UK: PRODUCTIVITY ON THE MOVE. - But employees may be less keen on laptops than their bosses.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

But employees may be less keen on laptops than their bosses.

Company managers are buying more and more laptop computers for their employees in the belief that they boost productivity. But is this really true?

The Gartner Group has little doubt. A major research company, specialising in mobile business strategies, it believes that company managers should look beyond the cost of buying a decent laptop and related accessories (around £2,000) towards the productivity gains that can be made. According to Gartner, the incremental cost of a notebook can be paid back very rapidly even if the user's working week is extended by, say, as little as one hour a week. Nigel Dury, IT Director at Rexam, the printing and packaging group, agrees: 'We have many hundreds of portables. They are now a necessity, not a luxury - our sales staff often have their laptops on site with a buyer. It may be true that the occasional employee is using his or her laptop to write CVs at the weekend, but the vast majority (of managers) will be getting a lot more out of their staff as a result of using laptops.'

But there are limits. Toshiba Information Systems (UK) has conducted extensive research into the effect of laptops on working patterns. The company interviewed randomly selected groups of laptop users - accountants, marketing managers, consultants, lawyers and financial advisers - across the UK. The research found that while laptops can boost productivity for those on the move during the working week, employees are reluctant to use the machines to stretch their hours beyond a certain point. There seems to be very little pounding of the keyboard into the small hours or at weekends.

The dilemma for the employee is also noted by Garth Shephard, chief executive of Envisage, which advises companies on how best to use IT to meet business objectives. The question, he says, is 'whether people actually want to work - even with a laptop - outside the working environment'. Some people obviously don't regard working out of hours as beneficial to their lifestyle and relationships.

As always it depends what sort of person you are. But it also depends on who you work for. Shephard notes that some companies, especially in the newspaper industry, are increasingly using modern technology to exercise control over mobile employees beyond the normal working week. For the harassed employee the laptop does have an advantage over the mobile phone - at least he can choose when to respond to an e-mail message. Toshiba's research has found that 'fewer than 10% of those surveyed use laptops to access on-line information'. Most use them only for running basic software applications. This will change as laptop usage grows, which will please some users, but not others. For if the employee can't get on-line to the office, then the office can't get on-line to the employee either.

Among the incidental advantages of laptops, notes Pallab Chatterjee, president of Texas Instruments' personal productivity products division, businesses are finding they do not have to provide permanent office space for all their employees. And an incidental downside? Well, the wise manager will know where his laptops are at at all times, since it is not unknown for them to disappear. Companies are naturally shy about discussing this problem, but a well placed source at American International Group observes that 'because we issue so many laptops it's difficult to keep track of them all. Our operations are by necessity pretty well decentralised. This has led to problems when staff leave. The laptops can simply go walkies.'

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