When business owners hand over notebook computers to their employees, are they making a smart business decision, or providing staff with the means to e-mail friends and do Christmas shopping online as soon as they’re out of sight?

Notebooks are slowly starting to replace desktop PCs

in the small and medium-sized business (SMB) space, as the price difference narrows. But are they making employees more productive, and ultimately increasing the company’s return on investment? Gartner Inc. says it takes as little as one to three hours per week of additional work performed – such as checking e-mail from home or processing orders from the road – to justify the additional costs associated with a notebook. Differences in technology, price, life cycles and usage patterns dictate that a notebook’s total cost of ownership ranges anywhere from 34 to 68 per cent more than a desktop, according to the research firm.

“If you gave [employees] a notebook they would easily find the time – unfortunate for the person, fortunate for the company – to squeeze in a few extra hours of answering that e-mail, crunching through that spreadsheet,” says Dan Reio, product marketing manager for commercial notebooks and tablet PCs with HP Canada in Mississauga, Ont. Even if they do use their notebooks for personal use away from the office, employees are still likely to do some work as well, he adds.

While a warehouse worker using a PC to ship and receive orders may not need to bring work home, those who provide the strategic thinking of the company could benefit. This includes executives, office workers, finance and marketing staff. “I think a small business owner can probably look at their employees and say, I know so-and-so, if I gave them a notebook they’d probably do some work from home, but I know this person maybe wouldn’t,” he says.

The trend right now among SMBs, says Michelle Warren, IT industry analyst with Evans Research Corp. in Etobicoke, Ont., is ‘mobility to increase efficiency,’ rather than ‘mobility for mobility’s sake,’ meaning there’s still demand for desktops in clerical-type positions.

But will employees abuse their privileges? Warren says it’s unlikely an employer would give an employee a notebook if he or she didn’t have confidence in their ability and work ethic. And the benefits are increased productivity and creativity, allowing employees to work when inspiration strikes. While there’s a danger that employees will end up working longer hours, she says, in theory it gives them the opportunity to achieve more balance in their personal and professional lives.

Sometimes mobile technology is too accessible, says Eddie Chan, research analyst, mobile/personal computing, with IDC Canada in Toronto. “There need to be policies in place to distinguish [between] the work life and the personal life. Are they on call 24/7? That needs to be communicated from the executive team,” he says.

Employers also must convey to employees that it’s a work tool, as opposed to a personal tool, he says. There are PC monitoring software packages available to help employers track usage patterns, he says.

Equipping very low-end or transaction-based employees with such devices won’t help that much, but for those who act as the face of the company, mobile technology provides access to back-end systems and databases and allows them to respond to customers in a more timely fashion, says Chan.

SMBs appear to be taking note. While the desktop PC is still the dominant platform for personal computing, its share is starting to decline. In the third quarter of 2003, the portable share for SMBs was 30 per cent, according to IDC Canada. A year later, this rose to 34 per cent.

Warren recommends SMBs seriously consider switching to a mobile workforce, planning today for the business model they want to have three years down the road. “Does everybody have to be in the same office? Can people work from home?” she says. “The wireless networking opportunities are really amazing right now and the products are really powerful.”

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