The biggest challenge in construction is communication . If project plans or drawings change, the team in the field needs to know immediately so the crew doesn’t continue working on old marching orders. “Keeping everyone connected is critical,” says Dana Steele, IT manager at Hyder Construction.
Having a majority of Hyder’s 71 workers at job sites keeps Steele on his toes. To facilitate real-time communication, employees in the field carry BlackBerry smartphones , Verizon 3G Aircards and have VPN  access for network connectivity to internal Microsoft SharePoint  sites. This past January, the Denver-based company took it one step further, rolling out Motion Computing Tablet PCs  to a few select employees.
Thanks to the devices, workers “not only have their e-mail, they [also] have project plans, drawings, communication,” Steele says. “Every superintendent could potentially have one before long.”
That prediction isn’t so far-fetched. For years, small and midsize businesses have been piecing together solutions to keep employees connected while they’re out of the office. Remote access  has become so critical in so many industries that businesses have found they need more-comprehensive strategies, says Darin Stahl, lead analyst at Info-Tech Research Group.
“The benefits of working remotely are tremendous,” Stahl says. The arrangement can shrink a company’s physical working space, increase productivity and boost employee satisfaction. Plus, it’s become more affordable. “But it does have to be managed properly,” he warns.
Steele started with two devices to see how they performed. But soon, he says, “the other guys were saying, ‘I could use the same thing for my project.’” The company now owns six tablets and plans to buy more. “Once the superintendents saw what it could do and all the time it would save, it became clear that this was an expense we needed to take on.”
The tablets have greatly improved the process of creating punch lists — the final to-do lists that superintendents, owners and subcontractors agree to while walking through a site at the end of a project. Before, superintendents took notes and transcribed them back at the office. Now they scribble their notes on the tablet PCs, and everyone signs off on the punch list during the walk-through, increasing project accountability. The time saved transcribing notes alone proves that “these things will pay for themselves pretty quickly,” Steele says.
What’s your company’s greatest challenge when it comes to supporting mobile devices?
29% Lack of standardization on one device
25% Data compromised on lost or stolen devices
14% Employee training
12% Difficulty supporting an array of tools used offsite
11% We don’t support mobile devices.
5% Viruses or spyware introduced to the network
SOURCE: CDW poll of 395 BizTech readers
Users also appreciate the efficiency benefits. “It’s a big timesaver to be able to write as you walk” and have your notes automatically digitized, says Jeff Haselhorst, general superintendent at Hyder. “Another great feature is to be able to load your drawings in the tablet and have them with you on the fly.”
Steele first learned about tablets at an industry seminar and says the devices “made perfect sense” as a business improvement tool. “I don’t think we’re out of the ordinary in doing it. The technology is out there. It’s just knowing when to make the switch.”
Clayco, a real estate development and construction firm, has been making a lot of switches of its own lately.
Clayco employees, like Hyder’s, spend a lot of time at remote sites. Sometimes they have access to T1 lines, but they often must rely strictly on wireless connections through their contracts with Sprint, AT&T and Verizon. According to CIO Chris Walser, his team members test reception at each site and then go with the carrier that has the strongest signal.
The company also has been using tablets on job sites, but recently the company began deploying Apple iPads . Walser has distributed a dozen devices loaded with applications that let workers write with styluses and use dictation software. He’s even turned his iPad into a Windows 7  workstation by loading incompatible software onto a Citrix  virtual machine. “It’s been great,” he says. “We’re starting to look at other departments” that might benefit from the solution.
Employees of the St. Louis design/build firm have begun testing the iPhone 4, too, which they will use for video conferencing while traveling.
Along with the new hardware, Clayco is upgrading to Microsoft SharePoint 2010 and Office 2010 . The products’ workflow processes are more advanced, Walser explains, so the company can automate more functions, such as time cards.
GSD&M Idea City is a business, but it often feels like a funhouse. With a client roster that includes the likes of BMW, Hallmark and Southwest Airlines, the agency is a serious player in the ad industry. But its workspaces — from the cowboy conference room with the hanging cow sculpture to the two-story photomontage of a New York City street scene — are anything but serious.
Like the workspaces, IT at GSD&M needs to drive workers’ creativity but also helps workers drive their clients’ business. No tool is overlooked when trying to meet those goals. The company’s Austin, Texas, and Chicago offices are evenly split between Macs and PCs, iPhones and BlackBerrys.
Enterprise Systems Supervisor Dallas LaRose’s top priority is to provide consistent access to technology, no matter where employees are working or what device they’re using. “The culture is such that people are always in touch,” he says. “This enables us to provide a hands-on, always available experience for our clients.”
Offsite and out of the office, employees can get to all server resources through a VPN. They have access to the corporate intranet, e-mail and Citrix applications. The company uses SharePoint for collaboration, which is linked to a Documentum asset management system that stores videos, images and rich media.
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In addition, GSD&M offices have LifeSize video conferencing equipment , and many employees use Skype to reduce travel. Mobile workers use dedicated AT&T 3G cards, and the company also uses floater cards.
“We’re reaching a place,” LaRose adds, “where the technology is so mature that we can support anybody, anywhere.”