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the future of work

Saturdays, for many working couples, are catch-up days, and last Saturday was no exception as I waited, housebound, for a plumber to look at our broken washing machine. I passed the time by ordering groceries and new clothes for the kids on my smartphone.

When our plumber finally arrived, his efficiency took me by surprise. He pulled out his tablet, took a photo of the appliance's serial number and punched in the part he felt needed replacing. The application opened up a purchase order and, the moment I entered my credit card information, the replacement part was on its way. The invoice appeared instantaneously in my inbox. Despite being out $200, I felt secretly delighted at the efficiencies of an increasingly mobile work force.

The mobile work force – it's one of those terms that get thrown around. Some of us see its value but it's hard to generate any consensus about what it means or how to qualify its impact. What we do know is that , according to a survey of about 1,200 employers by Strategy Analytics. It's thought that this trend will continue with increased smartphone penetration, which is expected to hit 90 per cent next year in the United States and the U.K.

However, many in the business world are still struggling to deal with what it means to be more mobile, how to get there using the latest tools, and how to quantify the impact on productivity.

Duncan Stewart, director of research for tech, media and telecom at Deloitte Canada, said many of us believe that the rise of smartphones has revolutionized the way people do their jobs. Instead of balancing your laptop on the hood of your car, or taking notes with an old-fashioned pen and paper, which you then type into a PC when you get back to the office, everything can now be accomplished on a mobile device, like the one wielded by my handy plumber. While there is some truth to this, Mr. Stewart said there are many companies whose employees still sit at their desks, in front of computers, and do their work the old-fashioned way.

"The 'mobile work force' is for people who are mobile, not for those who aren't mobile," he quipped. Meaning that mobile technology supports those who need to be on the go. These professionals use mobile tools to give quick responses. It is very unlikely that you can create a large PowerPoint presentation on your iPhone; however, you can overview and approve information created by somebody else working from his or her desk.

Those on the go – my plumber aside – tend to be higher up the corporate ladder. The real trend, Mr. Stewart said, is not the rise of the mobile work force but the rise of the mobile executive.

"Their ability to get a binary thumbs-up or thumbs-down while in a taxi ride rather than waiting until the end of the day, especially in global companies, can speed things up by days, weeks, even months," he said.

Going mobile means more than just implementing a bring-your-own-device-to-work strategy; it means rethinking your entire communication and collaboration plan. A new study by Barco and Censuswide shows that 73 per cent of the organizations it polled said they still allocate desks to employees and that new communication strategies are needed to improve productivity, reduce costs and increase collaboration. In other words, devices only tell part of the mobile work force story.

Michael Murphy, vice-president and general manager at Citrix Canada, a Toronto-based company that builds mobile workspace apps, said that companies must equip their employees with the tools to be more productive than they are in the traditional office space.

Yet, the shift toward mobile not only implies working remotely. It also allows us to be less dependent on desktop or laptop computers even within the office. As someone who often lugs around a laptop, I can assure you it feels like being tied to a ball and chain.

Jamie Smyth, CEO of the Smyth Group, a Web and mobile app consulting agency with 24 employees in Brooklyn, N.Y., said he can now go days without touching his computer.

"The impact has been liberating. At work, I've been able move around a lot more, which is huge. The more I can talk to people in person, the better. I love walking into meetings with nothing in tow other than the iPhone 6 Plus in my pocket," Mr. Smyth said.

The only drawbacks he has encountered include committing to purchase more cloud services and taking the time to invest in better data security. He has also seen work creep into his personal life; he dreams of being able to set his phone from "work mode" to "home mode," something he says is never likely to happen. Despite this, he said, he's never looking back.

Welcome to the mobile revolution. It's a brave new world for lucky executives and, in some cases, plumbers.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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