With mobile workers expected to account for a quarter of the world's working population by 2009, new research has identified the personality types, cultural influences and management techniques that are critical for success.
According to the study, commissioned by Cisco, many businesses are in danger of missing out on the benefits offered by mobile workers through the recruitment of inappropriate employees, poor management and failure to provide adequate communications resources.
Mismanagement in particular can have serious implications on the success of a mobile worker, with both under- and over-communication damaging employee productivity, performance and well-being.
One the one hand, a lack of regular communication can lead to increased levels of stress and feelings of isolation. But on the other, trying to micromanage remote workers can undermine trust.
"As the mobile working phenomenon continues to grow, organisations must ensure that they have suitable leadership in place to manage teams of mobile workers," commented Stuart Duff, occupational psychologist at Pearn Kandola and author of the report.
"Managers must not fall into the trap of treating mobile workers in the same way as office-based employees. They need to be effective communicators and relationship- builders with an adaptive management style that they can tailor to the personalities within their team.
Organisations must also ensure that the right tools and resources are made available to mobile workers, giving them the same connectivity as office-based workers."
The type of people who flourish and succeed within mobile roles are typically self-motivated, resilient, extroverted and independent, he added. So when recruiting, organisations must rigorously test for these attributes.
The report, "Understanding and Managing the Mobile Workforce," identifies several personality profiles that could be successful in a mobile working environment.
Stimulation Seekers are extroverted and motivated by contact with people. Tough Survivors are emotionally stable, with low levels of neuroticism and resilient under pressure. Curious Explorers are creative, open to new ideas and enjoy a variety of experiences. Independent Decision-Makers are able to maintain an independent mindset and appreciate being trusted to work without supervision. Finally, Disciplined Achievers are conscientious and self-motivated.
To mange any of these people successfully, managers need to trust their mobile teams to manage their own workload and – critically - emphasise deliverables rather than activities.
Managers must also play their part in establishing a healthy mobile work ethic within their organisation and ensure that they communicate regularly with their mobile staff.
To avoid isolation and demotivation, managers need to promote visibility of mobile workers and providing forums for social interaction between colleagues.
For example, instant messaging and presence tools are a good way of building a mobile worker's sense of inclusion, while video facilities can reduce feelings of separation by giving them visibility and access to team workers who are working remotely.
But as the report points out, cultural differences can have a major impact on the successful adoption of mobile working. For example, there is a significant difference in the distribution of mobile workers across Europe, ranging from 46 percent in the Netherlands to just 8 percent in the more dialogue-oriented cultures of Portugal.
In similar cultures such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, which retain a strong preference for face-to-face communications, the adoption of mobile working is largely confined to larger companies and multinational organisations.
Directly related to geographical acceptance of mobile working, the study also cites two cultures where mobile workforces thrive.
'Feminine' cultures are more pre-disposed to men and women sharing childcare responsibilities and therefore tend to accept more family-friendly practices, such are mobile working.
Data-oriented cultures, meanwhile, tend to emphasise productivity and efficiency and, as a result, are more likely to promote autonomous working, brief communications and the use of technology, which has a close fit with mobile working styles.
"This study highlights the need for businesses to address a number of issues in order to make their mobile workforce as productive as possible," said Clive Sawkins, Director of Unified Communications, Cisco.
"Making sure mobile workers are suitably equipped with appropriate communications technology is important. For example, presence and video can help reduce the feeling of isolation by giving mobile workers access and visibility of their team members who are online.
"In addition to this, organisations must also focus on developing skilled managers, select the right candidates and provide the right resources and support to create a successful mobile workforce."