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Bring Your Own Device: Weighing the Business Benefits and Risks
Posted January 24, 2017
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By Sue Tabbitt. Updated January 24, 2017 8:55AM

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A major advantage many small businesses have over larger companies is that they are more agile; less encumbered by rigid systems and processes. For example, they are more likely to let employees use their own laptops, tablets, or smartphones for work: an initiative known as BYOD (or Bring Your Own Device). This helps keep costs down, and feels more natural to users than carrying a second device -- which means they’re more likely to have it with them when it counts.

But there are some important considerations that go with this. Who pays the bill for calls and data charges, for example? What happens if the device is damaged, lost or stolen? How does the company keep sensitive work-related information from falling into the wrong hands?

Having the right employee agreements in place, and using centralized or cloud-based software and services, can help in setting expectations and keeping control of privileged content.

Here, three small businesses discuss what they’ve learned from their BYOD experiences.

More Freedom Through Greater Control

Harrison Associates provides a range of professional services for people with life-changing injuries and conditions. It has a team of 50 people -- primarily remote associates, from occupational therapists, nurses and social workers, to speech and language therapists and specialist physiotherapists.

The firm has always practiced BYOD because it fits the way people work. But it had run into a number of issues because it wasn’t managing this in a consistent way. Users had multiple logins to different systems. There was no provision for mobile devices beyond laptops, and even then users had to have Windows-based systems. “It wasn’t a real BYOD platform,” business support manager Merlin Diavova admits.

Harrison Associates doesn’t supply the equipment used by its team as many of its specialists are self-employed. But equipping them with decent IT access is critical to retaining the best talent. This has led the firm to adopt a more formal BYOD solution more recently, in the form of Parallels Remote Application Server (RAS). Diavova describes this as a cost-effective alternative to Citrix (software that runs and manages shared systems on a centralized server, accessible to users in a controlled, secure way via a browser on any device). It has ironed out all the old frustrations and created some new opportunities to help people be more efficient, he says.

Support calls and downtime have been reduced. “It has also given us the ability to provide a ‘one-stop shop’ for all applications and shared documents, which wasn’t possible before,” Diavova says. Feedback from remote workers has been particularly good. “It has been a better experience for them: they can now see all applications in one area.”

The switch was relatively easy too: the whole process of choosing and installing the software took about six months.

Happy Users Work Harder

Independent mobile games developer Hutch employs 50 people across two UK locations.

It took a BYOD stance from the outset, to ensure people had the flexibility to work wherever they are “with the least possible friction”, says ceo Shaun Rutland. A lot of its decisions were influenced by the founders’ previous experiences working at large, international companies, where technology seemed to restrict rather than make life easier for staff.

Hutch’s head of technology based the company’s plan around cloud services with good security, including Google Apps for Business, Dropbox, GitHub, Slack and Atlassian. “We have no internal servers in the business,” Rutland notes. “Because these cloud services offer their own enterprise levels of security and management, no matter what device they are used on, we’ve been able to offer maximum BYOD flexibility.”

The beauty of doing everything from scratch, and via the cloud, meant that it only took a month to set everything up.

The benefits have been “huge”. A lot of the firm’s talent is dispersed around the world and over 50% of the team commute long distances. The firm’s BYOD setup allows them to stay productive and connect and share information as needed, Rutland says.

Better still, people can choose the tools and devices they prefer. Although Hutch has specified Macs as desktops, employees can use any mobile device and their favorite calendar, mail and productivity applications. All of this helps make work enjoyable: staff turnover is less than 3%.

“The bigger picture is about enabling people to work better in a world where it’s increasingly hard to focus,” Rutland says. “That goes beyond which devices they use.” Loss of control can be a concern

BYOD isn’t for everyone, though. Ipswich-based online professional insurance broker PolicyBee has toyed with it, but remains unconvinced.

The firm provides insurance to freelancers, consultants and SMEs, employing 29 people in the UK, one in mainland Europe and 10 at a sister firm in the US.

“We thought BYOD would be a good fit because we like flexible working,” explains head of IT David Pitt. “We always have people working remotely, and for cost and convenience it made sense for them to use their own equipment. It also meant they would be able to hotdesk easily when in the office.”

But after experimenting “loosely” with BYOD, PolicyBee concluded that it was too difficult to support. “As an employer, how do you make sure every device can actually do the job your employee needs it to do? If it’s the employee’s property, you can’t reasonably ask to poke around and see what’s on it, or insist the device has certain minimum operating standards and software,” he notes. “And if it hasn’t, who pays?” (PolicyBee had to buy a new laptop for one employee because her own wasn’t up to the task. The whole saga took a lot of time and money to sort out).

BYOD is “a bit like herding cats” concludes Pitt. “There are numerous security and suitability issues to overcome, because an employee’s device is not the company’s property,” he says. “That makes it difficult for an IT department to make sure essential updates and scans are performed regularly. Plus there’s the added grey area of what’s on an employee’s device in the first place. Is it harboring a virus? Could it be a weak entry point for a wily hacker?”

In the end, PolicyBee reevaluated. “We ditched BYOD,” Pitt says. “We’re happier putting our resources into hardware and software we know and trust, and which we control.”

Tips from an Axpert: The Legal Angle

Even if they have not formally specified that employees can use their own devices or software for work, companies need to be aware that this may still be happening and protect themselves -- by specifying what’s allowed and making sure it’s manageable.

Sheraz Akram at DJM Solicitors, warns, “Having a formal BYOD policy is always advisable, as our changing use of technology continues to blur the lines between our professional and personal lives.”

This should set out the employer’s expectations (and any potential disciplinary implications), and be integrated with existing policies on remote working, or ‘acceptable use’ of company IT systems and networks, he suggests. Terms can be tailored to include specific devices and specific job roles, and any security or confidentiality requirements (for example if an employee is using cloud based systems to save sensitive materials), Akram adds.

“Employees should be asked to sign an acknowledgment form, confirming that they have read and understand the policy.”

© 2017 Guardian Web syndicated under contract with NewsEdge/Acquire Media. All rights reserved.

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