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Successful telework hinges on infrastructure

Building a flexible IT organization

Successful telework hinges on infrastructure

Telework is gaining ground as companies offer their employees more flexible working environments. To have a productive telework program, IT managers must be aware of the challenges and provide the necessary changes in infrastructure and support.

by Johanna Ambrosio, contributor

When setting up the infrastructure for a telecommuting program -- either for the IT group itself or for the company as a whole -- you might want to heed the advice from those who have been there: Think speed, simplicity, transparency, and security.

So says Joseph Roitz, director of AT&T's telework program and a former IT manager for one of AT&T's business units. Some 35,000 AT&T employees -- 56% of the company's eligible managers -- work from home at least once each month. About 27% of the teleworkers do so one day a week, and 11%, like Roitz himself, work from home full-time.

Before the advice, however, a word about the terminology: "telework" is the in-vogue word of choice to describe a work-from-home program. Where "telecommute" is used to describe working from home to avoid rush-hour traffic, "telework" is a more all-inclusive term. It describes a flexible work arrangement where people can opt to work from home full-time or as needed.

Clearing telework hurdles
That said, speed is the biggest hurdle to overcome, Roitz says. AT&T's internal surveys of its teleworkers point that out. "Our top three issues are technology-related," Roitz explains, and the number-one problem is related to bandwidth and latency. It's just a fact of life for teleworkers that their at-home connections will not be as fast, or as sophisticated, as their office counterparts.

For these reasons, most experts advise, broadband is probably the only way to go these days. However, cable modem and DSL are not yet widely available in all parts of the U.S., so you may need to rely on temporary dial-up connections.

The "simplicity" part of Roitz's advice comes from the need for remote workers to be more self-sufficient with technology than are traditional office employees. The ability to "grab" an IT person or a more knowledgeable co-worker is limited from home, and so the installation requirements of hardware and software, and their use, must be bulletproof. Roitz suggests Web-based help aids and an investment in a top-notch support-desk setup, along with using the same hardware and software platforms for remote workers as you do in the office setting.

"Transparency" is a bit more controversial. Roitz maintains that a well-devised telework program is a core part of the business and not "grafted on as a flavor of the month. We don't draw a line between teleworkers and office workers," he says.

Not everyone agrees this is possible, however. Often special rules and mindfulness need to apply to teleworkers. "If you're working from home with your employer's okay, and you're using your own hardware and software at your company's suggestion or insistence, maybe it is the employer's fault if you can't get your work done," says John Girard, an analyst at the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn. "If you have to install new software, and you mess up your hard drive, you're the one who's going to suffer."

Ensuring security
Perhaps nowhere is this line more blurry than with security. Girard points out how one of his client's employees, working from home with the company's approval, got in a jam. The employee went out for the night and said it would be fine for the teenage babysitter to use the PC. The babysitter found a top-secret new project that the employee had just completed, and posted it on the Internet for the world to see.

One way to manage this is to work with what Girard calls "managed service brokers." This new class of vendor is generally a small company that provides a secure virtual private networking (VPN) service and will strike up contracts with DSL and broadband providers on your behalf, managing the relationship and monitoring service levels.

Whether VPNs are secure enough depends on how your company defines "secure," and which expert you talk to. Girard strongly suggests that companies implement VPNs with other security measures. Girard says that a VPN by itself is not an end-to-end security solution. "All a VPN does is make a session private after you've made the connection," he says. The VPN doesn't secure the connection itself.

Galen Schrek, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., disagrees. He says that VPNs are secure enough, thanks to built-in encryption, and that their effectiveness depends a great deal on how they are implemented. For example, the VPN administrator can set it up to force remote employees to surf the Internet through the corporate firewall, making teleworkers subject to the same rules and policies as their in-office counterparts. Setting up VPNs can be difficult and complex, Schreck says, so he also suggests the option of working with outside service providers.

For his part, Roitz suggests that security for home workers is no different from security for employees who travel, or those who work from other types of remote offices. "It boils down to an awareness factor -- a lot depends on employee accountability no matter where they are," Roitz says. "That doesn't change whether someone is working from a hotel room or from a home office."

Ambrosio is a freelance writer in Marlborough, Mass. Reach her at jambrosio@mediaone.net.

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This was last published in May 2001

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