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IT departments deal with telecommuting in style

See what's driving the increase in telecommuting and how can your IT department handle the increased demands of a telecommuting workforce.

The American Interactive Consumer Survey, which has been conducted since 1995, offers comparative chronological data on teleworkers who worked at home during business hours at least one day per month:

  • 1997 - 11.6 million employed teleworkers; 18.3 self-employed teleworkers
  • 1999 - 14.4 million employed teleworkers; 19.0 self-employed teleworkers
  • 2001 - 16.8 million employed teleworkers; 19.9 self-employed teleworkers
  • 2003 - 23.5 million employed teleworkers; 23.4 self-employed teleworkers
  • What is driving this increase? There are actually several factors: rising childcare costs, rising travel costs, the ability to attract a wider variety of talent and even environmental concerns. Some cities require a certain percentage of larger companies' workforces to telecommute when smog levels rise. Increasing real-estate costs make it attractive to companies to have people telecommute as a means of reducing overhead. Also, the ability to show office presence in a variety of geographic areas is another enticement to companies. Even the government has an mandated initiative to have a percentage of its workforce telecommute. Recent studies indicate that workers in a home office work an average of 1.5 hours more per day than their company office counterparts.

    With this trend, related industries have responded with products and services to assist teleworkers and the SOHO (Small Office Home Office) market. The first and most notable advancement is the increased bandwidth now offered in most areas. I was corrected while speaking at a conference recently when I made the statement "everyone has broadband access." While that statement may not be 100% correct, most non-remote areas of the country have broadband ability. In the more remote areas, satellite is an option although more expensive than xDSL or cable modem, and with greater latency, it is still a broadband option and may be better than dial-up access.

    Home networking products have also seen a rise in sales, and one connection is not enough. These home networks may be wired or wireless. Many new homeowners are precabling their homes with category 5e or category 6 cabling so that Internet connections are available in several areas of their home. Some are installing wireless access points to provide wireless connectivity, which is great if you own a swimming pool and like to work outdoors. Many of the access routers have firewall services built in, and other support NAT (Network Address Translation) to protect the computers at the premise side from hackers and the like.

    Phone companies have also responded with very attractive pricing plans including the new plans introduced this year that model cell phone service with unlimited local and long distance for a flat rate. That alone can be a tremendous savings, while still allowing plenty of talk time. Newer plans include VoIP services, video conferencing and collaboration. Whether these services are provided by an outside provider or utilized through software, it greatly increases a company's ability to communicate with their outside sales forces and teleworkers. Other tools like Webex, Blackboard Jungle, and like companies make online training a breeze. Presentations can be shared for real time collaboration or stored and viewed by anyone as time permits. In the beginning of the telework days, remote workers had problems due to being disconnected from training, new product news, etc. These barriers have been lifted through technology. With logging and registration features, the corporate office can monitor attendance and feedback forms can also be attached.

    There are some areas where telecommuting can provide challenges for corporate staff. The first is training. It is great to supply someone with all of these tools, but if their use remains a mystery, they don't provide much of a benefit. Most companies have some period of in-house training to educate their telecommuters on the applications they are supplying. There also needs to be a period of in-house training that is more of an introduction to departments in house, their functionalities and the people with which the telecommuter will interface.

    There should also be at least annual meetings for brainstorming, new introductions for other new employees and re-acquaintance for others. There is no substitute for team building and sharing ideas within a group. It helps the remote feel connected. It also helps the corporate team maintain continuity of concepts and ideals amongst workers.

    It is a bit of a challenge for corporate IT, however, as the users they support can be literally anywhere at anytime in any time zone. There also is no guaranty that a user will be online to receive patches and updates (especially important for virus protection). Large patch files can not be emailed as the remote user may be at a hotel on a dial-up line, and not a happy camper when the file comes through. Although more and more hotels are offering high speed access, there are still a lot that don't. New wireless access services springing up all over the country at coffee houses and airports does offer some relief, but dial-up in some areas is a reality that is going to be around for another couple of years at least.

    So where does this leave IT? There are control mechanisms that can be used on company networks for applications, security, etc. VPN's are helpful for secure access, which can be augmented with biometrics and/or additional security mechanisms. But these additional levels of complexity add additional resource requirements. New software rollouts are a nightmare at best. The more technical users can probably install the software, but logistically, they still will have to either download an install file, or a CD will have to be sent. Users can send their laptops in for updates, but shipping costs and lost productivity from not having a laptop for a few days can be a customer unfriendly option.

    The key to supporting the road warriors of the world is to educate them or at very least compile a no nonsense guide to subjects like backups, updates of virus protection, how to run windows update, etc. If you are supporting remote networks, it is a good idea to configure everything at the corporate office and ship it out with passwords and other protections. If the remote office is tying to the corporate office via VPN connection, you do not want your systems vulnerable due to errors at the remote site. The single largest factor is lowering technical support is to make sure that your remote sites and people are armed with good user guides and scheduled update reminders. In developing these guides, IT managers must remember, these users are probably not IT people or they would work for you.

    Carrie Higbie, Network Applications Market Manager, The Siemon Company
    Carrie has been involved in the computing and networking industries for nearly 20 years. She has been involved in sales, executive management, and consulting on a wide variety of platforms and topologies. She has held Director and VP positions with fortune 500 companies and consulting firms. Carrie has taught classes for Novell, Microsoft, and Cisco certifications as well as CAD/CAE, networking and programming on a collegiate level. She has worked with manufacturing firms, medical institutions, casinos, healthcare providers, cable and wireless providers and a wide variety of other industries in both networking design/implementation, project management and software development for privately held consulting firms and most recently Network and Software Solutions.

    Carrie currently works with The Siemon Company as the Network Applications Market Manager where her responsibilities include providing liaison services to electronic manufacturers to assure that there is harmony between the active electronics and existing and future cabling infrastructures. She participates with the IEEE, TIA and various consortiums for standards acceptance and works to further educate the end user community on the importance of a quality infrastructure. Carrie is one of the few that chose to work with applications and networks providing her with a full end-to-end understanding of business critical resources through all 7 layers of the OSI model. Carrie currently holds an RCDD/LAN Specialist from BICSI, MCNE from Novell and several other certifications.

    This was last published in December 2003

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