People increasingly expect to use their personal laptops, smartphones and tablets at work. And they do. More than 70 percent of U.S. small businesses allow employees to use their smartphones for work, according to the Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based technology research firm.
Employers with "bring your own device" (BYOD) policies can cut their costs for purchasing and administering phones and computers. Also, employees often are more productive and happier when using the devices they're most comfortable with.
Problem is, allowing employees to use many different types of devices for business can turn into an IT nightmare for supplying tech support, securing sensitive business data and communications, and fixing compatibility issues.
But cloud-based services can help you manage core tasks and processes across an ever-changing variety of employee device types and platforms.
For instance, Google Apps for business can be used to securely coordinate, among authorized users only, your business information, schedules and documents. Salesforce.com supports sales, customer service, project management and other functions. TrackVia and FileMaker Go (an offering tied to Apple's FileMaker Pro software) both provide tools to work with business databases and spreadsheets over the web and on mobile devices. And Harvest offers mobile and web-friendly time tracking and invoicing.
While many cloud services intended for consumers are free, services targeted at business users typically carry a price tag that can vary widely. Most offer a free trial for a single user or small group of users, and then charge a monthly fee and sometimes a set-up charge, as well. Some online services, such as FileMaker Go, are more web-based than cloud-based. They involve software that you install on your own web server, so your costs include the software purchase and possibly tech support.
Depending on the number of users and business processes you want to support, the total cost to move key processes to the cloud can range from about $50 to a few hundred dollars per month for most small businesses. But if you're strategic about which processes you shift to the cloud and how many users you support, you can control costs, while realizing productivity gains.
Answering these five questions can help you choose the right cloud services for your business and ensure that your employees can use them while keeping your data safe.
1. What kinds of files or systems might your employees need to create or access from anywhere?
Make a list of all the systems and software your employees currently use for business: document creation (especially word processing and spreadsheets), project management, scheduling, reporting, accounting, time tracking and more. Determine which ones either all or key employees use. Then start listing cloud or web-based alternatives to the most popular of these tools and systems. Experiment using free trials to find the best ones for your needs.
2. Which business tools will employees probably already have on their devices -- and which might you need to supply?
It's likely, for example, that employees already have word-processing software on their laptop computer or tablet. So you might not need to supply a cloud-based system for creating documents. But you probably would want to offer a cloud-based repository for storing work-related documents.
3. Must you let employees use any personal device for work?
Some popular cloud services are available only via apps for specific mobile platforms. For instance, FileMaker Go lets you access work databases with any web browser, but its mobile apps are for the iPhone and iPad only. Choosing a tool with such constraints would limit which personal devices employees could use for work.
4. Do you have clear policies to prevent the sharing of confidential or proprietary business information?
Data security is a key concern with BYOD. While some cloud-based services offer more security than others, ultimately the biggest concern is often whether employees know which business information to protect and how to protect it.
This consideration applies across the board, from electronic files to social media to in-person conversations. Develop clear policies that apply generally to business information and communication, and then explain how they apply to what employees do on their own devices.
5. Can your employees reliably secure their own devices?
One of the big risks of BYOD is that personal devices might be lost, stolen or accessed by unauthorized people. The simplest way to prevent data theft is to keep the device locked.
It might make sense to require employees to keep their devices that they use for work locked at all times -- even at home -- with a hard-to-guess password. Be sure employees know how to lock and unlock their devices and advise against letting other people, including family members, use them.
Also, warn employees if you notice that devices are left unlocked. As a last resort, you can revoke access to your cloud-based services if they consistently fail to secure personal devices used for work. You also might consider requiring employees to install and use security software, such as Norton ($20 per year, per device, all platforms) or Lookout (Android only, $3 per month or $30 per year per device), which enable users to remotely locate devices, lock them and even wipe them. Apple offers free security services for all iOS devices, and Windows 8 and BlackBerry devices have some security features and special offerings, as well.