Gas Price Increases Spur Interest in Telecommuting

IT systems in place at many companies

As gasoline prices spiked last week by 10 to 20 cents per gallon around the country, corporate managers said there's a renewed interest by employees in telecommuting from home via computer and broadband to avoid lengthy and expensive drives to work.

IT executives last week said any sizable boost in telecommuting won't require significant new spending or inconvenience for their operations.

The executives noted that widely used technologies such as Web collaboration tools should help ease problems faced by new home workers.

In addition, broadband connections are becoming so commonplace that IT should have little problem helping teleworkers gain access to a big pipe running a virtual private network (VPN) and to big files stored on corporate servers, managers said.

In fact, "telecommuting isn't a technology challenge as much as a cultural challenge," said Skip Snow, an IT executive at a major financial institution he asked not to be identified.

"The problems with telecommuting don't have as much to do with technology and tools as with whether a worker or manager will work as well with a guy on the phone as compared with the guy in the next office," said Snow, who telecommutes because he lives a long distance from his job.

Snow said he can work on any computer virtually anywhere using a smart-card equivalent for a password and a company portal.

Teleworkers at General Electric Co.'s GE Energy division in Atlanta must have access to a broadband connection to access the company's VPN. The GE unit also uses a third-party hosting service for telecommuters that lets mobile workers connect to internal corporate systems via a Web browser when they are in airports and other places, said Larry Tardell, Southeast infrastructure operations leader at GE.

The GE Energy division, which supplies home computers and a broadband connection to telecommuters, has cut its office workstation requirements by 50 systems.

Each such system costs the company about $15,000 a year in real estate and related costs, so the annual savings can be significant, said Kate Lee, manager of community affairs.

Snow said that as real estate expenses rise, the corporate costs of supporting telecommuters might become insignificant to corporate budget makers. "It's not expensive to telecommute," he said.

And large companies might find it advantageous to have workers telecommute to better distribute the workforce and lessen the impact of a potential catastrophe at a central facility.

The biggest concerns in setting up effective telework programs have been over proper supervision of workers and ensuring that home systems are secure, managers said.

Jane Franklin, a special projects coordinator overseeing telework and van pooling at Georgia Power in Atlanta, said about 475 teleworkers must adhere to a set of guidelines for telework. The guidelines subject workers who introduce a virus into the company network to having remote access disabled for two days. Once a worker introduces a third virus, his remote access is permanently disabled.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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