Telecommuting is no longer just a way to let employees work in their pajamas. It's a way to free them from the confines of a desk, and hopefully increase productivity and efficiency. For the IT Manager, creating a virtual workplace starts with finding the simplest mobile solution for document management and file sharing.
But mobile can be a mess; multiple platforms equal multiple headaches, and locking down the end users and their multiple end points is worse than herding cats. So how do you make the shift to a virtual workplace that both takesthe end user into careful consideration and helps you sleep at night?
Consistency. "Use and reuse similar technologies across desktop and mobile development, delivery, support and maintenance," Matt Bancroft, president of Mobile Helix said in thispost for Wired.com. Simply put, take your current ecosystem, be it Apple, Windows or cross-platform, and find the tools that work most efficiently within it. Here are some of the best options.
Cross-platform: Circumnavigate confusion
If your business deals with multiple clients, or an ever-shifting roster of international team members who bring their own devices, cross-platform compatibility is essential. The simplest way to achieve this is to avoid a proprietary share drive. Instead, invest in a robust but simple cloud-based file sharing system.
While proprietary share drives cause less headaches for IT managers, the same is not true for the end user. Accessing them remotely is time-consuming and complicated, and therefore inevitably circumnavigated. Take this senior director at a global advertising company, whose team members operate from Chicago, Spain, San Francisco and London. She spends sixty percent of her time out of the office. "I do all of my work over email on my 13" MacBook Air or iPhone," she said. "It's far easier for a team member to email me a file than it is for her to direct me to the server's file box, where I have to go down into the folder and click through six different boxes before I've got anywhere near my file. Share drives are time consuming and complicated. I need simple."
Email is roundly acknowledged as the least secure method of file sharing, and it introduces the vagaries of version control. A simple, cloud-based file sharing solution would vastly improve this team's cross-platform workflow.
Dropbox has recently introduced a business level service that allows IT managers to deploy and manage a cloud based, cross platform service with centralized administration and SSO. "Dropbox for business is like a giant, shared super mainframe. You just tell users where to go and they can get what they need from the shared folders," says Bill O'Donnell, Chief Architect and SVP of Mobile Products for Kayak. His is one of the four million businesses Dropbox touts as using the service.
For the enterprise level however, a solution like Box, which includes the option of a server-based 256-bit AES data encryption and AD/LDAP integration, addresses many of the security concerns surrounding Dropbox, and also offers the deeper management tools desired by IT pros.
Apple: From content consumption to content creation
While much has been made of Apple's inefficiency as an enterprise solution, largely due to cost, Apple is at the forefront of mobile hardware and this makes it a major player in the virtual workplace space.
The introduction of iWorkfor iCloud brought Apple's software offerings in line with its hardware when it comes to cloud compatibility. In addition to accessing web-based equivalents to Apple's Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes and Reminders, users can now access, edit, create and work collaboratively on Pages, Numbers and Keynote documents. This step makes Apple's iCloud a truly viable option for a remote workflow.
Alex Lindsay, founder of PixelCorps a global "artisan guild" for digital craftsmen, works in the Apple ecosystem to produce digital video content across continents. Lindsay's job finds him in Oregon one day and Chicago the next. Throw in creating the AfricaDigital Multimedia Academy in Rwanda, and Lindsay's company takes the concept of a virtual workplace to the next level. When he's on the road his remote office toolkit includes three iPod Touches (used for display events), an iPhone 5, a Droid Max (to pick up where the iPhone's battery drops off), an iPad Mini, an iPad 3, an 11" MacBook Air and a 15" MacBook Pro with retina.
While iWork still has somekinks to work through, for Lindsay it is manna from heaven. "Having iWork being free, having collaboration available, having parity across the platforms is really compelling," Lindsay said on the podcast Macbreak Weekly. "Maybe not for large businesses who are still stuck in Word, but for a lot of small businesses, smaller schools, it's very compelling."
Collaboration in iWork only rolled out on November 14, so its viability is still a large question mark. "The real question is how does the document management work in comparison to Google Docs?" Lindsay continued. "It will be a huge jump to be able to do collaboration on a doc that you can actually send to a client and be proud of, rather than the crud that comes out of Google Docs."
The update also added printing from the browser-based app and the ability to create folders for better document organization, all signs that point toward a brighter future for businesses working within Apple's ecosystem. iWork for iCloud is still in beta, but is free to use with an Apple ID. It works with Safari 6.0.3 or later, Chrome 27.0.1 or later, and Internet Explorer 9.0.8 or later.
Microsoft: Powering up for the power user
Microsoft's ambitious push toward the cloud and tablet computing is opening interesting avenues for businesses to create fully featured virtual workspaces completely within the Windows world.
For many businesses there is simply no substitute for Office. The advent of Office 365, a Web-based platform that pairs the Office applications with cloud storage via Skydrive, brought Microsoft into the virtual workplace. But it's the powering up of Office Web Apps, the browser-based, pared-down version of the Microsoft suite, which makes Windows a truly viable option. Users now have anytime, anywhere editing access that plays well with its fully featured siblings — something competitors Google Docs and iWork do not do. "iWork and Office just aren't comparable," Windows expert Paul Thurrott said on the podcast Windows Weekly. "iWork might be comparable to Google Docs — it's at that level of usability."
"When we launched Office Web Apps in 2010, we positioned them as a companion to the desktop Office experience," Microsoft's AmandaLefebver told Thurrott in a recent interview. "But this year, especially, we've made inroads in improving the functionality. Our intention is to shift Office Web Apps to a real, stand-alone Office experience on the web." The introduction on November 7 of real-time editing capabilities was a giant leap in that direction. Until this change, users could jointly edit documents in Office Web Apps but changes had to be saved for other collaborators to see them. With the new live co-authoring feature, modifications appear from all users as they're made.
Paired with Microsoft's Surface tablets, that according to Thurrott, is a completelyacceptable desktop replacement, Office 365 could usher in a seamless virtual workplace for any sized business. The Surface is aimed squarely at the remote worker who is grappling with the iPad as a productivity tool. And it has three major advantages over Apple's offering: It comes with Office baked in, it has faster and more precise input methods with its keyboard/trackpad, and it has windowing.
As the power players step up their game, options for users are only getting better; and there is finally an end in sight to the messy, insecure practice of emailing documents back and forth between team members. The result will hopefully be a securer, more end-user-friendly virtual workplace that leaves all parties satisfied.