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When employees' personal devices are the rule at work

Rob Maurin, vice-president of content, community and communications for Wave Accounting

Donna Santos, courtesy Wave Accounting Inc.

For growing young companies, information technology can be a significant investment: staff, equipment and overhead.

Wave Accounting Inc., a Toronto-based startup that's gone from 25 to 45 employees in the past five months alone, is taking a more streamlined approach: There's a pile of boxed flat-screen monitors in the corner. And that's pretty much it.

For the rest of equipment to be used on the job, employees are given two options: They can bring their own computers to use at the office, or take advantage of a $500-a-year stipend to buy one or offset the cost.

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Rob Maurin, vice-president of content, community and communications for Wave Accounting, a developer of an online accounting system with several hundred thousand users, says that this is a better fit for the way many of its tech-oriented employees live and work.

"The Internet developer-designer types who make up the bulk of our staff are people who work very intimately with their devices," Mr. Maurin says. "For us to impose a device on them wouldn't make sense."

Even as large enterprises are getting their collective heads around the idea of consumer devices hitching a ride to work – an idea that's been dubbed "bring your own device" – smaller companies are becoming adept at not only accommodating employee devices, but creating an environment where they're the rule and not the exception.

At Wave, prospective employees are given the lay of the land right in the job interview. Its system is part-and-parcel of an IT company with a very lean IT infrastructure. In fact, Wave doesn't have dedicated staff dedicated to its own IT; it doesn't even have an in-house server to maintain. A good deal of work is done online: Its servers are remotely maintained, and staff rely on cloud services like Google Docs for office tasks such as word-processing and e-mail. These can be accessed equally easily from employees' laptops, as well as from their mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets.

"We create apps that run in the cloud, and we ourselves work in the cloud," Mr. Maurin says.

What Wave does supply is large-screen monitors for employees to plug their laptops into, but since these are standard, they can sit in the corner, ready to be plugged in when needed. For Wave, technology procurement is as simple a general office-administration task as anything else.

Of course, it's not always quite so easy. At Pilot Interactive, a Toronto Web-development shop that's worked for large brands like Samsung and Nike, employees can choose between a company-supplied machine or supplying their own machines to work, but security requirements from corporate clients complicates the process.

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David Di Biase, Pilot's managing partner, says that some clients have stringent rules about connecting to their servers, sometimes requiring locked-down virtual private network connections, static IP addresses, and navigating firewalls – making logging on at work more complicated than just hopping onto a Wi-Fi network. And even if employees' personal machines can be configured to access these secure networks, there's no guarantee that the setup will work when they take the computer home.

One solution that's worked for Pilot is to give employees' computers split personalities, by installing multiple instances of an operating system on one machine. This essentially turns one computer into two completely separate machines, which employees choose between when they boot up the computer – a secure, locked-down work machine or a comfortable home machine.

"Our employees like their flexibility and freedom. All they have to do is boot into their work system or boot into their personal system," Mr. Di Biase says.

The company is about 70-per-cent Mac-based, so this could mean two Mac OS installations on one machine, or Mac OS and Windows cohabiting on one computer. The company has also found virtualization – where one computer is used as a remote control for another, with no data actually being stored on the remote-control machine – to be a promising way to keep data separate and secure.

And there are even simpler implements: Mr. Di Biase says that some employees like to bring their personal laptops in, and simply perch them on the desk next to their locked-down work computers that connect to secure networks.

For both companies, the process is a negotiation between the requirements of the task at hand, and the desires of a work force that can't be separated from its machines.

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"It's the way tech startups tend to work. We're by no means an anomaly in this regard," Mr. Maurin says.

"As technology gets better and better, you really do get married to it. It's an extension of you. Your computer, in most cases, isn't just something you use for work."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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