Harnessing communication technology to engage your mobile workforce

Businesses and organisations know that the more engaged their employees the more productive they become but when workers are not based in the office how can a business reinforce the connection with their people?

Employee engagement goes beyond job satisfaction and morale. An engaged employee is one who fully understands and believes in the objectives of their organisation, sees how their own role fits into this, and is actively driven to participate in the success of the company.

Last year’s worldwide study by Gallup, the State of the Global Workplace, reported that only 13% of employees are currently engaged with their jobs. The survey, which polled around 250,000 workers across 140 countries, revealed 63% of employees to be "not engaged" (defined by Gallup as lacking motivation and being less likely "to invest discretionary effort in organisational goals or outcomes"), with the remaining 24% "actively disengaged" – which Gallup says translates into around 340 million employees around the world who are "unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to co-workers." A worrying state of affairs.

The Business Case for Engagement

Studies show that employee engagement also leads to increased creativity, loyalty and productivity. Research carried out by Towers Perrin-ISR demonstrates a very real link between employee engagement and financial performance, whilst Gallup’s own 2013 study includes estimates of the detrimental economic effects of employee disengagement. In short, positive employee engagement is good for business.

These studies are predominantly about office employees. But when it comes to remote workers who don’t have the benefits of traditional office communication or regular face-to-face colleague interaction, employee engagement can be even harder to achieve.

Typically, such workers are physically disconnected from the organisational hub – their job may involve them travelling a lot or working on their own – and this can inevitably lead to feelings of isolation, of being out of the loop, cut-off from the information flow and not fully in tune with the business. Where a workforce is spread out over different regions and multiple time zones, the disconnection can be even more keenly felt.

And in the case of employees such as sales people, medical staff and shop workers, the risk to the business of disengagement is a particular concern since they are often the ones on the “front line”, the public face of the organisation, interacting with customers and partners on a daily basis.

Reaching Out

But technology – in particularly mobile technology – has the ability to reach out to these remote users, bridge the gaps and help them to feel as much a part of the organisation as their colleagues back in the office.

Besides providing a more disparate workforce with the means of increased interaction and a renewed sense of belonging, by extending business information, tools and a platform for discussion to everyone in the business, regardless of location, mobile technology can help:

- enable quicker decision-making

- create greater efficiencies

- boost collaboration

- fuel innovation

- increase productivity

And the great thing is: most people already possess the means for achieving this – their smartphones.

Smartphone Ubiquity

Recent reports charting the levels of smartphone ownership across the globe place the figure for the UK at somewhere between 50% and 70%. What is clear, however, is that the vast majority of phones now being sold are smartphones and that, in tandem with the rise of tablets (a quarter of UK consumers reportedly now own one), smart mobile devices have become ubiquitous. Everyone has one – and that includes your employees.

So whether you issue staff with company devices, or your employees are permitted to use their own smartphones for work (the rise of “Bring Your Own Device” over recent years has been well documented), your remote workforce already possesses the necessary mobile computing platform to enable you to connect with them in a direct and powerful way, wherever they are.

But whilst smartphones and tablets deliver the platform, it’s the tools and applications which sit on top that provide the communications “glue” to link up your staff. Most of these tools are mobile alternatives to desktop or internet software, apps specifically crafted to work on smaller screens and over mobile networks if wifi connectivity is not possible – a key consideration for the mobile worker.

The rise of the business app

Of course the success of smartphones and tablets has been driven by consumer apps. At times it feels like there’s an app for everything, but over the last year or so there has been particular growth in the business app marketplace. In fact Emergence Capital Partners, a technology venture capital company, reported at the end of last year that the number of business app providers in the US had nearly double over the preceding six months.

Alongside the growth of responsive web design, where sites are coded in such a way as to deliver the same information and ease of navigation regardless of the device they are viewed on, the rise of mobile apps specifically for business has been a significant development in the ability of organisations to communicate with their mobile employees.

Remote workers can now be properly connected with their organisation and one another wherever they are, whatever the time, and benefit from a huge range of business productivity tools and “self-service” applications previously only associated with traditional desktop computing. Mobile employees can now collaborate on documents, work on forms and carry out complex tasks as well as receive and react to corporate news and announcements at the same time and in the same way as their office-based colleagues.

Technological Choices

Organisations that are embracing these ways of reaching out to remote employees are making use of the following types of mobile-friendly technology:

- Enterprise social networks (ESNs) such Yammer, Jive, Tibbr and Chatter, deliver Facebook-style micro-blogging and content-sharing for businesses, with an emphasis on groups, collaboration and organisation-wide dialogue, all from a smartphone.

- Mobile versions of desktop communication systems like Skype, WebEx and Lync provide audio and video conferencing, alongside instant messaging and other communication features.

- Enterprise versions of cloud file-sharing systems, such as Dropbox and OneDrive, deliver easy access to up-to-date documentation from mobile devices as well as desktops.

- Mobile intranets – thanks to responsive design, intranet access is no longer restricted to those on the network. All manner of content (from news and documents to audio/video podcasts and webinars) and collaboration tools is now available to remote workers via their phones.

- SMS – it may be the oldest mobile communication technology out there, but broadcast texting (and other more recent mobile messaging systems like WhatsApp) can be one of the most effective ways of communicating with remote workers.

- External social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, are also being used to create private employee groups that enable organisations to build and reinforce communities of connected individuals.

The Importance of Planning

Whilst the arguments for adopting these technologies are compelling, organisations need to undertake thorough planning and allocate the necessary technical resources when considering implementing a mobile strategy. It’s not simply a case of providing the technology and expecting your outlying employees to be instantly and effectively connected to the business.

Organisations must be sure that the technology will deliver on its promises and that all employees in all locations receive the same experience, the same level of service. And the technology must demonstrably meet the aims – apps must be easy to use, information must be easier to access, business processes must be more efficient. If not, then disillusionment and dissatisfaction will set in, the tools will become redundant and the ultimate goal of better engaging your employees will be missed. Planning, testing and an appropriately robust infrastructure are paramount.

And although end-users may not be that interested, governance and security are equally important considerations. You will need a strong set of policies that describe the correct use of these mobile technologies and clear guidance and procedures to protect the business against potential security issues and misuse. All this should form part of a formal mobile strategy and be established long before you begin rolling out the hardware and tools.

A Common Thread

Employee engagement is a perennial challenge for businesses and organisations the world over – and that challenge can be greater still when workers are based beyond the traditional office environment. But mobile devices, and the apps and other services they deliver, can create a common thread linking you and your staff, wherever they work. With careful planning, intelligent deployment and ongoing support, mobile technology can help even your most isolated employees become more connected, more productive and, ultimately, more engaged.