Tracking Remote Workers? There’s an App for That

The days of using clunky walkie-talkies or expensive custom communication devices to connect with field employees is over. Today’s remote workforce use their own smartphones and inexpensive off-the-shelf apps to stay connected with the home office — and it is making them safer and more productive.

According to research from analyst firm Berg Insight, the number of users of smartphone-based workforce management services in Europe and North America is forecasted to grow from 800,000 in 2012 to nearly 2.5 million by 2018. Andre Malm, senior analyst for Berg Insight in Gothenburg, Sweden, spoke with Talent Management about what is driving this trend, and what it means for HR leaders.

Why are smartphone-based workforce management services gaining popularity now?
Similar kinds of solutions have been around for a long time, but they were expensive and required dedicated hardware to make them work. As a result, they were primarily used only in larger companies for logistics.

But the cost of consumer smartphones has gone down so much in recent years, and the technology is so much more advanced. That has caused workforce management apps to become a lot more attractive to a broader range of companies.

At the same time, developing applications for modern smartphone systems has become a lot easier, [so software vendors] are developing more apps with workforce management features.

There is also demand from end users, who are much savvier about what they can do with their devices. That awareness is causing companies to think more strategically about how features like GPS and smartphone cameras can be used on the job.

What kinds of companies benefit the most from these workforce management apps?
The market is growing fastest among organizations that don’t have the means to develop their own custom workforce management solutions. These companies are looking for standardized apps that they can deploy on existing devices, including smartphones and tablets. So it is an extremely important trend for small and midsized enterprises. It’s also important for any company that has field workers and is interested in keeping better track of their workforce.

Construction companies were the early adopters, using applications for localization of workers, and to make sure they are on site and arrive on time. Health care and social services companies that perform house calls are also using them to make sure field staff know where they need to go, and to collect data on patients or to fill out work orders via their smartphones, rather than gathering this information on paper.

What do these apps do?
Basic apps allow for things like automation of time and attendance, and the ability to track workers using GPS services. Other more advanced tools are being used by companies that want to capture video or photographic evidence on a job site for insurance claims, or as barcode readers.
Are there any risks for companies using these smartphone apps on the job?

If you aren’t sure who the developer is, there may be some risks around whether the application will continue to be supported in the future, and you may want to evaluate the information security capabilities of their technology. But if you buy them from a reliable developer, it shouldn’t be a major worry.

And while current apps may not be robust enough to do everything you want, in general they can be useful workforce management applications, and because they cost so much less, they add a lot of value.

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.