be necessary to “reinvent the wheel,” but altering it so that its mechanics are understood by all could be beneficial to everyone.

Do have the right leadership in place. Employing the right manager is always critical, but when you rely on mobile workers, as many businesses do, it can be critical to the success of your company. Managers who fail to provide the right resources or communicate with mobile workers can succeed in only one thing: making them feel isolated and disconnected from the rest of the company, as Cisco’s study noted. Bring in leadership with experience setting up or working with a mobile team. Make sure that they provide the same access to mobile employees as they do to those in the office, but they understand the difference between the two employees as well.

Don’t assume that all employees understand security. Although you may be familiar with worms and zombies, don’t take for granted that all company employees are abreast of the latest security threats. Security is part solution and part education. Provide employees with the right tools to protect their devices from outside threats like hackers, worms and Trojans. It is also important to make sure employees understand that if they lose their PDA, the person who finds it may gain access to critical intellectual property. Equipping mobile workers with the right “know how” is the best security measure for any company.

Do communicate on a constant basis. Once you gain an understanding of the business culture, communicate your knowledge to your employees. Make sure that acceptable use policies are clearly stated and available to your team, and that company goals and individual deliverables are clear. Check in with your mobile workers and connect them with their colleagues, via conference calls or after-hours activities. Communication is something that can not be emphasized enough in all aspects of business.

Who would have thought when looking at that first (giant-sized) mobile phone, that we would one day be able to conduct business on one (that is much smaller too)? Advances in technology are making it possible for us to do things that we never thought would be achievable years ago. For businesses, it is critical to stay on top of the advances in order to stay ahead of the competition. After all, for many business people home is the office, and “there’s no place like home.”

Lisa Metcalfe is a Technology Regional Practice Leader for Tatum LLC. Tatum is the largest executive services firm in the United States, providing strategic and operating leadership in finance and technology nationwide.