A History of “Mobile”
The words “telework” and “telecommuting” were coined by Jack Nilles in 1972, when he was working on a NASA communication project. In 1975, the first personal computer was invented. In 1978, the federal government took notice of Nilles’ work, “The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff,” and passed a flexible work arrangement that allowed federal employees to work remotely. Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol soon came into existence, and by 1985, the advent of Windows changed personal computing forever. Broadband services for mobile phones came into existence in 2001, and the first iPhone hit the market in 2007.
No one expected “teleschooling,” but COVID-19 changed the landscape of education more rapidly than our systems were prepared for. Online learning platforms, while useful for organizing course content, proved meaningless for students who lacked access to the Internet or the know-how to navigate online menu-driven platforms. Work from home for the mobile workforce took on multiple roles, as full-time employees juggled homeschooling their children and Zoom meetings with their coworkers while alternating between corporate crisis response strategies and Algebra II.
New Meanings of “Mobile”
According to an August 2020 study from IDC, Inc, the U.S. mobile worker population is projected to increase from 78.5 million to 93.5 million by 2024. The study defines members of the mobile workforce as those “who are enabled with mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) by their company to complete their assigned tasks and workflows.” Students also are studying remotely and depend on their mobile devices to connect through an array of learning management systems. From investment bankers taking calls on their smartphones to rideshare drivers checking their app for new riders, “mobile” has redefined how each of us participates in the ecosystem that transitions us from academics to the workplace.
There are two main types of mobile workers: information workers and frontline workers. Information workers rely on mobile devices as part of their job, which may be completed at the centralized office space or in a decentralized fashion. Frontline workers, on the other hand, are less dependent on mobile devices. IDC predicts that mobile workers will grow faster than the overall workforce in the United States over the next five years. By the end of 2021, mobile workers will comprise approximately 60% of the US workforce as a whole, and businesses are projected to spend approximately 32% of IT budgets on mobile hardware, software, infrastructure, and human capital.
Strategies for a Mobile Future
We know the world is more dependent on mobile technology than ever before, but what does it mean for how we run our academic institutions and workplaces now and into the future?
First and foremost, preparedness is key. In early 2020, the pandemic was a largely unexpected shock to the world. By now, organizations should have taken the time to organize alternative working and learning structures, attendance policies, and institutional governance that meet stakeholder needs and organizational goals, from student outcomes in academia to the bottom line in business. Remote participation handbooks, HR and compliance expectations, and change management plans are key throughout this process and for preparing students of today to be remote workers of tomorrow.
Second, it is important to consider a longer-term strategy. Is your organization continually dependent on physical togetherness, or can remote participation play a part in the future of the overall strategy, beyond a stopgap measure to combat the public health crisis? If a blended or hybrid model proves viable for your organization, how can you optimize physical real estate to accommodate critical on-site staff with critical mobile stakeholders, students, and/or employees?
Additionally, organizations need to consider the cost of maintaining a mobile and/or remote workforce, including teachers for academic institutions and employees for businesses. The first step is to understand costs associated with a mobile workforce, including technology infrastructure, increased cybersecurity, and compliance needs. Next, it becomes possible to begin looking at a budget for new working models and understanding how it impacts your current and future institutional operations. It is important to assess where spending can be increased and decreased in order to implement a viable plan for mobile schooling and working.
Mobility in Physical Spaces
An educational system and workforce that increases its dependency on mobile technology will indubitably increase its dependence on mobile apps. It is easy to imagine a future where employees will engage in virtual health screenings, staggered meetings, contact tracing, and room reservations for small-group gatherings. These technologies can also be applied to academic environments, much as the recent experiments with small-group learning pods and hybrid instruction at universities have shown us.
In concert with technology, our physical spaces must adapt to reflect the same kind of flexibility that we have come to expect from our mobile devices. While a completely decentralized model entails learning and working entirely from outside the campus, a partially decentralized model is a space that accommodates both individual work and small group work for project sprints and brainstorming sessions. Individual workstations that can be moved around and then returned to a central pod structure, such as the SMARTdesks product line of active learning furniture, are ideal examples of the kind of furnishings that a mobile workforce and student population requires.
The Future of Mobile
With multiple vaccines becoming available and herd immunity potentially on the horizon, the question remains of how we will transition from the idea of school and work as a physical place to the idea of both as live and virtual realities. New modes of school will adequately prepare students for new paradigms of work. Organizations that can adapt nimbly to change, candidly assess institutional strategy, and remain open-minded to the role of technology (and its limits) will be well-positioned for success.