The old way of handing out corporate hardware doesn’t work anymore


Enlarge / Choose your weapons.

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With many organizations now having a significant portion of staff working remotely—and as things are looking, this is going to be the longterm reality—the old model of how companies support a “mobile” workforce is not exactly holding up well.

I’ve already covered some of the issues related to having a home-based workforce in previous articles in this series. Some companies are now giving employees an allowance to upgrade their home office to something more suitable for longterm habitation. And we’ve already gone over the network security and architecture challenges that come into play as well.

But as we push closer to a full year of full- or part-time home work with no end in sight, the old model for what is considered “mobile worker” support on the hardware front is starting to show some serious gaps.

It used to be that a select few employees were issued corporate laptops for mobile work. Over the past decade, as workforces have become less moored to specific physical locations, many organizations have more widely issued mobile devices or have adopted some sort of bring-your-own-device policy for smartphones and laptops. But the difference between “mobile” workers and full- or part-time home workers is significant—and the kind of work we’re all doing from home doesn’t neatly fit into the laptop-and-a-cell-phone model of hardware lifecycle management.

The compute device

Organizations have tried many things to cut down on the cost of maintaining employee workstations over the years—including moving whole classes of workers to Windows Terminal clients or other virtual desktops. Other types of work have long demanded mobility and have rated company-issued and managed laptops. Both of these tactics may have eased some of the pain of handling the lockdown workload, but they both have weaknesses for sustained work-from-home operations.

A laptop is built for mobility first. And right now, many of us are not particularly mobile. While laptop computers are adequate for part-time home work in many cases, they aren’t in and of themselves suited to work that involves significant data input of the keyboard-entry variety or fine-detail analysis work that requires long hours of staring at pixels on a screen. We’ve gone over some of the ergonomic issues of laptops previously, but to summarize succinctly: as a rule, compromises made for mobility make them horrible for extended use.

Ergonomics can be solved to some degree by an external keyboard and monitor—and any company that has people working involuntarily at home should be providing for those, either through that home office allowance or through direct provision.

But laptops are not well-suited for extended home work for other reasons:

  • They are not great at heat management—especially when you’re running them all day with closed screens while tethered to external keyboards and monitors. Expect more early laptop failures as the pandemic progresses, from 24/7 tethered-operation heat death.
  • They are more expensive to provision and deploy than many desktop computers, especially when monitors are factored in for both.
  • Hardware support for laptops is more expensive or totally outsourced to the manufacturer, or both.

Another common complaint about laptops is their lack of expandability—not enough USB ports and, increasingly, no physical Ethernet support, for example. But for most people working from home, these aren’t really issues—as long as there’s a way to plug in a hub for a keyboard, monitor, and peripherals and the Wi-Fi network is not jammed by your kids playing Fortnite and doing distance learning at the same time.

A familiar dilemma.
Enlarge / A familiar dilemma.

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On the other end of the spectrum is the thin client. While having an installed thin client infrastructure may have helped to some degree with a distributed workforce—many organizations have relied on Remote Desktop Protocol to give employees access to applications and data, with varying degrees of protection—performance of RDP sessions over even decent home broadband is less than optimal for productivity. And while employees may be able to make this work with their own PCs or other computing devices, many of them are placed in the position of having to share those devices with their kids for schoolwork.

One solution I’ve seen some companies turn to is all-in-one desktops pre-configured for use with corporate remote access. All-in-ones may not be significantly more powerful than laptop computers, but they’re better designed for cooling and ergonomic considerations, and they can be (depending on the manufacturer and model) somewhat less expensive to support.

In a similar vein, small desktops (like Intel NUC devices) may be a better solution for home workers than laptops from a cost-of-ownership perspective—especially for companies that adopt a cloud desktop model for remote workers or leverage remote desktop services from their own networks. They’re straightforward to configure and don’t take up excess home-office work-surface space. Then again, they’ll likely need more accessories as well—a Web camera and microphone for collaboration, for example.

In the long term, it might be smarter for companies to simply give employees a hardware allowance—and give them a managed virtual machine preconfigured to connect to corporate resources if necessary or require them to allow their computer to be managed much in the same way companies now enroll employees’ personal smartphones.

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