Technology and increasing automation are changing the way we work, but it’s employees that are pushing for more mobile working.

The concept of the ‘workerless office’ has been moving into the mainstream for over a decade. But it’s only in the past few years that technological, social and economic forces have begun to converge to create what the London Business School’s Lynda Gratton calls ‘a perfect storm’ of organisational upheaval.

“Executives around the world are now facing a substantial schism with the past, which is so great that organisational architecture, people practices and skills and organisational culture will change – possibly unrecognisably over the next two decades,” she writes.

Technology is a major factor, with tablets and smartphones already overtaking PCs. Analysts at Gartner expects 70 million tablets to be sold this year and 108 million in 2012, compared with 17.6 million in 2010, according to CIO Zone.

Cloud computing is fast replacing office-based IT infrastructure, while the cost of broadband is dropping as speeds pick up — 4G is expected to be 230 percent more efficient than existing 3G technologies, according to UK regulator Ofcom.

Global connectivity and collaborative media encourage us to collaborate over distance, while the lines between consumer and workplace technology grow increasingly blurred. The ‘app culture’ so widespread that 35 percent of US smartphone users log on before even getting out of bed, according to a survey by Ericsson.

In other words, we are already mobile. But the tipping point for the mobile office is more likely to come from employees than technology, according to ‘The future world of work’, a presentation by CBRE Richard Ellis’s Lenny Beaudoin and Benn Munn.

It’s a desire for greater flexibility that’s behind the mobile push, led not just by working mothers but ‘millenials’ – 20somethings who expect flexibility and have been reared on digital technology. In “Is the Office Really Necessary?”, Cisco’s survey of 2,600 employees worldwide, 60 percent claimed they could be just as productive outside the office and 66 percent claimed they’d rather take a lower-paid, flexible job than a restrictive, higher-paid position.

Many work harder – ‘anytime, anywhere connectivity’ can add 11 hours to a mobile worker’s week, according to a Forrester report. It can do much to encourage employee loyalty and retention — UK-based design firm Plinkfizz uses flexible working as a differentiator, a way of attracting high-calibre talent. Then there are the more prosaic benefits of a workerless office: lower property costs, utility bills and carbon emissions.

IT firms and the large consultancies – PwC, KPMG, Accenture – are early adopters, but predictions are that it will become commonplace. So what are some of the issues companies need to consider when preparing for the mobile office?

The management mindset

The emergence of a mobile workforce changes the workplace hierarchy and the role of managers – some argue that automation of work processes makes their jobs redundant.

Managing mobile workers requires a different mindset, one where trust and outcome-driven measures determine success. This changes the way people are managed – and may mean reviewing performance criteria, possibly shifting to a more continuous feedback tool such as Rypple.

Results only work environments offer a good model for mobile office management, balancing a flexible approach to individual work with a more formalized communications structure. Employees work at their own pace (with a clear deadline), but have regular, scheduled progress checks and virtual meetings to keep everyone motivated and encourage team bonding. Ideally, location becomes immaterial, as at teleworking pioneer 37Signals.

Managers can also teach by doing, particularly when it comes to the etiquette of virtual meetings. Any company without a social media policy should draw up a guide on language, tone and disclosure rules, particularly for corporate Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts.

The way employees work

Perhaps it is indicative of where we are in Maslow’s needs triangle, but most employees want flexibility. Not everyone wants to work from home all the time, however, and some people will be more naturally self-sufficient than others.

Overall, though, it’s overwork that employees and managers need to watch out for when going mobile (it’s no coincidence that the nickname for a Blackberry is Crackberry).

Nearly half of Cisco’s survey respondents claim regularly to work an extra few hours a day and another recent poll of managers found nearly 60 percent of managers visited work-related websites out of hours, and nearly half check work emails before going to bed. With work “only a smartphone away,” as one UK director puts it, the toughest challenge is switching off.

There are also little communication habits that may need to change: ensuring your IM status is up to date, for example, or shedding a lifelong paper Post-It habit in favour of virtual ones. Backing up and sharing work online should become second nature.

The right tools for the job

Accessing a company’s network remotely is increasingly straightforward while VoIP, IM and virtual meeting tools such as Microsoft Office Live Meeting and cloud-based DimDim are just a few options for distributed workforces to stay in touch.

Mobile workers tend to be more adept at ‘pulling’ information, so intranets and Wikis can replace town hall meetings or be used to share knowledge and self-train. But HR should ensure any important company information is delivered directly to individuals rather than relying on them to find it.

Given the plethora of tools available, it can be tough to settle upon one communication method and stick to it. Experienced remote workers tend to favour videoconferences, where it’s possible to read body language and get a sense of the mood and tone of your co-workers.

Establish clear support structures

Mobile offices rely heavily on technology so mobile workers should know who and how to contact the company’s helpdesk for IT support. Likewise, managers and HR should ensure employees know to whom they can turn in an emergency, while ensuring they are compliant with data protection regulations.

Rewrite the IT policy

Security concerns remain an obstacle to getting workforces mobilized: in a survey of small and medium-sized enterprises by consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, the vast majority (83 percent) claimed to have suffered a security breach in the past year. According to Cisco’s research, 66 percent of employees expected IT to allow them to use any device to access corporate networks – but nearly half of IT respondents felt the company wasn’t prepared to meet their expectations.

Yet many employees already sync their smartphones to workplace email — and Jonathan Reichental, CIO of O’Reilly Media, predicts BYOC – bring your own computer – will become increasingly common. “Today we expect employees to provide and maintain their own cars, but we do provide mileage reimbursement when it’s used for business purposes. Could there be a similar model for employees who use their own computers?”

Whether BYOC or company-provided, devices and data need to be insured and secured by the company. Devices and data should be password or code-protected, and restricted access applied where necessary. Experienced mobile workers also advise peers to keep a spare laptop battery and USB back-up drive handy.

IT policies will need updating to ensure clarity around issues such as who owns data on personal devices– and what happens when that employee leaves; whether — and what — employees are allowed to download onto portable devices, terms regarding who pays for broadband or smartphone tariffs.

Office space

If the office is no longer what Richard Ellis’s Beaudoin calls a “people warehouse”, it can become more of an idea factory or a space for teams to hold meetings, socialise and exchange ideas. Hosting company PEER1’s boss, Dominick Monkhouse, had a miniature putting green put into the company’s UK office to allow employees to relax at work. Arguably, smaller companies could do without an office altogether, instead using serviced offices or the growing number of shared offices that have sprung up in major cities to cater for nomadic workers.