Ask the Expert: Should My Workers Be Sharing Corporate-Owned Devices? Or Should I Be Giving Them Each Their Own Personally Enabled Device?

It used to be standard practice for restaurateurs, retailers, and other companies to build and manage a “shared fleet” of mobile computers. Find out why this might be changing.

A retail worker puts a Zebra EC5x mobile computer in her pocket.
by Bill Inzeo
August 09, 2021

It’s not surprising there are front-line workers who aren’t eager to use mobile computers from a shared device fleet these days. They are taking on an increasing number of tasks as customer demands grow (and the workforce does not). They want to be able to personalize their devices to suit their work style and better support their unique workflows. Though shared devices can accommodate this level of personalization via individual profiles, there is growing evidence that individually assigned devices boost productivity. They can also help address some of the health and safety concerns expressed by workers who don’t like the idea of sharing devices that could come into contact with colleagues’ hands and faces just a few minutes before they pick them up and use them. As a result, we’re receiving more inquiries from customers asking if it’s time to embrace a different mobility strategy – one that essentially assigns a mobile computer to each worker.

To help answer this question, we reached out to Bill Inzeo, one of Zebra’s global retail technology strategists. Keep reading for his recommendation…

Your Edge Blog Team: As we make progress in the fight against COVID-19, markets open back up, and economic growth opportunities re-emerge, many companies are actively making changes to better support the expectations being set forth for employees. They are also striving to meet employees’ expectations for more technology-powered workplaces, especially in sectors such as retail, hospitality   and healthcare. What are you hearing from customers in terms of how their operational strategies might change?

Bill: As companies start to reopen in a greater capacity, there are certainly questions about whether we’ll see a full return to pre-pandemic operating models. But I don’t think that will be the case. For example, companies – even in the sectors you mentioned – are looking closely at how they equip employees to do their work both within and beyond the four walls of their facilities. Most hoteliers, restaurateurs, and retailers would have laughed if we had recommended they issue company-owned, personally enabled mobile devices to employees. Now, they can’t seem to procure and distribute them fast enough.

In fact, even before the pandemic, Zebra realized the need for a new category of enterprise-grade handheld mobile computers to meet the growing customer need to equip all unserved hands with an individually assigned mobile solution. The lightweight enterprise-grade EC50 and EC55 devices are built to be as connected, secure, and manageable as our shared, more rugged enterprise-grade mobile devices, but they come with a perk of looking and feeling sleeker than traditional rugged mobile devices. Many people mistake them for consumer-grade devices when they first see them, and this is what wins customers’ attention. That aesthetic re-engineering was intentional since we knew these would be multi-functional devices that retailers, restaurant operators, and hoteliers, among others, would likely assign to employees on an individual level.

Your Edge Blog Team: Is this growing interest in corporate-owned, personally enabled mobile devices stemming from health and safety concerns surrounding shared devices? Or something else?

Bill: There are certainly some employees who would prefer to have their own company-owned devices for this reason. However, it’s not the primary driver. Strict device cleaning protocols were implemented for shared devices early in the pandemic, and organizations conducted training to ensure employees understood usage policies and knew how to properly and thoroughly clean those devices. They also went to great lengths to put accountability measures in place to ensure compliance. These things haven’t changed, and probably won’t for the foreseeable future.

Your Edge Blog Team: What is driving retailers to give each employee their own device, then?

Bill: We’re seeing a huge push for speed, efficiency, and agility. Retailers, restaurateurs, and hoteliers want each employee to be able to always deliver a high level of customer service. They also want them to be able to access corporate applications without restriction, regardless of their responsibilities or their work locations.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, the trend toward the individual assignment of corporate-owned mobile devices is really about ensuring workers can connect to voice, email, enterprise apps and back-end systems and stay connected no matter what.

Bill: Exactly. Because devices such as the EC5x are designed to be individually assigned – they aren’t shared with anyone else – corporate email accounts, phone calls, and apps can all be personalized to the user’s unique role and responsibilities. For example, a retail store manager with an EC5x series device can pull up a quality inspection report in a stockroom to further investigate a reported issue and then, if called to assist with a price adjustment on aisle 12, immediately transition to that task. They can even print up a new price sticker if they have a mobile printer on hand. If, on the way back to the stockroom, the manager is then stopped by a customer who needs help locating an item that looks like it’s in stock in the customer’s mobile app but isn’t on the shelf, the manager can pull up the inventory system to see if it’s in the stockroom. If it’s not, maybe the item can be located at a nearby store or ordered for home delivery. Then, let’s say on the way out for lunch, the manager receives a mobile alert that an employee requested time off next week. The manager can approve the request on the spot, without having to go back to their desk or wait until later. Or if the manager needs to go to another store for a quarterly leadership meeting, they can bring the EC5x device with them to remain accessible to their team and vendors.

Your Edge Blog Team: Are companies giving shift workers their own personal devices, then? Or just managers who need to be highly accessible?

Bill: Both. This concept, though new to some industries such as retail and hospitality, isn’t as far-fetched as one might think. We’ve seen companies issue individual devices to employees since the PDA era for a number of reasons, and with great success. There is value in giving employees in customer-facing roles sleek, functional devices. It’s about appearances and ensuring their employees are fully representative of their brand. Think of the device as an extension of a uniform. However, the determination to accelerate pandemic recovery is also helping to reinvigorate this trend and drive explosive interest among organizations with a heavy population of part-time workers or shift workers.

Your Edge Blog Team: Can you elaborate on that?

Bill: The manager example I just shared could easily apply to a store associate or hospitality worker, each of whom plays a unique role in store or hotel operations. Some may primarily work at the point of sale while others are primarily responsible for shelf replenishment and pricing management. Yet, that doesn’t mean that they will focus exclusively on those tasks. They need to be able to jump in wherever needed as customer and operational demands change. In fact, we’re seeing associates increasingly cross-train to fill multiple roles. For example, some associates may be assigned to work the point-of-sale register and assist with returns at the customer service desk when needed to queue bust. When it’s slower, those associates may be asked to conduct cycle counts. Instead of needing to go track down different mobile computers or barcode scanners configured for those specific jobs as they transition back and forth, the associates can just open the appropriate app on their devices. Because we know those associates will likely need to work in both capacities at some point in time, IT can configure their devices with all the tools needed for them to be successful – to include on-demand instructional videos on how to complete certain transactions if they need to jog their memories.

Your Edge Blog Team: Is it financially feasible to give every front-line worker his or her device?

Bill: It really depends on the organization: its size, budget, objectives, etc. However, there is justification to give those who are highly mobile, flexible in their roles, or needs to be continuously connected to company apps, email and data remotely. Hotel concierges, casino hosts and curbside pickup service coordinators are all great examples. They are constantly on the move and need to be reachable by guests and other staff when walking across facilities or even outside the facility. Giving them a secure, smartphone-like enterprise-grade device loaded with apps specific to their role allows them to always provide a high level of customer service and peer assistance. They can access schedules, book reservations, help troubleshoot issues, review inventory and coordinate experiences from anywhere – including planes, trains, and automobiles. And with a device such as the EC50/EC55, which has an integrated scanner, they can instantly scan ID cards, loyalty cards, payment cards, luggage tags, tickets, order confirmation emails and even proof of recent vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test result right in the parking lot, on the casino floor or really anywhere in or out of the building. 

Team leads, merchandisers, maintenance professionals, customer service representatives, delivery team members and banking associates are also good candidates. They aren’t the only ones, though. We always like to sit down with customers to understand where they feel there are gaps in workforce productivity because the right person can’t be reached and isn’t necessarily in the office – or the store, restaurant, hotel, etc. – all day, every day. Again, some employees may rotate between different facilities in the same market or must attend meetings off-site, during which time they still need to be connected.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, it sounds like we’re going to see a trend toward more individually assigned mobile devices, but not a complete departure from shared devices. 

Bill: That’s right. Individually assigned devices can fill in the gaps in productivity/connectivity and allow those in customer-facing roles to have devices that project the same sleek look as smartphones and help carry the brand forward, whereas shared devices that are purpose-built for multi-shift operations will still be used when there’s a need for more rugged devices or unique task-specific functionality. For example, some workers who primarily spend their time with scan-intensive roles replenishing inventory in an aisle, in a backroom or warehouse, are going to be better served by shared, purpose-built ultra-rugged mobile computers. Plus, many backroom shift workers probably won’t benefit from having a company-issued mobile device on hand after hours just given the nature of their jobs. If they are only responsible for picking, packing, put away, or order fulfillment, have a shift field job (such as a delivery or maintenance route), and are not in a direct customer service or supervisory role, they most likely will prefer and benefit from our rugged pool of shared mobile devices.   

Your Edge Blog Team: That’s a great segue to our next question. Are companies concerned about misuse of individually assigned corporate-owned devices, especially if employees aren’t turning them in at the end of every shift?

Bill: Since the company owns these devices, they will be configured in a way that restricts personal use. Some may have policies that don’t allow personal use in any circumstance, while some may give users both a personal profile and work profile to allow them to initiate or receive personal calls and emails or connect to social media in an approved capacity.

A company’s device administration policies will likely enable it to see when, where and how the employee is utilizing that device to minimize the risk of unauthorized activity. (Remember, it’s company property.) Ultimately,, it will be up to each company to decide its tolerance level for personal use and risk.

Beyond misuse, some customers may be concerned that devices will be mishandled – perhaps dropped onto the ground or in water, exposed to spills, or scratched. The best way to allay such concerns is to invest in enterprise-grade devices that, despite their sleek design, are extremely durable and able to tolerate being tossed around in a bag, dropped, or exposed to rain, coffee spills and other potential contaminants.

Your Edge Blog Team: Since consumer-grade devices could technically be configured with a work profile, what is the benefit of giving workers an enterprise-grade device versus just letting them use their personally owned devices in these scenarios?

Bill: That’s a fantastic question – and a popular one. Many companies are under the impression that it’s better – or perhaps easier – to give these types of employees a consumer-grade device that looks more like a personal device. But I’ve yet to find a way to justify such an approach. For example, the EC5x is extremely sleek. With the way it is designed, shoppers, guests and others with whom staff interact might not even notice at first glance that it is not a consumer device. But employees will quickly be able to see the difference between the EC5x and a consumer device, especially when it comes to device performance. The EC5x is built from the inside out to ensure users can stay connected and remain productive, even when working remotely.

IT will notice the difference too.

Your Edge Blog Team: How so?

Bill: Consumer devices have a relatively short life cycle, so there is near constant device churn. It is also difficult to manage the sheer quantity of different device models when you go with a bring-your-own device (BYOD) strategy and allow workers to use their consumer devices or try to build a corporate-owned pool of consumer-grade devices. Though Android™ is by far the most popular consumer operating system (OS), it’s not the only one. And there are several versions and updates to manage. Plus, smartphones aren’t the only form factors your workers might want to use. Having to write, configure, secure, and manage software for each type of device is a heavy lift. And every time an employee gets a new device, it will need to be configured again and the work profile on the old one decommissioned.

What many of our customers have learned is that making the investment in a sleek, rugged, enterprise-grade device such as the EC50/EC55 that runs on the same professional-grade Android platform as their other corporate-owned mobile devices make it so much easier to manage and lockdown devices. They can proactively monitor device performance and utilization, deploy updates, check battery health, app performance and even wireless connectivity strength, which makes it easier to detect and resolve issues before they become disruptive. Better yet, they can have someone else – a managed services provider – monitor and maintain the devices, which reduces the burden on in-house resources. Many of these services offer around-the-clock helpdesk and self-service support to device users, which is something companies don’t always have the urge or financial capacity to offer within their own IT departments. Plus, if there is a reported issue, someone can quickly retrieve the performance data for the corporate-owned device to quickly pinpoint and troubleshoot the source. They can even find missing devices that may be powered down.

Your Edge Blog Team: We were fascinated when Dan Quagliana recently explained in his blog post how there are over 250 different types of device-related data points that companies could potentially analyze when they give employees corporate-owned devices. Of course, they need the right device monitoring and management solution in place to reap this benefit. But this must be a huge advantage for businesses that depend on mobile devices to capture, analyze, and distribute data.

Bill: When someone used the term data analytics 10 years ago, they were most likely talking about operational performance. But as you noted, mobile devices have become so core to business that if a device isn’t performing as it should, neither is the user. That, in turn, impacts broader operational performance. To be honest, that’s one of the most important reasons why companies shouldn’t even be considering a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy in today’s times in most instances. You can’t improve the performance of a worker’s personal device, and that can become problematic when your business’ success is highly dependent on the information sent and received on that device. Most workers rely on their devices to tell them the best next step to take every second of their day. They would be lost without them. Even a few seconds of lag time in retrieving task instructions or a missed calendar notice to meet a customer for a fitting can have consequences.  

Your Edge Blog Team: It sounds like the recommendation to many customers, especially those in retail, hospitality and banking sectors, would be to go ahead and give workers corporate-owned devices.

Bill: Absolutely. Though the pandemic may have accelerated the need for individually assigned devices, we were always moving in this direction. You never know when someone needs to work remotely to take care of a family member – or themselves. They could rest when they needed and log on and take care of some tasks as they felt up to it.

As I mentioned, devices such as those in the EC5x series are fully equipped enterprise-rugged mobile computers, even though they’re extremely lightweight and look like consumer-grade smartphones. So, they enable users to provide the same level and speed of service as shared devices. Touring and on-site staff at an event venue can quickly pull EC5x devices out of their pockets to scan tickets or vaccine credentials at the gate and then just put them back in their pockets without worrying about going to a storage room to turn in the devices when the event is over. Or a retail store manager could pull the device out of her purse to quickly scan the QR code on an employee’s vaccine certificate as they pass each other during a shift change. The efficiency potential of the individually assigned device model is incredible.

If customers still have concerns or want our recommendation on the best device strategy, we’re happy to set up a call to discuss.

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Bill Inzeo
Bill Inzeo is the Global Retail Technology Strategist for Zebra Technologies, responsible for identifying the most impactful technology solutions that align to the top challenges facing Zebra’s retail customers today, and in the future. Prior to joining Zebra, Bill was the Senior Director of Strategic Analytics, Systems and Support for Walgreens Asset Protection Solutions.
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