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Mobile Apps and Increased Facility Management Productivity

Affordable apps and mobile devices: the newest addition to your toolbox

By Janelle Penny

Can a mobile device and a suite of apps improve your performance? See what’s available and compare it to your business.Affordable apps and mobile devices: the newest addition to your toolbox.

Doing more with less. Sound familiar? It’s a common theme in facilities management.

But the growing acceptance of handheld mobile devices as business tools could lessen the pressure of that demand for higher productivity with less funding. How?

There are hundreds of thousands of apps at your fingertips – many free or low-cost – designed to help you save time, gather data quickly, and communicate effectively.

“We’ve seen a growing trend within the FM industry over the last 24 to 36 months whereby FMs are increasingly relying on mobile devices for day-to-day activities,” notes John Garrett, president and CEO of Facilities Management Advisors, a consulting firm for facilities, operations and maintenance, and corporate real estate. “They need to be able to more effectively multitask and manage communications and workloads on the fly.”

Can a mobile device and a suite of apps improve your performance? See what’s available and compare it to your business.

Building the Mobile Workplace
Changing attitudes have fueled the growth of mobile technology. Tablets have been around in some form for roughly 20 years, but didn’t gain wide acceptance until the iPad was released. Now they’re increasingly used for all facets of business.

“Mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones empower employees by increasing control and choice over the way they work,” explains Garrett. “Work demands require that employees be highly nimble, productive, and able to communicate in real-time.”

Top 5 Tablets and Smartphones

Led by principal investigator Jeffery Campbell, a Brigham Young University research team field-tested many models of smartphones and tablets for FM and general use. As of January 2013, these are the team’s five top-ranked devices on the market.

-Samsung Galaxy S III
-Apple iPhone 5
-Motorola Droid Razr Maxx
-HTC One X
-Samsung Galaxy Note

10-Inch Tablets
-Asus Transformer Pad TF300T
-Apple iPad 3
-Toshiba Excite
-Samsung Galaxy Tab 2
-Lenovo Think Pad

* No 7-inch tablets were evaluated for the ranking because the team found them too small for business use.


Facilities professionals can benefit from these devices’ portability and ease of communication while in the field. But which devices can best benefit FM? A research team from Brigham Young University (BYU) aims to answer that question through field testing and extensive interviews with facilities and construction professionals.

Handheld device adoption is still low in this industry, but is poised to grow, says principal investigator Jeffery Campbell, who also serves as chair of facility and property management at BYU.

“When new technology comes along, it’s always treated first like a novelty, and we’re seeing that happening now with personal devices,” notes Campbell. “The biggest challenge we have right now is that these devices are viewed as toys and time-wasters. We have in our hands some extremely powerful tools, and probably 95% of workers out there really don’t understand what they have.”

Top Devices
While the decision to integrate handheld device technology into your FM practices seems easy, the nuts and bolts of that decision are anything but. It’s not as simple as heading to an electronics store and buying the most familiar technology. PageBreak

Figure out which mobile technology fits best with your department by weighing these three factors:

  1. Portability vs. needs: Narrow down your list by evaluating your current use of technology. If you use heavy-duty software like AutoCAD, there’s no question that it should be handled by a traditional PC. However, if you need a portable device for field tasks and can do without as much storage space, a tablet or smartphone might meet your needs.
  2. Specific tasks: By its very nature, a tablet offers much more screen space than a smartphone. You can even pair tablets with detachable external keyboards and mice that have equally condensed footprints. That’s why it can support “heavy communication and information,” Campbell says, though it lacks the capability for the real heavy lifting on a project.
  3. Size: Tablets do not share a universal screen size, and choosing the right one requires a careful examination of exactly what functions you need the device to fulfill. For example, a smartphone is absolutely sufficient for email, task management, and data conversion – there are even apps that use the iPhone’s internal orientation sensors to mimic a bubble level.

However, some functions simply don’t translate well to a phone-sized screen – tasks like complex database management need a bigger screen, such as the 10-inch screen commonly offered by tablet manufacturers.

The smaller 7-inch screen on the newest tablet, the iPad Mini, is bigger than a smartphone but significantly smaller than the full-size iPad, so it may not fit every business process you’d want a tablet for.

“Not all products are created equal. Some may prefer a smartphone, as it’s compact and easy to use on the fly, while others prefer a tablet due to its size and seemingly endless functionality,” Garrett notes. “In reality, a smartphone and tablet are universal in that you can accomplish most tasks with both devices. When looking for the perfect middle ground between a mobile device and a computer, I would select a tablet – it’s the perfect go-between when you consider its overall capabilities.”

Essential Apps
Whatever function you need in the field, there’s an app for that – or, more accurately, five or more apps for that. In fact, Apple’s App Store alone boasts over 500,000 apps for the iPad and iPhone, and apps compatible with Google’s Android operating system are similarly prevalent.

For example, a simple search for HVAC turns up inspection checklists, conversion and calculation formulas, and more.

It seems daunting to narrow down which specific app best performs any given business task, but there are a few resources that can make the choice easier. The internet is flush with user reviews for many of them. You can also download apps like App Advice, Apps Gone Free, or AppStart that spotlight reviews from subject matter experts who evaluate apps for basic functionality and value, Garrett notes.

“Creating the right marriage of apps is critical,” Garrett says. “Selecting apps that produce the best ROI can be daunting considering the amount of time required to properly research quality apps prior to purchase – unless, of course, you don’t mind wasting lots of money on apps that don’t deliver as promised.”


Janelle Penny is associate editor of BUILDINGS.