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.

Conclusion

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.

About the author:JenniferTuohy is a work-from-home writer, editor and social media consultant.
Jennifer regularly writes about mobile devices and creative uses of technology for eBay.com.