As predicted and wished for by many, work is becoming something done, rather than a place to go. The once solid delineation of the workplace is breaking down and the impermeable barriers are becoming porous. A number of technologies are driving this – mobile, cloud, social – and ultimately the pervasive nature of lower cost, high speed and open networks are behind it.

This brings predictable challenges around security, management and control, which have been exacerbated by the increasing desire for consumer technologies to be used for work activities. At one time the tools of ICT – fixed or mobile phone, desktop or laptop – were corporate standard issue, now many employees want choice, personal preference and BYOD – bring your own device.

Beyond the clear technical issues that many are already attempting to address, organisations need to deal with the changes required in their cultural and management style, and this is somewhat harder and often overlooked. While the dreams of future work embodied in terms such as mobile, remote home and flexible working have been in common use for a couple of decades, the reality is being slowed by certain aspects of human nature.

These can be found in any workplace. Employees will refer to an absent colleague as ‘working from home’ (often drawing the inverted comms in the air), they will say how hard it is to get hold of so-and-so while they’re on the road, or they might wander round cubicles looking to see who’s in to deal with an emerging crisis. Tele-working for some has the air of ‘tele-shirking’ for others.

Managers and management culture generally doesn’t help. Many organisations claim flexible and mobile working strategies, but in reality they have desks allocated to individual employees (who fight over location during office desk reorgs and mark their territory with personal objects) that are overseen by a glass-walled manager’s office at the far end. This is not a new way of working, but the old with better décor.

The problems are visibility and responsibility. Some employees, especially when times are threatening, feel they need to be seen – hence the ‘presentee-ism’ prevalent in many work places; others just want to know they can get hold of a colleague when they need to – for help, support or simply to offload – or to know they are pulling their weight. Managers like to know where their direct reports are and what they’re up to.

Fortunately technology provides a number of ways to restore visibility (and some cultural cohesion) to remote, flexible and mobile or distributed teams of co-workers. These have been available for some time, but research often shows that adoption has thus far been slow. While mobile working was for the relatively few independent ‘road warriors’ this was acceptable, but distributed teams need communications and collaborative support at several levels to visibly demonstrate they are involved and committed.

Companies could go the whole hog and implement unified communications, social business tools and video conferencing or some blend of them, but there’s a simple first step – get the mobile phones onto the same footing as desktop phones. This means that the mobile phones of remote workers are seen just like their deskbound colleagues as extensions of the PBX; calls can be simply transferred and everyone can pick up their responsibility on a hunt group. Rather than lone wolves and road warriors everyone can be seen to be on the same team.

It doesn’t matter whether this is delivered by on-premise equipment or a hosted service, although for many smaller organisations or those for whom a PBX upgrade is not on the short terms plans, a cloud based service might make most sense. As for players in this space, there are plenty to chose from, including mobile operators (Vodafone’s One Net, AT&T’s Office@Hand), telecoms and PBX hardware vendors (Avaya, Aastra, Alcatel-Lucent) and specialist communications providers (Gradwell, Calyx, Sangoma, Gintel).

The key questions to ask service providers are similar to those for other cloud applications around service assurance, reliability, scalability and security, but for mobile integration there are other issues to consider too. It is important to understand costs, especially when calls are being re-routed, and if there are any limitations or additional costs when roaming.

This may only be a first step on a much more sophisticated and involved route towards unified communications, a collaborative workplace and desktop video conferencing, but these require an even greater evolution in working practices and the business culture, which will rarely happen overnight.

The functions of the switchboard – from simple call divert, waiting, transfer and pickup to more sophisticated features – are well used and understood and therefore easily adopted. It is a far simpler task to extend this to mobile phones – whether employer provider or employee owned – to provide more cultural structure and team cohesion to distributed individuals. By all means unify your communications, but unify your people first.