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Blurring boundaries

Blurring boundaries

Technology is fast eroding the traditional divisions between our work and personal lives, which could be a benefit for both employer and employee if managed correctly.

It's 7pm and the daily commute is finally over as you pull into your driveway. Maybe you're pondering what to have for dinner, looking forward to switching off in front of the TV or planning to crack open a beer and watch the football. Then again, maybe your phone just vibrated and you'll be responding to an urgent message from the Dublin office. Work used to be a place you went to do your job. If there was more to do, it meant a late night at the office. If there was a problem in New York overnight, it would have to wait until you got in the next morning. But as technology continues to feed a mounting obsession with staying connected 24 hours a day, so the realms of home and office have begun to blur together.

This is scope creep and it's a trend that has advantages both for the employee and the employer, from increasing flexibility and making it easier for some people to strike the right work-life balance, to improving responsiveness and even in extreme cases rendering office space redundant.

Left to their own devices

Although some may lament the intrusion of work into their home lives, experts say it is a trend that originates with the employee. National president of the Australian Human Resource Institute Peter Wilson says employee desires for greater mobility and collaboration are changing the way Australians work – and ultimately driving a growth in the use of consumer technology in the workplace.

A report on the consumerisation of information technology by IDC Research indicates 97 per cent of Australians use one or more of their own devices for work purposes – 2 per cent higher than cohorts in comparable economies.

But while employees are indicating that for themselves there is a high level of crossover between work and personal gadgets, the majority of employers would prefer there wasn't.

Seventy-three per cent of organisations surveyed said they preferred to purchase the technology used by their employees. And more than other regions, Australian organisations felt the trend towards "bring your own technology" would lead to higher IT costs.

However BYO technology is now finding a foothold at some organisations – and not just the ones you might think.

Stuart Driver is director of IT for the Pacific region at Citrix and heads up the company's BYO PC program for employees in Australia. He has recently begun to find more diversity in the chief information officers who talk about starting a similar program.

"A short time ago, if you had asked me, I would have said it was the very dynamic IT organisations with a forward-thinking culture within the company – I had stereotyped some organisations who I didn't think fell into that," he admits.

"But over the last few weeks I have spoken with some IT directors and CIO-type people and been quite surprised at the sorts of organisations that are thinking about and investigating this type of program."

He says, when it comes down to it, these companies are looking to get out of owning hardware.

"It's not sexy," Driver says. "It's a drain on resources. You can add a lot more value. There are so many things you can do from an IT perspective and hardware ownership is not one of the things that is adding value."

But BYO models are raising a lot of new challenges too.

Partner at Norton Rose law firm, Nick Abrahams, says security is the first practical issue that most employers are forced to ¬consider when dealing with employee-owned gadgets. "If the employer is providing the device then they will have standard operating systems and can contain the data inside that system," he says.

"However once you have more personal devices coming on and off the system there is more opportunity for people to access confidential material and then walk away with those devices."

And confidentiality is a two-way street. From the human resources side, Wilson says it is also important for organisations to have clearly defined guidelines about how and what information they can access on their employee's personal gadgets.

"There are a range of implications for businesses to address in their HR policies," he says, "including the employer's ability to access information on an employee-owned device."

It might seem obvious, but the research has shown that the majority of Australian employees do not understand their workplace's existing technology policies, let alone those that might apply to their own gadgets.

Sixty-three per cent of employees said they thought they were allowed to attach personal devices to their employer's network, for example, but only 51 per cent of employers said they could.

Perhaps most surprisingly, more than 40 per cent of employees believed they were allowed to download non-work related video or audio files on their workplace networks.

Abrahams says the more devices that are accessing a network, the more control and monitoring becomes a problem.

"Organisations are struggling at the moment with the quantity of data being generated," he says. "That's even within their own environments."

All change

But the potential to phase out hardware costs – and even office rental further down the track – is a big drawcard for some companies regardless.

Andrew Barkla is Asia-Pacific president at Unisys, the company which sponsored the IDC study. He says his organisation has reduced its office space thanks to BYO technology policies that have mobilised employees from the desk.

"No one has a permanent office anymore," he says. "Even I don't have a ¬permanent office in Sydney."

Barkla says it is changing the way people organise themselves to strike a work-life balance.

"My assistant told me she used to get home from work and just be able to spend time with her children," he says. "Now she has her laptop and she sometimes does work in the evenings.

"But it is great for her too. She works two or three days a week from home. She can get online and deal with things coming in from the US office at six in the morning, and then spend some time getting her kids off to school and doing stuff like that.

"It frees employees up to have more control over their whole life."

Wilson says managing expectations is very important. Companies need to ensure that employees do not feel they have to be contactable 24 hours a day just because new technology allows it.

Driver also acknowledges that BYO technology is not the solution for everybody and every situation.

"The virtual workplace is something we have been talking about for a number of years," he says. "Now it's become a reality.

"There can be technology barriers, or cultural barriers, but it's also not for everyone. We see some companies deciding to do this for part of their workforce where the model fits and not for others.

"Sometimes you do want to manage the devices, you want people being productive, in your offices, during your working hours. Clearly that doesn't fit in with [a BYO] kind of program quite as well."

And once a company has decided to allow employees to operate from home, there are also occupational health and safety issues that need to be addressed. If an employee slips in their shower, is that going to be classed as a workplace ¬accident?

"You need to take OH&S issues into consideration, definitely," Barkla says.

"You need to ensure your employees are safe and you're connected with them, and also that security needs are satisfied. But if you can do it effectively, it really does change the way people not just approach work, but the way their job fits into their whole life."

Unisys executive, Lee Ward, suggests companies need to take a step back and revisit models for employee ownership that industry has already familiarised itself with.

"In the 1980s, employees were allocated a certain make and model of car," she recalls.

"Later, they were given a range of models from which to choose. These arrangements have developed into today's novated leases and now employees can purchase their own vehicles and manage the maintenance and tax implications themselves."

And the research shows that despite some reticence on the part of Australian organisations to commit to the BYO technology path, 41 per cent think a bring-your-own policy would empower employees and improve productivity, and 36 per cent believe it would reduce procurement costs.

"The companies that are doing it, I think, are the more ¬progressive and are going to be able to be more productive," Citrix's Driver says.

"Rather than making their employees commute through traffic for hours a week, they are able to offer lifestyle choice – as well as choice around the devices they want to run. It opens up a whole raft of ways you can do things differently."

Sidebar: Australian Defence CIO wants to go BYO

Defence staff frustrated with their employer's rigid computing environment should be allowed to bring their own devices to work, the department's chief information officer, Greg Farr, says.

Farr says that as Department of Defence workers become more proficient at using consumer devices such as smartphones, they are starting to demand similar functionality in the workplace.

"What I'd really like to move to under the single desktop concept is 'bring your own' computer," he says.

"If that allows users to configure things the way they want it, use whichever device they want to, and we can do that securely, that has to be an aspiration for us."

He says Defence would need to be able to probe staff computers to see what they were up to for security reasons. A growing number of businesses allow staff to buy their own computers and offset the cost with an allowance or reimbursement.

Farr's comments represent a significant shift in thinking from the traditional public service approach of buying a limited range of computers and locking them down for security reasons.

While Defence's corporate and military systems are among the most heavily secured, the department's network suffered repeated crashes last year, leaving thousands of staff without access to email or the internet and other functions.

Defence Minister John Faulkner has blamed the problems on chronic underinvestment in networking assets. He doled out $280 million in September last year to replace equipment so old it was no longer supported by manufacturers.

Farr has challenged the industry to come up with a personal computing solution that eliminates the need for many staff to have up to four computers on their desks to access material with different security classifications. Instead, he says, they should be able access the applications and information they need through a chosen device that plugs readily into a network.

Farr says he expects Defence staff to increasingly use mobile computers to do work as they moved around, which requires an "any time, anywhere, any device" approach. MIS Australia

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