Is mobile gear friend or foe?

Is mobile gear friend or foe?

BY MERRY MAYER | SPECIAL TO GCN

Wireless phones, notebook PCs and handheld computers have made many federal employees accessible and on-call at anytime and from almost anywhere.

Managers said mobile communications can improve efficiency and help agencies deliver services during crises, but establishing some boundaries helps limit what some called 'weekend workaholism.'

Portable technology is especially helpful to workers whose duties regularly take them out of the office, such as public affairs officers.

'I suppose you could say that the flexibility gave managers back their lives,' said Wilbert Berrios, corporate information director for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Mobility can also help information technology managers whose links to their offices are critical.

'We were on call all the time before this,' said Marile F. Prosser, Network Technology Branch chief for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. But handhelds and cellular phones let managers respond more effectively and efficiently from the field, she said.

But some managers must restrain themselves from working around the clock. 'It's
a double-edged sword. You catch yourself late on a Saturday night checking your
e-mail,' NASA news chief Bob Jacobs said.

Wired to work

That constant link to the office can be good and bad.

'It becomes a kind of leash,' said Commerce Department chief information officer Roger Baker. But he added he would rather know about a problem sooner than later.

If an agency establishes etiquette rules for mobile communications, then portable tools become manageable, Baker said. He recommended being selective when giving out cell phone numbers, although people should feel free to call if necessary, he said.


If an agency establishes etiquette rules for mobile communications, then portable tools become manageable.
'COMMERCE CIO ROGER BAKER
Baker said he checks e-mail and voice-mail messages four times each weekend, but he also tells his colleagues that e-mail is not a priority service. Although he may respond to a Saturday e-mail because it is good customer service, he doesn't want people to expect immediate responses, he said.

'My big concern with the BlackBerry is that it gives the perception that I should respond to e-mail right away,' Baker said of the wireless messaging device from Research in Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario.

For some federal workers, mobile communications are a matter of life and death. The National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho fights wildfires that burn millions of acres each year. Firefighters on the ground are in constant radio contact with those in planes overhead, who warn them if a fire is heading their way and advise them on escape routes, said Chris Lewis, a telecommunications specialist with the Interior Department.

Such communications tools let a team of hundreds of emergency workers cooperate in fighting a fire, rather than handfuls of firefighters in separate areas, Lewis said. 'It is a big positive,' he added.

For agencies with far-flung employees, portable technologies provide a vital link. The Army Corps of Engineers has 35,000 employees stationed around the world. The CDC has epidemiologists as far away as China. Interior fields rangers in some of the remotest parts of the nation. Mobile communications are crucial to meeting their missions, federal officials said.

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