What is a mobile workforce?

A mobile workforce is a group of employees that isn’t bound by a central physical location. Instead, the employees are connected by various types of technology: computers, smartphones and other mobile devices. Because these technologies are increasingly portable, easier to use and affordable, a mobile workforce is becoming more prevalent. The global mobile workforce is expected to reach 1.87 billion workers by 2022.

The idea of a mobile workforce goes well beyond simply working from home. With the advent of sophisticated mobile devices, onsite workers can perform field work that otherwise would have been done back at an office.

Previously, salespeople might have relied on carbon-copy receipts and paper contracts to close sales. Now they can complete the transaction using hand-held printers and scanners that will send the information back to management in real time. An architect can send a 3D schematic to a computer tablet on a distant job site so that the construction team has immediate access to complex revisions. Medical workers in the field are able to diagnose patients with smartphone video conferencing and diagnostic instruments – immediately sending data back to the physician.

The objective of a mobile workforce is to make employees as productive outside of the office as when they are in it. With a mobile workforce, employees should be able to remotely access the same software applications and data as they would at a company headquarters.

Evolution of mobile workforce

In 1994, 32,000 AT&T employees began working from home. They were part of one of the first and largest telecommuting experiments. Since that time, the expansion of a mobile workforce has rapidly increased. Its acceptance was spurred by emerging technologies that made working remotely more feasible – especially the development of smartphones, related mobile devices and mobile applications.

With 10 billion mobile devices forecasted to be in use by 2020, the proliferation of mobile technology is fundamentally changing the way people think, work, act and interact. Companies have broadly accepted Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies where employees are allowed or encouraged to use their personal mobile device such as phones, tablets and notebooks to access enterprise data and systems.

Mobile applications, or “apps,” enable employees to be more productive from virtually anywhere. In fact, 92 percent of organizations believe not only that adopting mobile apps will give them a competitive edge, but also that the failure to adopt such apps will put them at a competitive disadvantage.

New technologies have contributed to making a remote workforce practical. Tools like Asana, Slack, Zoom and Google Calendar make virtual work and collaboration among the mobile workforce enjoyable and efficient. Other innovations in mobile technology such as biometric readers, wearables, voice control, near-field communications (NFC) and augmented reality are also enhancing communications and business workflows. The proliferation of these mobile workforce tools has also levelled the playing field as small businesses now have access to technology that only large corporations could previously afford.

With a mobile workforce driving the importance of mobile apps, a key challenge companies face today is whether to build or buy their apps (or both). Developing custom mobile apps for multiple platforms can be costly and complex. However, managing and maintaining apps from multiple third-party vendors can be difficult for proper IT management. Software providers such as IBM not only develop mobile apps, but also integrated mobile app management solutions. This integration allows companies to more easily manage apps and ensure their security across their entire mobile environment.

While the trend for an increasing mobile workforce is strong, there are counter prevailing forces bringing some workers back to office settings. Yahoo, Best Buy and many technology companies have recently reversed their remote work policies. While admitting that remote work policies increased worker productivity, these companies see innovation as more important in their corporate strategies. And research suggests that innovation is better fostered in team proximity environments. Unplanned employee interactions (the “water cooler effect”) can many times promote brainstorming and creativity.

Why is mobile workforce important?

A recent global study1 found that 85 percent of company owners expressed that flexible work was leading to business growth. Other benefits to a mobile workforce include:

  • Achieve better customer service. Employees can use their mobile devices to access and reply to important emails throughout the day. They can provide immediate customer answers by accessing data from their mobile device instead of waiting until they return to the office.
  • Lessen employee stress. According to a report from PGi2, 82 percent of remote workers experience lower stress levels when working remotely. This well-being can translate into higher levels of productivity, less sick days and greater company loyalty. In fact, 95 percent of employers say the ability for an employee to work remotely has a high impact on employee retention.
  • Decrease real estate costs. Forbes reports3 that by employing mobile employees, insurance company Aetna has unloaded 2.7 million square feet of office space and saved approximately $78 million. Sun Microsystems saves $68 million a year in real estate costs.
  • Work without borders. Work teams can easily collaborate through a virtual private network (VPN) no matter where members are based. Companies may save money by shifting workloads to employees who live in areas with lower cost of living standards. Businesses are able to provide 24 x 7 customer service or establish continuous workflows with employees scattered across time zones.
  • Reduce employee absenteeism. Mobile employees can continue work from home – even if weather, family issues or even a minor illness would normally keep them away from the office. Unscheduled absences cost employers $1,800 per employee, per year – up to $300 billion per year for US companies.
  • Add business continuity. Should a company experience downtime from a disaster, office-based employees would have no place to work and productivity would end. For mobile-based employees, much of the information they would need is backed up on cloud servers and can be accessed online. They can continue working – almost as if no disaster had happened.
  • Save travel costs. Video chats and meetings using mobile phones or web browsers can take the place of the logistics and expense of traveling to a central site.
  • Eliminate (or reduce) commute times. With no work commute, employees can add productive hours to their work day. Even if employees must sometimes commute, they may use mobile software to get work done while on public transit.
  • Expand the talent pool. By having access to an at-home workforce, companies – especially businesses with call centers – can add and reduce staff quickly as needed. Disabled workers can be more easily brought into the workforce, as well as parents and senior caregivers.
  • Deter discrimination and encourage diversity. Many companies hire mobile workers sight unseen. This practice can greatly reduce the potential for workers being judged based on what they look like, instead of what they do. Electronic communication tends to equalize personalities, so no longer is the loudest voice the one that takes priority. Choosing a workforce from literally all over the world offers geographic, socioeconomic and cultural diversity that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Examples of software related to mobile workforce

To simplify the ongoing shift toward BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) among businesses, software providers are developing mobile apps, so employees can work from their personal computers, mobile phones and tablets.

However, maintaining apps from multiple vendors can impede proper IT management. Providers such as IBM are developing integrated mobile app management solutions in addition to mobile apps. These integrated solutions allow businesses to more easily manage apps and ensure their security across their entire mobile environment.

IBM solutions include:

MobileFirst for iOS business apps combine the power of enterprise data, analytics and artificial intelligence with an elegant user experience to fundamentally redefine how employees interact, learn and connect.

IBM Client Vantage is a mobile app that pulls together blogs, videos, documentation, interactive tutorials, website links, calendars, agendas and more. It collects all this data into a digital interface, so information is easily accessible in one place.

IBM Digital Workplace as a Service enables small and midsize businesses to deliver the technology experiences their users demand. It’s a pay-as-you-go solution for device procurement and management, and collaboration and help desk services. 

IBM Aspera Drive Mobile provides users with most of the functions of the Aspera Drive desktop application to remotely access and distribute large files and content quickly.

Smart Mobile for Maximo is a free app for iOS and Android that gives you remote access from your mobile device to Maximo Asset Management processes in both connected and disconnected environments. Users can completely manage tasks with secure transactions while reducing data entry errors and miscommunications.

IBM MaaS360 with Watson artificial intelligence (AI) meets unified endpoint management (UEM). UEM delivers IT and security leaders the technology needed to manage and secure smartphones, tablets, notebooks, desktops, wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT).

IBM Cloudant is a distributed database that is optimized for handling heavy workloads that are typical of large, fast-growing web and mobile apps.

Challenges to developing an effective mobile workforce

In the article, Mobile workforce to drive further enterprise change,  Richard Esposito of IBM Global Technology Services outlines what businesses need to establish for an effective mobile workforce and how to keep on top of emerging trends.

  • Enterprises need change based on an increasing mobile workforce. In the mobile market, many factors have recently converged: increased pervasiveness of the “Internet of Things,” exponential growth in mobile apps, transformation to “as-a-service” models, continued focus on mobile security and the advent of the “cognitive era.” The workplace has shifted from a “one-size-fits-all” model to a more personalized experience in IT support and service. Users want to choose their own devices and they expect the kind of experience they have with consumer devices.
  • Organizations will need to support a greater range of devices. The global mobile workforce is set to increase to 1.87 billion people or 42.5 percent of the global workforce in 2022. As workers become increasingly mobile, so does their primary work device. Employees are moving toward smaller, more portable devices and tablets, wearables and ultrabooks are expected to be the primary work devices by 2020. In particular, wearables will see considerable adoption as it moves beyond a fad into delivering purposeful experiences and driving economic efficiencies. Most of wearable shipments in 2020 will be in the form of smart glasses and smart watches.

  • “Mobile first” Millennial employees will soon be in the majority. By 2025, more than 70 percent of the workforce will be millennials. Millennials have grown up with broadband, smartphones, notebooks and social media being the norm and expect instant access to information. They value similar things in an employer brand as they do in a consumer brand and will continue to drive consumerization in enterprise.

  • Third-party workplace productivity apps are creating security concerns. Like “bring-your-own-device,” employees are driving “bring-your-own-application.” The use of employee-founded applications is becoming prevalent and is creating more security vulnerabilities. Security is an increasing concern as enterprise-grade security solutions remain a top priority of future mobile spending. Security is viewed as an integral part of mobile device investments.

  • Businesses will develop augmented reality (AR) applications to improve productivity. Already, many IT organizations are testing AR business apps for use on smartphones. Employees will learn using immersive instruction provided by virtual reality (VR) and AR environments. Workers will learn complex tasks with information that is delivered on demand using AR. Building and engineering workers will perform 3D interaction and planning with AR devices. Supply chain management and inventory picking will be delivered via an AR device.

  • Companies will more closely track assets – including their workers – to improve logistics, workflow and safety. Employees can be monitored to guard against safety hazards such as fall detection, location tracking, hazard zones, insurance and regulatory compliance. Asset tracking benefits include workflow optimization, regulatory compliance (for example, monitoring truck drivers to ensure that they are taking breaks), inventory management and asset-use optimization.

Case studies

Amica Insurance

See how Amica Insurance reimagine the Claims Adjuster and customer experience.


See how Box is driving innovation both for the enterprise and within their very own company.

More resources for mobile workforce

The Mobile Workplace: Empowering Users in the Anytime, Anywhere Workforce

Find out what unified workspace management means for the borderless workplace and the role that virtualization, collaboration tools and unified device management can play.

The Digital Workplace in the Cognitive Era

Discover how cognitive computing is enabling a new class of products that sense, reason and learn.


  1. International Workplace Group. “The Workplace Revolution: Reaching the Tipping Point.” May 2018.
  2. PGi. “Telecommuting Reduces Stress and Increases Productivity According to PGi Survey.” March 2014
  3. Forbes. “Benefits Of Telecommuting For The Future Of Work.” July 2017