Choose your own device: the benefits and the pitfalls

08 September 2015 -


Locking staff to a bog-standard laptop is going out of fashion, but what’s the alternative?

Will Dean

A friend of mine went to work at Google not so long ago. After getting through the 17 or 18 rounds of the interview (that’s only just an exaggeration; whole books have been written about the complexity of getting a job there), she went into the office for her first week as a Noogler (a new Googler – do keep up) and was given an interesting choice. What kind of computer did she want to use?

For someone who’d been straightjacketed for the past four years by a succession of knackered PCs bought en masse (and on budget) by an IT team responsible for thousands of machines, this seemed an unbelievable – and enviable – amount of freedom.


Especially given that Google makes its own operating system and computers (that said, the Chromebook is designed for browsing the web and not a lot else). She opted for a swish MacBook. I mean, why wouldn’t you? And she seemed thrilled at the prospect.

It wasn’t a policy local to her specific office but one that came from the top. In a 2012 speech at the Interop conference in New York City, Google’s head of IT, Ben Fried, suggested that the future of corporate IT was giving staff the option to work on the hardware that they want to work on.

“When someone brings home that corporate laptop and sets it down next to their personal computer, I want them to use the corporate laptop,” he told the assembled IT executives.

The advantages of this are pretty obvious. Firstly, people used to using certain programs, operating systems, email – whatever – can calibrate the way they work to the way they want to work.

As Fried later told the Wall Street Journal: “When people feel like they have had a say, like they have been empowered, you get collaboration and cooperation.”

Secondly, if someone is used to working on, say, Linux, they’re going to be quicker and more productive using a Linux machine. And they are less likely to require IT support if they can solve the problem themselves. (Although you suspect this isn’t too big a problem among the combined computing brainpower of the Googleplex).

Finally, the obvious by-product of Fried’s desire that his staff choose their corporate laptop over their personal one is that, by doing so, they’ll be more likely to do company work when ‘relaxing’ at home.

It’s the same idea as giving people free cereal and beer. It gets them in the office earlier and it keeps them there later.


The downsides – most IT managers will already be halfway through composing an email to me to point these out – are also pretty obvious.

If everyone chooses MacBook Pros, then the cost increase compared to an ordinary Windows laptop is vast. Then there’s the fact that, if half your staff have Macs and half have PCs, the benefit of wholesale purchase or rental is reduced. And, if neither of those problems cause you to think again, here’s another – are you able to hire IT support staff capable of solving problems on Linux, OS X and Windows?

So, unless you’re like Google and drowning in both cash and computer geniuses – chance would be a fine thing – the idea of giving staff free rein when it comes to kitting out their working environment might sound extreme.

But are there ways that you can support personal technology on a smaller scale, allowing staff to feel “empowered” and “collaborative” as Fried would have it? Or even just a bit more comfortable?

I’ve spent my career so far working in newspapers. There, as in many businesses, the BlackBerry was once de rigueur. It didn’t take long after the iPhone became almost universal for IT managers to realise that not only did many smartphone users prefer to email on a smartphone interface, but allowing them to do so on their own phones meant you could potentially spend a lot less on buying units for staff if they were happy to have work email on their own phone.

Of course, the problem is that you can’t leave your BlackBerry at the office or at home to escape the incessant blinking light of new email if it’s the same unit you use to call your family.

Allowing sensitive business material on personal kit might be a risk that some firms are unwilling to take. But, even if it’s not freedom in technology, freedom in the workplace itself might be a step in the right direction. That alone can help boost productivity, especially for those in noisy open-plan spaces.

The design and architecture firm Gensler has spent much of its existence surveying workers to find out what makes them happiest about the space in which they work. It found that being allowed to work in an environment that encourages autonomy and choice makes workers more content.

As the firm’s co-chief executive, Diane Hoskins, wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “We found that knowledge workers whose companies allow them to help decide when, where and how they work were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, performed better and viewed their company as more innovative than competitors that didn’t offer such choices.”

The choice then – not to be too Rumsfeldian – is how much choice do you want to choose?

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