Telecommuters

These stay-at-home workers want collaboration with colleagues. IT strives to make it secure.

Empowered by ubiquitous broadband availability and increased wireless options, telecommuters just ain't what they used to be. No longer are work-from-home arrangements limited to new mothers or other employees who have extenuating circumstances and need to rotate between the office and kitchen table, depending on the day of the week.

Instead, droves of telecommuters have become teleworkers -- employees across professions and market sectors who work full time from home with the blessing of upper management. Feeding the increase in teleworkers is everything from improved collaborative technology to potential real estate savings.

IT must-haves for telecommuters include the obvious -- laptops sitting atop docking stations, cordless phones outfitted with voice-over-IP (VoIP) or public-switched telephone network connections, and multifunction equipment, such as devices that blend printing, scanning and copying capabilities. Instant messaging has become almost mandatory, as have stringent security measures, especially in this age of pervasive malware.

While the technology is basic and readily available, corporate mentality has been, and in some cases remains, the biggest barrier to working at home. "Up to now, the only real barrier has been people -- making the move from the Industrial Age's 'management by watching you work' or the need to see you in order to judge your performance to the Information Age's 'management by objectives,' " observes Brendan Read, a teleworking and transportation advocate at The Telework Coalition (TelCoa) in Washington.

Indeed, midlevel managers in vertical industries such as financial services, insurance and even government are letting go of the need to watch employees work. "Work should be something you do, not someplace you go," says Rita Mace Walston, general manager at the Telework Consortium, a nonprofit organization in Herndon, Va., established by Congress to address telecommuting issues such as continuity of operations, traffic congestion and work/life balance.

Seeing Is Believing

Mace Walston now advocates teleworking and continues to work from a home office, where she can look out the window and see her 11-year-old son's tree fort. She also lived the reality of telecommuting from 2001 to 2004 when she served as managing editor at Loudoun Magazine, a quarterly lifestyle publication dedicated to the growing community around Leesburg, Va. The magazine is produced entirely by a virtual staff.

To attend virtual meetings, Mace Walston used a Duet Conference Speakerphone from Phoenix Audio Technologies Ltd. in Great Neck, N.Y. Another key to the company's success in generating a credible publication after its formal office space was shuttered was the use of collaboration software from Marratech AB, a Stockholm-based company that now works closely with the Telework Consortium to help outfit remote workers.

"We had virtual rooms, and one was called the Watercooler. A magazine is a very creative environment, so we would leave on the whiteboard drawings, comic strips and comments about everything from the weekend's baseball game to what happened on a particular television show. It was a way to build and keep camaraderie," Mace Walston says.

To stay connected, she relied on an 802.11-based wireless WAN with speeds up to 100Mbit/sec. Her wireless connection utilized fixed-wireless or multipoint multichannel distribution services technology. Mace Walston also argues that telecommuters need audio and whiteboard software and video connections with speeds of 512Kbit/sec. or higher. Cameras, headsets and collaboration tools also make working from home easier, she says.

For Mace Walston, security has certainly been an issue for both her past and present employers. To attain adequate protection, she uses a firewall and the security that's built into the collaboration software she uses. "Although many collaboration tools have built-in security, the user can also use a VPN connection for additional security," she adds.

At Loudoun Magazine, Mace Walston relied on a part-time staffer who was tasked with making sure telecommuters weren't at a standstill. The publication also received technology and support through an agreement to be a pilot site for many Telework Consortium initiatives.

Mace Walston says she managed to stay afloat without taking up too much of the support staff's time. "With the right set of tools, supporting a remote worker can be as easy as supporting local users. What is needed is the ability for the IT person to remotely connect to the user's computer and to be able to troubleshoot from the remote end," she says.

Of the problems she encountered, "many of the issues centered on ensuring quality of service of the connectivity," says Mace Walston. "With distributed workers, having remote diagnostic tools is a key to efficient support. The biggest technical support problems with telecommuters in general are issues around bandwidth and proper use of cameras and audio equipment."

Tools of the Trade

Realizing that working from home can keep employees happy, other organizations are leaning on VoIP and call-tracking software both to deploy and manage tasks assigned to remote workers.

Ridgewood Corp. in Harriman, N.Y., uses an IP telephony network from ShoreTel Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. Particularly useful is the ShoreTel system's call-tracking system, says Maritza Strauss, Ridgewood's vice president of computer operations. "It has gathered much-needed information as to which of our remote locations are swamped with calls and which are not," she says.

Members of Ridgewood's sales force and many other remote employees access the company's VoIP system via virtual private network, a common facet of most telecommuting setups, according to TelCoa's Read, who urges companies to insist on specific security arrangements.

"Regardless of who owns the computer, you can dictate home network security by requiring high-security wireless hubs, prohibiting nonemployee access to the home office and requiring locks on doors, padlocked files and locking computers as a condition of employment," Read says. "If you require it at an office, it should be required at home."

Whether employees use equipment supplied and controlled by the company or outfit their own home offices, it's wise to spell out the details upfront. With that accomplished, both teleworkers and their employers stand to gain a lot through telecommuting arrangements, says Bill Mularie, CEO of the Telework Consortium.

"We've certainly learned that we can't always converge in one place at one time," says Mularie. "That's a lesson I really learned after talking to a CTO at a financial institution in New York that had once taken up 23 floors in the World Trade Center. Before, this company's motto was 'Quick recovery.' Now it's 'Business as usual.' " Telecommuting is an important part of making that motto a reality, he adds.

See the complete Faces of Mobile IT special report.

McAdams is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. Contact her at jjwriterva@aol.com.

Special Report

The Faces of Mobile IT

Different types of mobile workers, such as road warriors, telecommuters and blue-collar workers, need different forms of IT support.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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