Free to choose (your PC)

A growing number of companies are letting employees choose and manage their work PCs. But this new corporate perk is also (surprise!) a way to cut technology costs.

By Jon Fortt, senior writer

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Jacoby says her team now wins raves

(Fortune Magazine) -- Even in these tough economic times, tech giant Cisco offers employees some pretty sweet benefits: Employees can visit on-campus doctors and dietitians, drop off dry cleaning, or get an oil change, and now they can pick the kind of computer they want to use at work.

That's right - Cisco has started letting workers choose from a handful of laptops, including an Apple MacBook Pro. Only don't call the program a perquisite. Rebecca Jacoby, Cisco's (CSCO, Fortune 500) top information technology officer, says the initiative, launched last year, should actually save the company money. The fact that employees involved in the pilot program are deliriously happy with it - Jacoby and her peers even get love notes from satisfied road warriors - is a bonus.

By the end of next year Jacoby aims to give everyone eligible a gadget allowance for a PC or laptop from an expanded list of approved devices. Jacoby, in return, reduces costs associated with tracking and replacing lost hardware, and employees become responsible for add-ons such as home broadband service or fees for hooking up to cellular data networks.

The choose-your-own-computer concept is starting to gain adherents across the corporate world. Several financial services firms say they are considering similar programs. Computer maker Dell has a rough idea of how much it could save by letting most of its workforce of 78,900 choose which machines to use. Drug company AstraZeneca (AZN) estimates that it could cut tech costs by about $2 million a year by asking contractors and some full-timers to supply their own machines.

Such programs would have been unthinkable just a few years ago because corporations lacked ways to easily manage and maintain a jumble of devices. As a result, the majority of companies in the U.S. ended up deploying fleets of desktop PCs running Windows. It also helped that PC makers such as Dell (DELL, Fortune 500) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500) offered corporations deep discounts for volume purchases of machines, sometimes in an effort to sell other company products, such as servers or consulting services.

Choice and compromise

Today, however, so-called virtualization software lets businesses deliver a consistent menu of software, company-approved applications, and tight security controls to every employee via the Internet, regardless of the kind of computer being used. Besides, PCs just aren't that expensive anymore, so companies such as Cisco now can focus on reducing maintenance costs, not deploying a standard army of machines.

Of course, that new freedom requires companies and employees alike to make sacrifices. Since Cisco began offering a choice of machines last June, roughly a quarter of employees have opted for Macs, yet they are pretty much on their own for tech support. (An in-house online community for Mac users gets a little help from Jacoby's department.) Cisco, in turn, has to make a slightly higher upfront investment for the workers who want Macs, which are pricier than PCs.

A pick-your-own-PC program is not without drawbacks. Some employees won't want the hassle of choosing their own work machines - home PC shopping is stressful enough. If employers don't pitch the idea just right, it could sound like just another callous cost-cutting strategy, especially if companies don't subsidize the cost of the gear. Then there's the crisis question: If an employee-owned work PC breaks down or gets a virus, who pays to fix it?

Still, it appears the model is here to stay. At Dell, chief information officer Robin Johnson has sketched out a plan: Dell employees might get, say, a $1,500 coupon every three years to replace their wireless phones and computers at Dell.com. (Sorry, no Apple products.) With the coupon they could choose from eight PCs (today there's no choice) and a number of cellphones capable of making cheaper Internet calls from Dell's campus - another source of savings.

Johnson figures that he can cut up to $10 million per year out of his budget. "Employees are actually pressuring us to save money," he says. "We think we can improve service at the same time." He may even get a few love notes in the process.  To top of page

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