Mobility and Human Behavior

Mobile computing changed the selection process for technology at many businesses. Employees started using laptop and mobile platforms based on personal preference rather than choosing from a carefully manicured and vetted list. Personal choice took precedent over any notion of whether IT supported, secured or even paid for the device and its services.

The IT practitioner that finds themselves with this predicament tends to see mobility as an issue of control. The natural inclination is to make an attempt to reclaim control by trying to eliminate choice, which often can lead into a frustrating exercise that leaves neither IT nor the employee with the optimal results.

On the other side of the coin, what I also see is that the embrace of mobility leads to a number of benefits that aren’t even apparent from a cost/benefit evaluation. Mobility can serve as the trigger for evolving social behaviors. When viewing mobility from a humanities perspective, then mobility becomes an enabler to make new paradigms possible. When employees are given the resources to do their jobs in more places, they find better and more productive ways to work.

In the past, it was commonly accepted that people needed to be at the office and seated at their assigned desk, because that’s where the immovable resources for their job were located. Regardless of whether it was the best way to work, or even the best location to perform the job, every person was at their desk from 9 to 5, because that’s what society expected. Mobility allows the employee to take their work resources to new locations, and the old paradigms drift away while new ones form. The job doesn't change, but the location does, and new patterns of social behavior emerge.

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review called Why Remote Workers are More (Yes, More) Engaged. Here’s an example where mobility, when viewed outside of the context of hard cost/soft cost savings, actually provides more effective ways for people to work. Individual contributors could work more effectively (and for longer periods of time) when left undistracted at a remote location. When the remote workers visit the office, the time spent with coworkers is used more efficiently because it’s a limited resource, and thus it’s put to better use.

Another example is how mobility can unlock new ways of working together even within the office. While in Singapore, I visited a sales and engineering office in the SunTec Tower that was home to hundreds people spread across multiple floors. There were no assigned desks or offices except for upper management. Each person had a rolling locked file cabinet with their personal papers and effects. At the start of the day, each person picked up their file cabinet from the storage room and rolled it over to an available desk and connected their laptop to the network via VPN. Their desk phones were VoIP based, making their phone number permanent but the actual phone they used ephemeral. People would group together in different ways on different days, based on the membership of the teams they were working on for particular projects. Just a few years ago, this type of dynamic collaboration was all but impossible with most people tied to just one desk, but now mobility made it possible so that business professionals can find new ways to work best together on their own, free from the artificial restraint of a seating chart.

With these exciting ways that mobility removes location as a barrier to finding the best ways to work, the issue of security does remain in play. As we noted in the start of the article, there is a great deal of concern about how to add control back to the equation. But instead of thinking in terms of control over devices, think about reducing risk in the areas that you do have full control, namely the network. It makes sense that individuals have a preference for computing, because the employee is fully aware of their own personal job requirement and the technology that they’re most comfortable using. Individual choice not only is logical, it’s optimal. The task that IT practitioners need to address is how to protect users from malicious activity and enforce corporate policies, even when they may not have control of the device that the employee uses.

The answer is that while we no longer think of physical ties to where our employees go, we do remain concerned about the ways they connect and what traffic they receive. It’s the network that is important to control, and that includes maintaining a secure connection, keeping the traffic across it safe, and extending it to all users. By retaining control of the network, organizations can embrace mobility by making it safe for all users in all locations, regardless of the device. Starting from this premise, it becomes much easier to think in terms of how to make mobility work for your organization, instead of trying to stop its progress.

To take advantage of the benefits possible by extending network security to mobile devices, visit