Over the years, one of the not-so-positive traits I’ve observed about entrepreneurs is that you can sometimes be penny-wise and pound-foolish. I was reminded of this when reading an article in Monday’s USA Today, which discussed a recent survey by In-Stat, a research and marketing analysis firm. The survey said that nearly 40 percent of employees bought the laptop they regularly use for business purposes and 43 percent purchased their own smart phone (such as a BlackBerry).
From the companies’ point of view, this is smart business since electronics are expensive and they don’t have to pick and choose which employees are provided for and which aren’t. At first glance, that makes sense. No one would suggest you arm your entire staff with laptops, BlackBerrys, cell phones, or GPS devices. On the other hand, time is money and, for some of your people, having this equipment on hand would save them time and likely improve their productivity — not to mention their attitudes and your bottom line.
Even when it comes to the more mundane devices like cell phones and GPS systems, most employers won’t pony up. The In-Stat survey showed that 76 percent of workers either bought their cell phone themselves (remember, this is the phone they regularly use for business) or got it as a gift, and 92 percent used their own GPS or other navigational system. Beyond the numbers, many of the managers felt that since people aren’t going to carry two phones or two laptops, if they were company-provided, the employee would also conduct non-work-related activities on their devices.
To me, this attitude smacks of the old days. You might think I’m referring to the 1950s and the glory days of The Organization Man, but really what I mean is feudal times. Seriously, this is about the haves and the have-nots. And even though the have-nots are traveling on your behalf, it seems some of you are worried they might play a game of Spider Solitaire on a 4-hour flight.
If I seem to be particularly sensitive to this issue, you’re right, I am. At my last job I had to beg to get a laptop and a BlackBerry. The fact that I was traveling on company business and expected to keep in touch with my staff was lost on management for months. And the sales staff, many of whom covered multistate territories, had to wait even longer to get their Treos and Blackberrys.
I understand that times are tough, budgets are tight, and you business owners can’t be spending willy-nilly. Certainly, there must be controls and rules put into place. But if you want to compete today, you need to arm your staff with the best arsenal you can. The problem, I think, is that many managers and business owners still consider electronics to be some kind of luxury item. They’re not. They’re business tools. You send your salespeople out with the proper marketing support materials, why wouldn’t you also give them a navigational system?
This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. There’s a difference between a company-provided cell phone (for which your business has to pay for the calls, some of which are just naturally going to be personal) and a laptop computer. There’s a fixed cost to a laptop — you don’t pay per e-mail sent and received. It won’t cost you more if your employee is also using it to write the great American novel at midnight. You need to assess the situation. What are you asking people to do? It’s not about making your employees’ lives easier. What you’re really doing is making them more efficient and productive. Bill Hughes, an In-Stat tech analyst, told USA Today that “these [devices] do add value” and often cost far less than an employee’s time. He added that the productivity boosts from equipping your staff usually outweigh the upfront costs.
There are some easy solutions here. Split the cell phone costs with your workers. It’s likely easier if they buy the phone and you reimburse them for their business calls, rather than you trying to collect money from them. If you’re in doubt, ask your employees how a certain device would boost their productivity. See if you can negotiate group discounts or corporate rates with your carriers and tech providers.
If you just can’t swing it at this time, perhaps you can arrange for your staff to buy their own electronics through your usual store or vendor and get them at your company discount. Have your IT people load it with the appropriate work-related software. And point out that any electronics they buy for professional use are likely to be at least partially tax-deductible.
Employees who have to shell out their own money for electronics tend to become frustrated. In order to survive and even thrive in tough economic times, you need a satisfied, productive staff. Work with them to see how you can make that possible.
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