It’s no secret that, for knowledge-based employees, the workday is no longer confined to ‘nine-to-five,’ and the walls of the enterprise are becoming less defined. Many of today’s employers expect workers to be available and to check in after hours and on weekends.

In return, today’s employees demand greater scheduling flexibility and, often, the ability to telecommute on a regular or ad hoc basis—a privilege once reserved for road warriors: sales, technical field workers, and consulting personnel.

Enabling all of these telecommuters and road warriors is a wide range of mobile computing devices. A recent (Q3 2009) Forrester Research report indicates that an average of 36% of all computers in enterprises are laptops, thin clients/dumb terminals, tablet PCs, or laptops.

And whether they’re formally telecommuting or not, a growing number of employees are using smartphones to access corporate resources—e-mail, calendar, contacts—and increasingly mission-critical corporate applications.

This all adds up to a highly mobile workforce—and one that’s becoming more so. In fact, in October 2008, Forrester Research forecast that, by 2012, a full 73% of the enterprise workforce across North America and Europe will be mobile.

The implications of the mobile workforce are many, but one of the most pronounced is the impact that employee mobility has on the IT helpdesk. Desk-side visits are no longer possible. Mobile employees are off the corporate LAN, rendering legacy support tools obsolete. Smartphones, in particular, are having a significant impact, as employees are demanding support for their personal devices, resulting in a proliferation of operating systems to accommodate.

Another survey conducted by Forrester Research in Q1 2009 shows that just under half of enterprises provide support for employees’ personal devices; and a full 50% are supporting more than one OS. For now, there is a relatively constrained set of applications that the helpdesk is called upon to support on these smartphones: Web-based corporate e-mail, contacts, and calendars.

But as the workforce becomes more and more mobile, and as smartphones replace standard mobile phones in the workplace, the range of applications that need to be supported will grow to include line of business applications such as sales force automation, logistics, and field technician systems, and collaboration applications like SharePoint.

Will the helpdesk be able to handle all of this if they continue to rely on traditional ‘talk through’ methods and legacy remote control tools to provide support? Not easily.

Firstly, legacy remote control tools were never designed for the helpdesk. As a result, they don’t deliver the value-added capabilities required by them, such as queuing, technician monitoring or collaboration. They are also particularly ineffective for connecting to laptops or netbooks that are off the corporate LAN. For the helpdesk to make a connection to that device, it will typically require the end-user to get on-LAN using a virtual private network (VPN).

Given the issues many end-users have with VPNs, particularly when connecting from ‘foreign’ networks in hotels, cafes and conference centres, where many mobile workers spend their time, this is hardly an ideal solution. Worse, if the issue is with the VPN itself, there’s really nothing the helpdesk can do.

Then there’s the smartphone. Here, the case for using legacy remote control tools for support is even weaker: they just can’t handle smartphone devices. So any helpdesk that’s hoping they can get by with their legacy IT management tools is going to find themselves in the awkward situation of walking the user through steps over the phone.

The mobile worker support challenge is further compounded when an organisation provides support for a range of personal mobility devices. While many enterprises strictly mandate the smartphone they’ll support, this trend is changing as more and more workers bring their own smartphones into the workplace with the expectation of support. Additionally, some companies are adopting ‘bring your own’ policies for personal computing.

As a result, the helpdesk has to juggle troubleshooting on the full range of business-oriented smartphone OSs: Windows Mobile, Symbian and Blackberry, as well as both PCs and Mac. Troubleshooting across all the different devices remotely is a near impossibility and, often, the solution is to send the device back to the helpdesk for repair, which negatively impacts employee productivity.

Overall, a helpdesk relying on legacy tools to provide support will not be able to support mobile initiatives in addition to day-to-day support such as user training or the rollout of mobile applications.

A recent Forrester study perhaps puts it best: ‘Mobility is here to stay, and investment in tools to better support mobile and remote users represents a significant upside for the business as a whole.’ In fact, according to the Forrester study, 91% of enterprises with manual mobile support processes believe the ability to connect to a remote user’s devices would be a key IT investment. Improved worker and executive management satisfaction with IT is cited as a primary benefit (78%), with increased productivity of remote workers (72%) and IT efficiency (67%) also ranking highly.

Few will argue that there’ll be no going back to the ‘stationery’ enterprise. Helpdesks that try to hold on to their legacy desktop support tools in order to provide support for mobile workers may find themselves having to resort to phone-only support, the ultimate legacy tool—and one that will guarantee frustration on all sides.