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As more people embrace tablets in the workplace, reshaping how and where the job gets done, experts wonder just how fast and how far the devices will reach. Could the days of the cubicle be numbered?
"Work is an activity; not a place," says Phil Go, chief information officer at Dayton, Ohio-based Woolpert, Inc. "We're eliminating the barrier of having to be in a physical office to be productive."
Woolpert, a design, geospatial and infrastructure firm, has piloted a Bring-Your-Own-Device initiative that lets employees use their tablets to "access their virtual desktops anytime, anywhere," says Go.
The program reflects the adoption of tablets across a wide range of industries:
Consultants at a cosmetics retailer now use tablets and a specialized app to help customers select makeup, learn how to apply products and check their results with a virtual mirror. Supervisors for a Texas-based construction firm use tablets to access architectural plans for an ongoing airport renovation, saving the company an estimated $5 million in printing costs.
And some airline pilots now take tablets, instead of large, heavy flight manuals, into the cockpit — a change that saves airlines millions of dollars in fuel costs per year.
The workplace of the future
"Tablets … will play an increasingly critical role at work," says J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, in an August 2013 report. In 2017, according to the Forrester study, nearly one in five tablet purchases will be made directly by companies. That equates to roughly 68 million tablets flooding the workplace.
It's not difficult to understand the appeal. The device offers an immediate anytime-anywhere connection to the Internet and applications. Ninety-seven percent of IT professionals surveyed by Dimensional Research, a marketing analysis company, think this kind of access makes employees more effective at work.
But some researchers doubt the device will completely replace laptops and desktop computers. It can be cumbersome, for instance, to type long documents on today's tablets. Others question whether employers will fully embrace having workers spend most of their time out of supervision.
But there's little doubt that mobile devices have become acceptable and, in some ways, superior business tools.
Woolpert recently went live with a unified communications system that lets employees use tablets to send instant messages and participate in video conferences. "This is a work in progress, but it is proving to be very viable," Go says.
Like other firms, Woolpert expects to save time and money and boost productivity with these initiatives. And researchers say additional uses will surface as new generations of tablets — and workers — enter the workplace.
The growing presence of tablets at work has created some challenges for companies, especially in the IT department.
Tablets rely on wireless Internet, and some companies need more wireless capacity to accommodate the growing use. Also, companies say they must be vigilant about network security, especially when employee-owned tablets are used in the office.
But the upside can be worth the adjustment. As the technology evolves, businesses can tailor apps to better fit their needs. And as workers gain mobility, the cubicle farm may become a thing of the past.
"I think the secret is to match the technology with the right culture and right organization," says Marcia Mueller, talent development practice leader for IMPACT Group, a St. Louis-based career development firm that uses tablets in one workshop and plans to use them in more. "You don't want the technology to become a barrier."
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