Like the rest of society, workers in small businesses increasingly are going mobile. They're on the road meeting customers. They need to connect to the corporate network from home after hours or on weekends. To keep productivity seamless, small businesses are equipping these employees with the technology to stay connected while away from the office.
"It's not your dad's office anymore, where there wasn't even a computer," says Chris Liebert, senior analyst for the Small & Medium Business Strategies Decision Service of Yankee Group, a Boston-based research company. "Small- and medium-sized businesses are extremely mobile."
When shopping to equip employees, companies have plenty of options, including notebook PCs, Tablet PCs and remote-access devices. Businesses often find that it makes more sense to buy these devices rather than
purchase a new desktop computer, says Laurie McCabe, vice president of small- and medium-business insights and solutions with Access Markets International (AMI)-Partners in New York.
Each hardware device is designed to suit employees' specific needs. A notebook PC is best for those who need the functionality of a desktop PC, including fast processors and big hard drives. The lightweight Tablet PC features digital pens and touch screens, so it's appropriate for people who take notes, draw pictures or perform all their computing tasks by writing on the screen instead of using a keyboard and mouse.
And for the ultimate in portability, companies can consider handhelds like the BlackBerry, PalmOne and Windows Mobile-based Pocket PC. BlackBerrys have small built-in keyboards and are used primarily for e-mail, but recent versions have added Web browsing and support for business software. BlackBerry devices require a subscription to a cellular service provider. PalmOne and Pocket PC offer many computer features, such as Web browsing, e-mail and a variety of software applications. Higher-end versions of both include cell phones and digital cameras.
Many businesses are enhancing traveling or remote employees' productivity by equipping them with remote-access tools. For example, at Prudential Palms Realty in Sarasota, Fla., real estate agent Jim Soda uses his BlackBerry to receive and answer urgent e-mail quietly and unobtrusively, even when he's sitting in a conference. He also uses a service that sends the latest multiple listing service updates out to agents' handheld devices. Such capabilities are making these devices invaluable, says Soda. In fact, he credits his BlackBerry with helping him clinch a million-dollar sale. While having dinner with friends, Soda received an e-mail from a potential new client. The client was so impressed by Soda's instantaneous response that he gave him the sale. "A lot of my clients have heard about BlackBerry but have never seen them work," adds Soda. "When they see it in action, particularly the multiple listing service, the response is usually, 'Wow, this isn't just a high-tech toy.'"
Although many handheld devices use cellular technology for communication, notebook PCs are increasingly incorporating wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology. To support road warriors' communication needs, Wi-Fi hot spots are available in hotels, cafés, airports and conference centers across the country.
Small businesses are even installing their own Wi-Fi networks at remote locations. Yardley, Pa.-based home builder DeLuca Homes has placed Wi-Fi access points at its construction sites so workers can use Web-based project-management applications, says Ed Bobrin, director of corporate and home systems technology.
Wi-Fi is not only useful for traveling employees, it can be just as valuable, if not more so, at company headquarters. In fact, if a business doesn't have a network, Wi-Fi could be the most cost-effective way to set one up. "A lot of small businesses still don't have networks, so Wi-Fi is an attractive option because they don't have to pull wires everywhere," says Merle Sandler, senior research analyst in International Data Corp.'s small business and home office program.
Once a company sets up a wireless access point, anyone in the office with a Wi-Fi-enabled computer can share an Internet connection, files and computer peripherals. Workers can roam around the office and surf the Web, which is convenient if meetings are held in a conference room. DeLuca Homes finds that guests or clients spending the day at its offices also appreciate the service, notes Bobrin.
Many vendors sell Wi-Fi kits, which include everything needed to set up a wireless network. A typical kit might contain PC cards with Wi-Fi transmitters and receivers and an access point. One access point has a range of about 100 to 200 feet.
Information technology (IT) managers should shop for wireless networking kits aimed specifically at small businesses because they support the most advanced security standards. Consumer Wi-Fi networking kits may cost less, but they don't have the same level of security. It's also advisable to stick with one vendor for all the components of a wireless network, such as PC cards and the access point, to ensure better service. That way, if an employee loses a connection, only one manufacturer needs to be called to learn why the employee's notebook PC isn't connecting to the Wi-Fi network. Working with a single vendor also avoids finger-pointing between vendors if something isn't working correctly and offers greater reliability because components from the same manufacturer were made to work together.
For mobile employees to access private corporate resources back at headquarters, such as e-mail and customer data, a company needs at least one remote-access server. Only about 50 percent of small businesses have such servers, says McCabe of AMI-Partners. Remote-access servers can cost $2,000 to $3,000, depending on the processor speed and hard-drive space, she says. Choices for a server operating system include Linux, Unix, Novell and Microsoft's Windows Small Business Server 2003. The Microsoft operating system includes Exchange software for managing e-mail and allows remote workers to fetch e-mail and access shared files and calendars via a Web browser.
If Web e-mail is unwieldy, small-business workers have another option: directly connecting to the company network through a virtual private network (VPN), which allows remote workers to create secure Internet connections to the corporate server. This lets employees download e-mail to their computer's e-mail software program and access files and other company resources.
For added security, small businesses should buy a firewall device to sit in front of the server and protect it from hackers. Firewall devices for small businesses have built-in VPN capabilities. With VPN software installed, notebook PC users can securely connect to the network and retrieve corporate data.
Equipping a small-business workforce with mobile technology takes careful planning and IT expertise. Before long, employees will revel in their mobility and flexibility, and customers will reap the benefits.