Although that day may soon arrive, Tonie Chaltas isn't waiting for her employer to start issuing tablet computers. Like several of her colleagues, the Toronto-based chief operating officer of public relations firm Hill & Knowlton Canada brings one to the office. Through her tablet, Ms. Chaltas has access to the company network, thanks to an IT policy that supports all mobile device platforms.
For Hill & Knowlton, accommodating employees' technology preferences is part of creating a flexible work environment.
"Our business is about our people," Ms. Chaltas says. "If we can't offer an environment that is not only leading-edge from technology but offers them flexibility in how they do their work, we're not attracting and keeping the best and the brightest."
Mobile devices are a necessity for serving clients, too, she adds. "It's become critical in today's business environment to be available as quickly as possible. Mobile devices enable that."
Hill & Knowlton may have embraced the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend, but the company is mindful of risks that include misuse by employees and data breaches if a device gets lost or stolen. The company, whose 200-plus Canadian staff all have smartphones and laptops, keeps a close eye on mobile security.
"Our IT department will set the devices up, so there is a degree of control within that exercise, and they understand what's on them," Ms. Chaltas says. "They're actively working with people's devices on a regular basis so they can monitor what's going on."
As employers become more comfortable with mobile devices, they must build a strategy for managing this consumer-driven technology. For employees, going mobile can mean greater freedom and flexibility, but also loss of control. Meanwhile, workers who use mobile devices can look forward to innovations that will make them safer and more business-friendly.
"The number of Canadians who are mobile in their work in some capacity is huge, and it's growing," says Krista Napier, Toronto-based senior analyst and tracker team lead, mobile devices, with market intelligence firm IDC Canada. IDC surveys show that two-thirds of Canadian workers fit this description – a number expected to reach three-quarters by 2015.
In polls of Canadian businesses last fall, IDC found that the No. 1 driver of BYOD was senior executives bringing mobile devices into the workplace. No. 2: Going mobile can offer flexibility and work-life balance.
Smartphones remain well ahead of tablets in BYOD. But if tablets are still mainly a consumer device, Ms. Napier says, they're getting lots of attention.
Security is one reason. "When you bring a device like a media tablet into the office, all of a sudden it's much easier to move information back and forth and combine personal and business-based information," Ms. Napier explains. "The implications that become very important are security and device management. And we're still really in the early days of that here in Canada."
Likewise, it's too early to announce the death of the personal computer. Duncan Stewart, Deloitte Canada's Toronto-based head of research, notes that by the end of 2012 there will be roughly the same number of smartphones and tablets in use as PCs. But Deloitte has found that in a typical month, people spend 200-plus hours on their PCs and roughly 60 hours on smartphones and tablets.
"Employees will use mobile devices and will use them increasingly," Mr. Stewart says. "But they are nowhere near the point where they're using them for most jobs more than they are using traditional PCs."
Part of the explanation is that tablets and smartphones lack the processing power and screen size for many business tasks, Mr. Stewart says. Still, IT research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. predicts that 80 per cent of businesses will have deployed tablets by 2013.
As for the security risks of using mobile devices, Mr. Stewart stresses the importance of developing a strategy that takes BYOD into account. "Employees will use different devices, and nothing that we can do will stop them," he says.
Mr. Stewart suggests publishing clear usage rules and being open to multiple devices – even though it's 10 per cent to 25 per cent more expensive than supporting just one mobile operating system. Limiting choice can be dangerous, he warns.
"Because you didn't support operating system 3 rather than 1, when your employees are terminated or when they quit or when they lose their device, you lose all of the data on that. You have no way of remotely wiping it."
Employees with mobile devices are blurring the line between company and personal time. Graham Lowe, a workplace consultant based in Kelowna, B.C., sees an upside and a downside to that shift. On the one hand, Dr. Lowe says, knowledge workers with a fair degree of autonomy can use mobile devices to help schedule and complete their work.
On the other hand, some employees lack control over when and how to use these devices because the boss expects them to be constantly available. "The technology becomes like an electronic leash around their neck," Dr. Lowe says.
Love them or hate them, mobile devices will keep evolving. With tablets, IDC's Ms. Napier says voice could join the keyboard and stylus as an input option. "We'll see improvements to make it easier to create and input information on the devices, and making them a little bit more practical for a business user."
Tips for integrating mobile devices
Stephen Midgley is vice-president of global marketing at Absolute Software, a Vancouver-based provider of security and management strategies for computers and mobile devices. He offers these tips for integrating mobile devices in the workplace:
Not everyone needs a mobile device: "People in finance maybe don't need certain devices, while salespeople who travel end up with tablets. So the mobile device management policy framework will vary across the organization."
Set a security policy: "Baseline requirements include being able to force passwords, remotely manage devices and do updates as needed, but also being able to neutralize lost devices."
Take mobile devices seriously: "Manage and secure mobile devices like you manage your PCs. BYOD [bring your own device]is a phenomenon that's happening and it's not going to stop. ... You need to embrace it and deal with it, because it's better to know what you have in your deployment than ignore it and face potential risks."