Businesses across the UK are in the midst of a major change, affecting the technology they use and transforming their key processes. A dramatic growth in mobile computing for employees is here, with a plethora of devices requiring close management.

In spite of challenges around control and security, mobile computing - and the drive for a ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy for staff - presents some transformational benefits for organisations. By freeing staff to work where they want, and to some extent when they want, businesses can much more easily meet their customer service and operational goals. They can also provide the working environment expected by their young employees.

Severn Trent plugs gap on working processes

Utility company Severn Trent has seen the potential of mobile computing, and taken brave steps. Five years ago, stuck in what it calls “outdated” ways of working, the business decided it had to get ahead of the times. People were not collaborating enough, tied to their desks in its previous headquarters, and they lacked the tools to make the most of their job.

Myron Hrycyk, the company’s chief information officer, has with his team almost entirely revolutionised its technology, ways of working and operations, with the clever use of powerful mobile computing.

“We have got around 2,000 field workers, out repairing leaks and maintaining our infrastructure,” he says. “Over the last few years, we’ve provided them with tough, ruggedised laptops, which work in the field, are easy to use and give our people all the information they need.”

Severn Trent’s field workers are able to log in to the company’s centralised SAP enterprise resource planning and scheduling system, find their next job the route there, register as being on the job when they arrive, do the job and record it as done. They can also reschedule the work if needed.

Ensuring staff have consistent remote access to the systems has been crucial. Hrycyk explains: “We’ve really invested in a good 3G service, so they have fast and reliable connections to all the information they need.”

The results have been strong. “We’ve seen a great improvement in the field workers’ productivity,” he says, “and we now have better information to manage and improve performance.”

Other Severn Trent staff are also increasingly using mobile devices remotely. The company’s support services teams use laptops and remotely connected PCs to log on and solve problems as and when required, creating more flexibility in their work day and allowing faster resolution of issues.

The difference with the support staff is that they are increasingly choosing the devices they want. “My view is that people really want to use their own device, and that we can successfully manage it,” Hrycyk says. “To support this we need to provide the right management and policies, including who is responsible for what and the necessary technical infrastructure.”

Asked who is really behind the new way of working, Hrycyk cites the staff. “Nowadays, not just with us but across business, it’s really the people who are driving mobility. The key is recognising that this is a people change, and a culture change, and that technology supports this shift.”

Severn Trent now has over 1,200 staff using their own smartphones or laptops. In order to keep control of the devices, and the data on them, all handsets and portable computers have to be registered and equipped with security software, before they can be connected to the company’s central resources. Everything is handled through the company’s carefully devised policies, monitored on its mobile device management systems.

Hrycyk says: “We take all of these steps seriously because they are vital. We make sure that staff understand how the devices can be used within our rules, and that lost devices may be remotely wiped and disabled.”

The company is looking for better ways to benefit from mobile devices. Some of this involves assessing cutting-edge systems. Ultrabooks, a new line of thin laptops with fast processors made by Intel, are in the company’s sights as a useful addition to its assets.

“There’s definitely some real potential to deliver fast computing on a sensible sized device,” says Hrycyk. “When the netbook revolution came along, we looked at those computers but honestly there was just not enough power. The small screen size was also a serious issue, particularly for areas of our business that need to see maps, technical layouts.”

“I’m keen to see how Ultrabooks hit the market - will they be a real contender to tablets and what difference they can make to the way we work.”

O2 ringing in flexible working

Mobile phone giant Telefonica O2, known simply by UK customers as O2, is determined to obliterate old processes that it sees as restrictive. Ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, O2 decided to execute a large flexible working pilot, so that it is ready to allow people to work from home during the likely travel disruption from the Games. The lessons learnt will also guide it with future policies, and enable it to advise its own business clients on similar projects.

The flexible working pilot involved 3,000 of O2’s employees, and was run by a specialist team of 20 senior IT staff, who executed all the planning and prepared the system for the influx of remote log-ons. The pilot enabled it to change a number of working practices, as over 500 staff have already continued working remotely, and its office overheads have been slashed by millions of pounds as it merges estates.

Ben Dowd, business director at the company, says O2’s changes have demonstrated that flexible working requires a strong infrastructure.

“In advance of the pilot, we upgraded our VPN as well as our network infrastructure,” he explains. “On the day, we automatically redirected traffic between servers in the north and south of the Bath Road offices, to ensure that the load was spread efficiently and that there were no bottlenecks with the potential to cause issues for our staff when working offsite.”

O2 plans for over 100,000 staff to eventually work flexibly, and Dowd says the pilot “marked a significant next step in our flexible working journey, proving that the principles underlying flexible working really are the principles that will build the future of work”.

The pilot resulted in a “positive employee reaction” as well as clear “sustainability benefits to the business” including from reduced travel, Dowd says. “We are looking at how we might evolve this initiative further, to see if everyone in Bath Road could work flexibly for one day a week and how we might pilot similar flexible working initiatives in our other offices.”

The company is now considering its own BYOD policy as the changes really take off. Dowd says that the growing demand for consumer devices is also coming from the staff themselves.

As employees continue to “naturally express an interest in using their own devices”, he says, O2 is “currently in the process of running a consumerisation pilot within the business”.

He adds: “Since we operate a mobile workforce, we make sure our staff have the tools they need to work remotely, by issuing smartphones and laptops that allow them to connect to our network no matter where they are.”

O2 is continually evaluating the devices in the market place and what it can enable for users, and says it will consider all options, including tablets and new breeds of mobile device.

“As a digital communications business, it’s exciting to watch the evolution of the connected machine world, since these devices play such an important role in enabling transformational business practices,” Dowd says.

Mobile, BYOD and the latest technology - Making the switch

The vast quantity of devices out there is creating a major headache for businesses, but many companies are aware that it is also a chance for them to free up the potential of their workforce.

Nick McQuire, a research director for enterprise mobility at analyst house IDC, describes the shift to mobile computing as a “sea change” that companies can increasingly see they will need to keep up with.

“It’s a cultural shift that’s been building for two to five years in many businesses,” he explains. “If IT departments don’t go with what is happening, they’re putting the organisation at risk by failing to provide the right services and security.

“But if they do act, then they’re enabling a massive change, and alongside it productivity and efficiency improvements. It is also very useful for employee retention.”

Intel’s Ultrabooks will no doubt be a part of the mobile revolution, he says, and the most popular areas for the devices will emerge over time. “Many businesses are looking at the technology. It will probably be strongest in certain niches, complementing companies’ overall estate.”

The usage of mobile management tools will need to improve among businesses, in order to handle all of the devices on their networks, he says. “Companies rarely use the right technology to enable what they want. Our research shows only a fifth of companies are using proper device management.”

“What is clear,” he concludes, “is the interest in business mobility is great, and many companies are starting to work out how to deal with the vast change.”