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Albemarle plans to split its BYOD costs with employees

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman January 14, 2015
Corporate mobility programs can be an emotive issue. US-based chemicals company Albemarle is looking at a new way to share BYOD costs with employees

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“Who pays the phone bill?” It’s one of the trickiest questions any company needs to answer when it decides to roll out a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy.

Employees, after all, are understandably reluctant to foot the bill for mobile voice and data charges incurred in the line of duty. Bosses, reasonably enough, see no reason to pick up the tab on employees’ personal mobile usage.

In the US and Canada, this situation has led companies to experiment with a range of models based on stipends, reimbursements and allowances – but these can be costly for the finance department to manage, and still result in companies under- or over-compensating workers.

In Europe, on the other hand, tax and labour laws vary wildly from country to country and can stop plans to introduce compensation schemes dead in their tracks.

At Albemarle, a $2.6 billion specialty chemicals company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, these are issues that CIO Ravi Waran has spent a good deal of time pondering over the past year. He’s already rolled out BYOD to employees in North America, but there are still the company’s Asia-Pacific and European operations to consider. Plus, Albemarle’s deal to acquire Rockwood Holdings, which closed this week, will see the company’s worldwide workforce swell from around 4,000 people to 8,000. The pressure is on to find a way round the BYOD compensation issue.

But, he acknowledges, it’s a tough nut to crack:

Companies agonize over how to subsidize and fund BYOD. They’re under pressure to find a way that doesn’t cost too much and which accurately reflects the usage patterns of individual employees working in different roles, with different travel obligations.

And on the employee side, there are equal uncertainties and agonies around the separation of their work and personal persona, from a privacy point of view, and whether they’re being adequately compensated for using their phone for business.

Splitting the bill

Ravi Waran Albemarle
Ravi Waran, Albemarle

Fortunately for Waran, an answer to the dilemma has arrived in the form of a new split-billing module from Good Technology, the mobile device management (MDM) software provider that Albemarle uses to administer its BYOD programme. This month, Albemarle has announced that it is to pilot this new module in 2015, with a view to rolling it out across the company.

The Good for Work with Data offering, announced last week, offers carrier-independent data billing management, so that business can separate personal from work-related data usage on the same device and establish policies to pay only for company-approved mobile app use. It even allows for different wireless carriers on a single device – so that a company can be billed by AT&T, for example, while the employee receives their bill from Verizon.

The end result, for companies that adopt this technology, is an end to administering stipends or, in other cases, to trawling through employee expense claims and making reimbursements. Says Waran:

Split-billing has only just been announced by Good Technology, but we’ve been talking about it with them under confidentiality agreements for a while. It seems to take a lot of the emotive factors of who pays for what out of BYOD because it’s all very transparent.

Like most MDM software, Good Technology’s products work by locating all business-related applications in a secure, password-protected ‘container’ on an employee-owned device, he explains:

So if the user has transacted through the company’s container on their device, then it’s charged to the company. Employers don’t have to worry about right-sizing stipends and so on, and employees don’t have to worry, ‘Is the company subsidising me, or am I subsidising the company?

This is a way to make the administration of our BYOD programme less onerous for the company and also for employees.

Voice calls remain a nuisance

But it’s only a partial answer: Good for Work with Data applies specifically to data billing, not voice calls, and (for now) only to personal productivity apps: corporate email, calendar and contacts. That said, Good Technology announced last year that it will include the split-billing capability across the Good Dynamics Secure Mobility Platform, so that any mobile app built on the company’s platform can benefit from this function, too.

So for now, the question of compensation for voice calls remains, as Waran acknowledges:

I would love to see a convergence of data and voice split-billing, because that would take all of the friction out of BYOD. Money is a very emotive subject. Who pays, and for what, in a BYOD programme can be a difficult topic that can determine the perception of the mobility programme as a whole.

Voice calls, then, could remain a fractious issue – but the idea that ‘bring your own device’ means ‘pay your own bill’ is probably a non-starter now at most US companies, following an August 2014 ruling by the California Appeal Court.

As reported in the National Law Review, in the case of Cochran versus Schwan’s Home Service, the Court ruled that employers are required to reimburse an employee who uses their personal cell phone for work-related calls. In fact, even where employees have cell phone plans with unlimited minutes, the employer must still provide a reasonable reimbursement to that employee. While this was a California-specific ruling, law firm DLA Piper has provided further guidance to US companies in other states as to how they should view it.

Either way, Waran sees this new split-billing function as a positive step forwards, particularly when it comes to rolling out BYOD across new territories. As he points out:

In some geographies, you cannot throw a brick without crossing a border and incurring roaming charges, while others have baroque tax or employment-contract implications.

Greater transparency in how costs are apportioned between employers and employees, he says, can only be a good thing for the future of BYOD.

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