Remote Possibilities: Remote work becomes a part of day-to-day business

They are called things like "road warrior," "day extender," "telecommuter" and "contractor."

No matter what the name, these remote workers -- one of the fastest-growing segments of the workforce -- have the same basic needs: more bandwidth, more support and more flexibility.

Remote work has become the rule, not the exception, for many technically savvy organizations. "It's becoming harder and harder to distinguish between the LAN and the WAN," says John Girard, research director at GartnerGroup (www.gartner.com). "The network -- not the office -- has become the standard workplace."

Within the next three years there will be more than 130 million business users worldwide involved in some kind of remote work, GartnerGroup estimates. This includes full-time and part-time telecommuters, which make up one of the largest remote user contingents, off-site professionals and employees overseeing aspects of electronic supply chains.

A survey by Olsten Corp. (www.olsten.com) finds that a majority of companies, 51 percent, have telecommuting arrangements or pilots under way, a percentage that is almost double the numbers 1993, the first year the survey was conducted.

Telecommuting is a concept that has been around since the mid-1960s, says Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates (www.gilgordon.com), a telecommuting research firm. Gordon prefers to categorize a telecommuter by the standard definition of a home-based employee, but he notes this definition has grown fuzzy in recent years. "Telecommuting has always meant decentralizing the office, getting away from the idea we have to bring all workers to one central work place at one time," he says.

Peter Cregger, regional office coordinator for SAS Institute (www.sas.com) -- a decision support software provider with a large contingent of remote professionals -- credits the ubiquitousness of Microsoft Windows for his company's ability to support remote workers. "Today, Windows NT is a fairly stable operating system that provides a good work environment for remote users."

To access systems from remote locations, the traditional method has been -- and remains -- dial-up connections. But as the Internet grows its potential as a conduit for remote work increases. Choosing virtual private network (VPN) tunneling over the Internet for remote access vs. dial-up depends on the type of remote work supported, says Gordon. Many workers may simply require access to check e-mail, while others may require more direct dial-in links for online transaction processing.

SAS enables its workers to access a remote access server via a toll-free number. But due to heavy demands on the dial-up system, SAS had to limit log-in times to eight hours a day, notes Keith Leister, network administrator for SAS. The company is looking into establishing VPN capabilities that will increase system availability and decrease dial-up costs by enabling remote workers to connect through an ISP.

In some cases, a hybrid of the dial-up and Internet approach is required. Wisconsin-based Dean Health System (www.deancare.com), for example, needed a way to deliver information to its national network of employees, physicians and members. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, however, restricts placing of patient records on the Internet. The solution was a dial-up system that logged users onto the company's intranet to access patient charts, billing records and sales materials. An Ariel RS 1000 controller from Ariel Corp. (www.ariel.com) provides connectivity for 400 concurrent users. Users can dial into a series of local numbers as well as an 800 number to log on.

Productivity and Results

Consultants estimate that telecommuters can be up to 25 percent more productive than their office-based counterparts. But Gordon warns productivity for any professional -- on-site or off-site -- is elusive to measure. "We can't measure productivity, or effectiveness, away from the office any better than we can in the office," he notes. "If we don't know what employees are doing when they come in the building five days a week, how can we possibly know with any more precision what they're doing when they telecommute five days a week?"

Measuring the productivity of remote workers is a complex process that has to account for all factors contributing to better performance, many of which may not be obvious, Girard explains.

In terms of a tangible return on investment for remote work arrangements, "the absolute worse cases we've seen in well-managed programs are break-even," Gordon says. "People are doing as much work as well as they were in the office. Generally, the employees are seeing increases either in the amount of work they're doing, quality of work, or the ability to meet deadlines on time. It isn't just productivity in the sense of widget-counting."

Gordon cites three benefits of remote work that are easily measurable: turnover reduction, freeing up of office space, and boosting sales with off-hours sales.

Dean Health reports that a home-based work policy has improved the company's ability to recruit and staff medical transcriptionists, which are in great demand. Dean Health estimates that having employees at home saves on the average cost of $6,000 for furnishing a work area, plus rent.

Some companies are undertaking a gradual approach. At Virginia-based Fauquier Bank (www.fauquierbank.com), which is expanding operations to communities throughout northern Virginia, remote work is growing as an option for many bank employees. Arrangements are being gradually phased in so employees can adjust their work styles, says Sean Sullivan, assistant vice president and manager of information systems.

The bank currently provides remote dial-in access via an 833AS controller from Perle Systems (www.perle.com) that accommodates up to 48 simultaneous connections. "We want to grow the comfort level of the end users and slowly migrate them in that direction. It may be too much of a shock to tell everyone at once that they can work from home," says Sullivan. But the plan is in place to eventually get to the point where people won't need to be at the office.

Who Works Remotely?

Three out of four telecommuting initiatives accommodate professional and technical employees, and more than a third of telecommuters are sales or marketing employees, the Olsten study finds. "Most telecommuting jobs aren't people processing insurance forms," Gordon says. "These are Web site designers or programmers or market research analysts."

About a third of all jobs can theoretically be performed off-site, Girard says. E-commerce and supply chains are creating new classes of remote professionals in the areas of sales, customer service, and supply chain management.

The bulk of SAS's remote workforce consists of developers, sales and marketing professionals, consultants and human resources employees, Cregger says. At Fauquier Bank, remote work arrangements have been limited to sales and marketing personnel, Sullivan says. Plans exist for expanding the remote workforce to the bank's call center, he adds. "We want to expand the hours of the call center and allow the representatives to work from home."

Remote users don’t have to be technically savvy, Sullivan contends. When purchasing laptops for remote use, he looks for fully loaded machines at an economical price point, with the goal of minimizing end-user upgrades.

Challenges

While supporting remote work may help achieve productive solutions to workflow issues, technical and management issues still need careful consideration.

Theoretically, an organization that depends entirely on Windows NT for its operations should be able to provide relatively seamless connectivity via remote access service (RAS) or through the Internet. In reality, many organizations have a variety of back-end platforms, including mainframes, AS/400s and Unix systems. A lack of homogenous platforms across the corporate intranet will cause problems for organizations trying to install remote access software, says Carol Morgan, business development director of Bell Canada's corporate development. This difficulty is driving a trend toward common administration of remote and LAN-attached systems, according to IDC.

Remote work also requires a robust networking infrastructure, including the use of high-speed connections such as 128 Kbps modems or T1 lines, Cregger says. "Dial-up with a 56 Kbps modem doesn't work that well for remote users," he finds. "They really need that next step of getting higher bandwidth. Every year we throw more data on systems that people need to get to."

Speed and bandwidth still dog the connectivity of many remote workers, Sullivan finds. "Unless they have ISDN capabilities, remote workers still can't run a lot of applications." Fauquier Bank is working on a deployment of a thin-client terminal environment using MetaFrame from Citrix Systems Inc. (www.citrix.com) to enable some of this capability.

Making sure remote users have adequate support is another ongoing challenge. SAS has been addressing this issue since 1995, when it initiated an effort to support remote workers on laptops. Originally, 200 remote employees were connected via 3270 terminals over an SNA connection to an IBM mainframe. "Everybody had something different -- laptops, desktops, and terminals," he says. "There was nobody there to provide support for those users. When you have 15 flavors of equipment out there, you have 15 different opinions about how to solve a problem."

The solution was to deploy IBM ThinkPad computers to all the remote sites. This made a tremendous difference in helpdesk support alone, Cregger says. "Now we knew what type of computer they had, what operating system they had, what software was installed on there. There was a lot more consistency, and that meant the helpdesk could be more efficient in problem solving." SAS now has about 700 professionals accessing the system remotely with Dell laptops purchased in 1998.

While management attitudes toward remote work have been changing dramatically in recent years, "it would be a mistake to say that corporate America is universally on the telecommuting bandwagon," Gordon notes. Rather than express mistrust of how remote workers will spend their time, managers couch their reservations in terms of the cost of equipment and worker productivity.

An issue of concern for remote workers is career advancement. "People fear that being 'out of sight' means 'out of mind,'" Gordon says. "However, this really has never proven to be a problem." Instead, the opposite has been true, he continues. "Managers usually find that their telecommuters have become more promotable, not less. That's because now they're exercising more independent judgement, they're problem solving on their own, and they're really proving themselves to be more valuable."

Blending

There may come a time when there will be no "remote" workers -- only employees with different network access points. That's the case at SAS Institute, where workers tying in remotely are no different than those onsite at the company's Cary, N.C. headquarters, Cregger says. "The only difference between a WAN and LAN connection is that the line speed is considerably less for a WAN. But it's all one network," he says. In fact, at SAS, there technically is no "remote worker," Cregger points out. "We run ourselves like a utility, providing a network tap that you can plug into to get the resources you need -- no matter who you are or where you are."

Factors to Consider in a Telecommuting Plan:
  • Level of executive support: What is the corporate attitude toward "unseen" workers?
  • Technology: What is required to support a remote worker?
  • HR policies: Do policies need to be changed to support remote agents?
  • Legal implications: Workers’ compensation laws
  • Data security: How can you ensure the privacy and security of your networks and databases?
  • Support: How will you troubleshoot and support remote agents?
  • Employee selection: What criteria must be developed to screen and select workers for remote status?
  • Supervisor selection: What criteria must be developed to find the right supervisors for remote workers?
  • Timeframes and teams: How much time do you have to plan, test, and implement, and what types of resources can you appropriate for the project?

Source: Christine Hertzog, senior consultant for telecommuting programs, Call Center Enterprises (www.hia.com/pcr/cce.html)

Building a Case for Remote Workers

  • Office space costs that cannot support projections of staff growth in an existing facility.
  • Retention of skilled employees. Look at the costs of recruiting and training a new employee versus the cost of setting up an employee in a home office.
  • Disaster plans are enhanced with remote worker coverage.
  • 24 X 7 coverage. For night shift work, it may be cost- effective to have employees work at home and improve the potential pool of employees willing to work a later shift.
  • Source: Christine Hertzog, senior consultant for telecommuting programs, Call Center Enterprises (www.hia.com/pcr/cce.html)

    Head: Remote-Ready Jobs

    • Sales and service
    • Day extension
    • Executive travel
    • Banking/brokering
    • Helpdesk
    • Marketing
    • Programming
    • Shipping/delivery
    • Law enforcement
    • Customer relations
    • Supply bid/order
    • Consulting
    • Teleservices
    • Source: GartnerGroup