Telecommuters Weather Storm

IT strategies need to include out-of-office provisions, users say

WASHINGTON -- The big winter storm that shut down many federal government operations in Washington last week, along with businesses throughout the Northeast, didn't hurt Mattress Giant Corp. much. That's because it has made telecommuting an essential part of its IT strategy.

"If we didn't have [telecommuting] ... we'd be in a world of hurt," said Steve Williams, CIO at the Addison, Texas-based company, which has more than 250 stores, many in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Telecommuting employees were able to stay in touch with customers to keep them apprised of the status of deliveries. "Even in a crisis situation, our people were still able to be productive and save sales," Williams said.

Mattress Giant's decision to implement a formal telecommuting program was prompted by an earlier ice storm in the Dallas area. But many companies lack such programs, opting instead to take an informal approach. That could be costly for IT managers.

Without a telecommuting management program, a company may find itself paying for too many phone lines and broadband connections. A business may "end up with costs that are higher per person than if there is a standardized program," said Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant in Monmouth Junction, N.J.

Moreover, the absence of policies for securing data—covering everything from firewalls in home offices to the shredding of confidential faxes—could expose a firm to problems, security experts said.

But even if all the policies and procedures are in place, as they were for Providence Health Plan in Beaverton, Ore., technology problems can create complications. The multistate health care system put in a Citrix System Inc. server-based remote access system that uses a virtual private network (VPN).

"We did a lot of hard work on making sure [the telecommuting policy] was crafted correctly," said Chris Apgar, an IT security officer at Providence. "Where it fell apart is we hadn't tested our Citrix VPN connections well enough," he said, though it was a problem with the VPN rather than Citrix.

The VPN didn't work well in part because it was new technology for employees, and it didn't mesh well with Providence's legacy applications. Apgar's advice to any company "is to test the heck out of it" before implementing the technology component of a telecommuting program.

Mattress Giant is using another method for connecting remote employees. Workers connect to its systems via remote access servers operated by Expertcity Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif. That system, which provides an encrypted connection, didn't require extensive training, said Williams.

About one in five workers, or 28 million employees, participates in some form of telecommuting, according to a telephone survey of 1,170 randomly selected U.S. households that was conducted in 2001 by the International Telework Association & Council (ITAC) in Wakefield, Mass. That figure is expected to rise by millions when the 2002 survey is released next month, said Tim Kane, president of ITAC and CEO of Kinetic Workplace Inc., a telecommuting consultancy in Pittsburgh.

"Telework took a huge spike" with last week's storm, said Kane, much of it on an ad hoc basis by employees at companies without formal programs. The storm also may have reinforced to employees and employers that they need to do telecommuting—or simply that they can do it, he said.

HOW TO SET UP

PLAN: Avoid an ad hoc telecommuting program, which could increase costs and security risks.

STANDARDIZE: Create telecommuting policies and IT packages for employee support. Consider issues such as broadband providers' differing VPN requirements.

SET POLICIES: Include work environment requirements and security issues, such as connecting to a third-party LAN.

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