Deployment

BYOD And The Illusion Of Control

Discussions of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon — essentially staff demanding the right to choose their own phones, computers and tablets rather than taking standard corporate issue — usually focus on the challenge it poses for IT management in terms of security and support. Those can be a major headache, but is it really such a good deal for the end users?

Picture by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

I was reflecting on this yesterday at a media lunch discussing issues in BYOD and how they affect the typical worplace. There’s an underlying assumption in all these discussions: that BYOD is inevitable because end users find it so great. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the end users are right. Quite aside from the hassles it creates at the corporate level, what are you giving up in the process?

We’ve touched on this topic once or twice before, noting that some workplaces use apparent ‘perks’ such as a BYOD approach or allowing access to social networking sites as a trade-off for not actually offering decent salaries. That points to an even more fundamental question: are you willingly paying your own money for a device which your workplace then expects you to regularly utilise for work?

Given that salary sacrifice arrangements for buying laptops and other devices are now much less common, the answer is quite possibly ‘yes’. With mobile phones, in Australia we get off relatively lightly, since we don’t pay to receive calls. In the US, where that’s the norm, you could effectively be subsidising your workplace to do your own job if phone calls aren’t paid as an expense. Many jobs do cover those bills (you’re sitting pretty if you’re a politician, for example) but not all do. Ask yourself this: if you decided to no longer BYOD, how would your employer react? Would it pay to replace the gear you purchased yourself?

The other big challenge is that having a work-endorsed (even if not work-supplied) device does create pressure for you to be accessible, potentially messing up work-life balance. More importantly, it may also mean that you’re not using the best tool for the job.

Research suggests that despite all the hype surrounding tablets, we rarely use them for any work task more complicated than email. Similarly, while tablets can be useful for on-the-road access to work systems, they’re rarely helpful for long-term tasks. If you voluntarily shackle yourself to a tablet, you may be making your own life more complicated. “Ideally, you fit your tasks to the size of screen you have available,” said Tim Fulton, ANZ country manager for LifeSize Communications.

If you sign up for BYOD, you’ll certainly be taking on responsibilities that were once deemed the responsibility of a traditional IT department. “The whole concept of BYOD is that the onus is on the employee,” said Dermot McCann, managing director for Kaseya. You’ll need to make sure that data is correctly backed up. If there’s a problem (say you lose your phone in a taxi) and the device needs to be wiped, no-one is going to care about the personal data that gets misplaced. “The issue is: can you clearly distinguish personal and corporate data?” asked Gerry Tucker, ANZ country manager for Websense

While some providers do try and provide a means to distinguish between personal and corporate data (BlackBerry springs to mind), most don’t, and it seems unlikely there’ll be any change that will make it easier to split that work/personal management responsibility. “There’s nothing in it for the device manufacturers,” said Alan Williams, director for BlinkMobile Interactive. “The phones will never change.” We’re very determined to keep using our devices. “People’s expectations for mobility are growing all the time,” said Brendan Maree, ANZ managing director for Interactive Intelligence. But we’re not consumers at work. We’re employees.

I don’t get the impression that this is an issue many people in the IT industry are worrying about. When I raised it at the lunch, there was some nervous laughter and the topic quickly moved on. But it’s worth bearing in mind. Having the device of your choice seems great, but you need to see it in the context of how it helps with your job and whether it creates more work and expense for you. Neither of those is a desirable outcome. Sure, you might be controlling your device choice, but at what price?

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.