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Many mobile workers are willing to use their own laptops and other equipment when they’re on business outside the office. The trend is called BYOD – bring your own device.John Howard

More than two-thirds of Canadian employees already do some of their work each week outside the office. And that trend is destined to grow over the next four years as mobile devices proliferate and employers encourage their use, a new study projects.

Krista Napier, senior analyst for mobility at International Data Corp. Canada, discusses how mobile devices are changing the way people work and the implications of the trend for the future:

How mobile are Canadians at work today, and how will that change in the future?

In IDC Canada's Canadian Mobile Worker 2012–2016 Forecast, we found that mobile work is already the new norm. The Canadian mobile worker population is set to increase from 12.1 million in 2012, accounting for 68.9 per cent of employed Canadians, to 13.3 million in 2016, or 73 per cent of the work force.

We define a mobile worker as someone who is not always working at a desk. They could be a travelling executive, a sales rep, a field worker, a telecommuter or someone who works on location or just logs in to work from a coffee shop. Not all mobile workers own a mobile device but, increasingly, people are using their own rather than having the company provide one.

What do you find the most intriguing finding of your research?

Small companies were the most likely to have mobile workers, compared with their larger counterparts. In a recent survey of Canadian companies, IDC asked what percentage of their work force was mobile. The results showed small companies were more likely to be away from their office at some level, in the field or on location, or working from home at least three days of the week.

What factors may increase the mobile work force even more in the future?

Organizations are becoming comfortable allowing employees in a variety of roles to work off-site and this comes at a time when mobile devices are more affordable and wireless networks and cloud computing make it easier to access corporate documents and applications online from anywhere.

Major factors in urban areas and the rising time and costs of commuting. Allowing employees to work from home or be designated remote or mobile can improve productivity, particularly at the beginning and end of the traditional working day.

What impact will that have on the way people work?

The BYOD trend [bring your own device] is leading toward more employees using their personal smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. as their main devices at work, instead of corporate-issued devices.

For example, I use a smartphone and tablet at work that are my own. I use these personal devices to do work but they also have my favourite apps on them for when I'm 'in-between' work [waiting in line, on a plane, waiting for a customer]. It offers me the ease of using a device that I'm comfortable with, that is unique to me and is an expression of who I am, but also allows me to be productive.

Will that mean ultimately people will carry one device for everything?

Manufacturers are developing devices into single tools that combine features so employees should be able to carry a single device instead of multiple devices. However, our survey found that these days, people own more, not fewer devices.

Tablets for example are very much additive devices. They have not significantly replaced laptops, they have just changed how and where people use them. For example, I don't carry my laptop around with me any more. I leave it at the office. When I'm out and about I take my tablet and often my smartphone with me. In fact the smartphone I'm using right now is really large [5.5 inches] and has a pen for taking notes, too, so I wouldn't even have to carry my tablet around with me as often. But I still need the laptop for data intensive work at the office. I still need the tablet when I'm at home or travelling, and I need my smartphone when I'm on the go.

What can employers do to help speed the mobile trend?

Employers should have a framework to enable mobile workers. A policy for mobile work would help organizations guide employees and managers around the effective use of mobile technology. This could include training to ensure that employees know how to maximize the value of the devices and tools for their work and which features and functions are most relevant to them.

What are signs that employers are taking this to heart?

In a recent IDC consumer survey conducted in 2012, we found that around 48 per cent of Canadian consumer respondents indicated they were already using personal devices at their main place of work. So this is already happening. Now, companies are more formally recognizing it, and starting to put policies and solutions in place.

As of 2012, around 30 per cent had a policy in place. Another 26 per cent say they will have a policy in place by the end of this year. That said, there are still 44 per cent of companies that still don't have plans, so there needs to be some education about the trend and being prepared for it.

Recognizing that BYOD is happening in their company and putting policies in place are only the first steps. The diverse number and type of devices that require access to your network is likely to create the need for greater control and security. With increased mobile work comes a higher risk of data loss, so data loss prevention policies are an important component of a mobile strategy to avoid unintended or intentional harm to the company.

But employers can find lots of companies offering help to employers with mobile device management solutions that are very secure….and affordable.

My advice to employers is: Not doing anything ultimately puts your company at a greater security risk in the future because I guarantee you BYOD is happening anyway.

What downside did you find about mobile work?

As employees find themselves in an office less often, one drawback is less face time with colleagues, where ideas and opportunities are often shared. This will emphasize the need for social networking tools, collaborative online tools, videoconferencing, webinars, and so forth. Simply allowing employees to be more mobile in their work without these and other tools to help them remain in touch with their colleagues would be a disservice.

So what does the future of mobile work look like?

The future will see work becoming increasingly flexible. It can be done on any kind of device, anywhere and any time. And it's secure. The good news is we are not that far away from the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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