Mobile Transforms IT's Role: What's Next?

Mobile devices have reshaped the employee-IT relationship and how we work with tools like Google Docs. Brace yourself for big changes over the next five years.

"My office is where my device is."

Over the next few years, this is how users will more and more feel when it comes to work. We expect connectivity anytime, anywhere, with the devices that suit our tasks, location, and time. Mobility, hoteling, social software, and personal cloud will continue to change how and where we work.

These trends have already caught some businesses by surprise, such as the multitude who sought out new mobile device management products once employees started dropping BlackBerry handsets for iPhones and Samsung Galaxys. Some companies are still catching up, yet to define mobility plans, even though their employees are using smartphones and tablets for work. To avoid being caught by similar surprises in coming years, organizations that are planning new facilities or that intend to restructure existing ones will need to consider how technology will impact their workspaces.

Because consumers today have access to so much technology, they expect to have the same options of quality and choice at work. Surprising as it might seem in this economy, some desirable job applicants have actually begun to base employment decisions in part on whether the employer will let them use the devices they want.

[Employee-owned devices present risk management and financial challenges. See 6 Tips For Financing BYOD Workplaces.]

As a result, services and applications that we access through our personal devices are changing the way we work, either directly or indirectly. What will it mean for IT if employees who want to take advantage of Google Now decide to forward all corporate email to a Gmail account? Many of us will have location-based services turned on in our devices by 2017. What will it mean for businesses if Google, Apple, and Microsoft have every square inch of our offices mapped out? What if an employee's corporate health plan draws data directly from his or her wearable devices, increasing or decreasing the employee's premium according to his or her health levels?

This much is clear: Mobile is the biggest technology factor driving changes in our workspaces and behavior. Smartphones and tablets allow us to have computing power on the go. As these devices continue to proliferate and evolve, users will create personal digital ecosystems of interconnected devices. These users, both professional and consumer, will work across multiple screens and locations. Wireless video will enable the ability to usurp a screen or surface for short-term use. Wireless charging will replace wired power connectors for all but the largest devices. All-day performance on devices will become the norm.

However, today's focus on devices is being replaced by a shift toward the personal cloud. Devices will synchronize and share not just data but ultimately transactions -- they will work together as a single workspace. Tasks will be handed off between devices and the cloud. IT's primary role will be to provide a place for devices to connect and securely access corporate resources. IT will be asked to provide guidance, not to control devices.

Trends such as the personal cloud further empower knowledge workers with an even higher flexibility than mobility first granted. Online storage, browser-based apps, and real-time editing open the door to the opportunity to work anytime, anywhere.

When it comes down to designing workplaces that will keep pace with coming years' tech changes, companies should focus on employee activities, not roles. To facilitate this, businesses should structure goals around four primary concepts: personal productivity, collaboration, employee acquisition and retention, and cost and risk management.

Regarding personal productivity, mobile devices and personal clouds are only some of the forces at work. Employee workflows are also changing as more offices provide quiet workspaces, and as high-resolution displays equipped for complex data tasks become more readily available. Many IT departments are learning how to manage diverse device environments, and this diversity will increase as consumers create multidevice ecosystems that extend into their work. Concepts such as "bring your own app" (BYOA) and products that offer real-time cocreating and coediting among remote workers will also impact personal productivity over the next five years.

Businesses can foster workplace collaboration by providing purpose-free, generic "thinking" areas in open-plan spaces; these encourage workers to do their thinking in the presence of others, rather than alone. If companies provide more common areas than are strictly necessary, such as multiple cafeterias or places to read, then employees will feel more encouraged to leave confined spaces. Vertical spaces such as whiteboards and screens should be close to the office's collaborative "neighborhood" in order to promote interaction with content and a "shared mind" around ideas. Digital collaboration will also exert an impact through trends such as online hangouts and the proliferation of content-creation tools that facilitate sharing and coauthoring, such as Google Docs.

For many companies, employee acquisition and retention will be driven by the ability to position technology as a part of a workspace that enhances the quality of life at work. This includes not only accommodating consumerization trends such as those mentioned above, but also providing amenities that help employees be more productive while in the office, such as noise-isolating headphones. Companies vying for top talent will also need to stretch these amenities into nontech categories, such as on-premises gyms and childcare, or flexible work times and office access.

Implications for cost and risk management are numerous. Some efforts might involve employee fitness programs that monitor wearable tech to lower health benefit costs, for example. Others will concentrate on integrating devices and building logins to a single IT system, which will help monitor device and data loss. These systems will also know user patterns and try to serve user needs, such as automatically scheduling travel time based on empirical observations.

The nature of work will be different in five years and so will much of the next-generation workforce. Generation Y will tend to be more involved in communities, more effective in working in teams, and more likely to use IT for relationship building and social networking. As a result of the class of devices we see coming to market today, Gartner expects that by 2016 more words will be typed on glass than on mechanical keyboards. Devices will get smarter and so will buildings, both of which will interact with how people work and how organizations secure assets.

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