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How Cell Phones and Tablets Enable Telework

How Cell Phones and Tablets Enable Telework

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Telework (also called telecommuting) is where an employee regularly does their work outside of the office, usually at home or when traveling. To be able to telework, people usually need five things: a computer or tablet, broadband Internet, access to work email, access to work documents, and a phone. Since not a whole lot is out there yet on the role of mobile devices in telework, I thought it’d be interesting to have a look at that.

Telework By Any Other Name

Telecommmuting.citrixonline-Creative Commons

Actually the names for telework are proliferating at a good clip. You can call us work-from-home employees, e-workers, iWorkers, teleworkers, telecommuters, web workers, mobile professionals, mobile workers, digital nomads, location-independent professionals, technomads, or workers 2.0. I suspect this is a phenomenon similar to Eskimos (actually Inuit and Yupik) having multiple names for snow. It’s a really big part of our world. Call us what you will, the International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that by 2015, a bit over 37 percent of the total global workforce will be made up of mobile workers. That's around 1.3 billion of us doing it. We’re working from restaurants, cafes, hotels, our cars, planes, the beach, and classically from home. Nonprofits are adopting telework faster than most other types of organizations, including commercial companies. From 2005 to 2012, telework growth in charities has been 87 percent.

Telework and the Polar Vortex

Polar Vortex.Elvir-Creative Commons

During the polar vortex winter 2014, telework has done some unexpected things like keeping  federal government services open for business during one of the really bad snow storms. According to the Baltimore Sun, It was, in fact, the giant snowstorm in 2010 that was the impetus for the federal government to push more employees to work from home. The federal government lost $100 million a day during "Snowmageddon," a figure that would have increased by $30 million if not for the number of teleworkers already in service.

The Almighty Smartphone

Our smartphones are an increasingly important telework tool. The processing power of our mobile phones roughly doubles every 18 months as does storage capacity, as do Internet speeds with the advent of faster 4G and 4G LTE mobile networks. As smartphones mature, we’re doing more on them and less on our laptops. I don’t know what the formal stat is on this, but I know that I’m much more likely to get a fast response if I text someone rather than call them or email them. As a writer, I spend a bunch of my time just trying to get a hold of people.

More and more things online and in the cloud are geared to smartphones now. We can easily calendar with them, do email, do Internet searches, make calls, instant message, text, and conference on them. Tools like WebEx, GoToMeeting, and ReadyTalk are all optimized for the small screen. All social media is utterly native to mobile devices. Often our best contact lists are now on our phones. Working with documents is very nearly the last frontier in which computers are still superior to mobile devices. Microsoft Office Mobile is preinstalled on Windows Phone 8 and is available for select models of iPhone and Android phones as well.

In our recent stories on how TechSoup employees are using apps, we found an incredible array of work-related things people are doing on their phones. The usefulness of smartphones as business productivity tools doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Perhaps most importantly, the more mobile we are, the more useful our phones seem to be.

Mobile Addiction

The downside? There is the addiction factor. If you have a morbid curiosity on how addicted you actually are, you can take the Center For Internet Addiction Test, a 20-question online diagnostic tool that will give you the bad news. And then many of us are in a quandary on how to keep our work and private lives separate on our phones. More and more people I know are opting to have two smartphones – like the old adage, one for business and one for pleasure. And never the twain shall meet. There’s a ton of information on all this, but I still like Time Magazine’s now ancient 2012 article, Your Life Is Fully Mobile, which is part of their larger Mobile Tech Special Edition.


My sense is that tablet computers, which are regarded as mobile devices, are not yet as essential to telework as smartphones, but they will be eventually. Tablet adoption is very brisk. Just under 200 million of them were sold worldwide in 2013. Microsoft with its Surface line of tablets that are a hybrid of laptops and tablets, is working hard to transform tablets from personal entertainment devices to business productivity machines. There are also an array of Windows 8 tablets from many hardware makers. One big advantage of them is the ability to multitask among multiple apps. The lack of a proper keyboard for tablets is not longer an issue with Logitech and Zagg keyboard cases for iPads, Windows, and Android tablets in all sizes.

Android is by far the most prevalent tablet and phone platform. It has over 80 percent marketshare for smartphones and over 60 percent of the tablet market worldwide. Some popular Android office productivity tools include:

    • Microsoft Office Mobile is a free app for personal use and allows you to view and edit Microsoft Office documents on an Android phone or tablet.
    • Google Drive Mobile is a free app for viewing and editing Google Docs on an Android phone or tablet.

    • Kingsoft Office is a free office app that allows you to view and edit Word and Excel documents.
    • OfficeSuite Pro is another popular $10 app that allows you to view, create, edit, print and share Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files

    Apple iPads are moving in the productivity and business enterprise direction as well. Here are some of the major apps that make them useful for serious work:

    • iWork Office Suite includes the Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet app, and Keynote Powerpoint type app. It is free on new iPads and iPhones.
    • Microsoft Office for iPad recently became available as well. It is a collection of three apps: Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. It is free for a version that just views documents.
    • Office 365 Personal edition is a recently launched fully functional paid version of Microsoft Office for use on mobile devices. It costs $7 per month. This version allows users to have fully functional Microsoft Office apps on one PC or Mac, plus one Windows tablet or iPad.
    • Microsoft Office Mobile for iOS is a free app that allows you to view and edit Microsoft Office documents on iPhones and iPads.
    • Google Drive for iOS is a free app that allows you to view and edit Google Doc office documents on iPhones and iPads. 
    • OnLive Desktop is an interesting free app that provides a Microsoft Windows 7 desktop experience on an iPad or Android tablet. It also offers a way to view and edit Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. The app requires no setup beyond signing up for a free OnLive account.

    Telework and the Environment

    There is a ton of info on how telework helps the environment and is considered part of green technology. According to the TeleWork Research Network, once-weekly telecommutes could save the U.S. as much as $350 billion in employer, employee, and community benefits.

    The benefits basically are:

    • Happier and more productive employees
    • Reduction in travel and CO2 emissions
    • Reduction in travel expenses
    • Reduction in office space needs
    • Reduction in IT costs
    • The opportunity to hire people anywhere the world

    The Mobile Work Exchange has a handy benefits calculator where you can quantify how much telework can help your particular organization. As an example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that by not commuting, each NSF teleworker reclaims an average of 62 hours of their lives back and saves $1,201 a year. Extrapolating those savings across the agency, NSF teleworkers each year collectively spare the environment more than 1 million pounds of emissions and save more than $700,000 in commuting costs. They have around 2,100 employees and about a third of them telework on a regular basis. Find their report here.

    Additional Resources

    New productivity measurement tools like MySammy measures a teleworker’s productivity level each day. MySammy software essentially evaluates how a person spends time on a computer and/or mobile device. It tracks a teleworkers’ activities including duration and applications used. It generates pie charts and bar graphs that provide managers with a statistical look at how teleworkers are spending their time.

    Image Credits:

    • Image one: Polar vortex courtesy of Elvir via Flickr Creative Commons
    • Image two: Working in slippers courtesy of Citrixonline via Flickr Creative Commons

    Do you have some experience teleworking, telecommuting, digital nomading or whatever you want to call it? Please log in and tell us. 

    • It's worth noting that virtual volunteering IS telework - it's just UNPAID telework. So tools and recommendations regarding telecommuting also apply to virtual volunteering.