The Accidental Telecommuter
About six months ago I said goodbye to the world of cubicles and corner offices in exchange for a SOHO outpost working for a large global organization. I finally landed a corner office -- albeit a corner of my home that was originally intended to be a living room -- and left behind the world of rush hour traffic, fender benders, and idle chitchat at the water cooler.
Many of us in the IT business have long believed the industry would soon offer off-site employees the same facilities and services that the commute-to-work crowd enjoys. Market indicators suggest this is the beginning of a significant shift in the industry. International Data Corp. (IDC) research found that during 1999, 27.4 percent of all U.S. households reported conducting work from home in some capacity, either telecommuting, performing after-hours work, or from a home-based business. One part of this may be caused by the tight job market, in which flexibility with location can mean the difference between landing a top-notch employee and settling for a second-best local candidate.
This should be a wake-up call for IT managers to realize that a shift is taking place. Administrators can either help support this transition and manage its growth and help formulate policies to regulate cost and security exposure; or they can ignore the transition and force departments and individuals to figure out their own ways to solve problems -- which may in the long term cause more grief.
If your company has no plans to hire full-time telecommuters, this isn’t a problem, right? Guess again. Of the 27.4 percent cited above, more than half of those households were nine-to-fivers who brought work home with them and finished it there. Chances are this group includes the heavy hitters in your company, the people that need to be aware of the great stuff you and your department are doing.
Supporting the technology required for remote workers is anything but a simple because of the various technologies that will enter the picture. Standardizing won’t be a realistic option.
Connectivity. Managing a uniform set of connectivity options continues to be a problem for IT managers. Depending on the city, state, or country in which a telecommuter is situated, connectivity options could include cable modem, DSL, ISDN, or analog dial-up -- but usually not all of the above. While cable modem and DSL users generally will have a fixed IP address, ISDN and analog dial-up won’t. Furthermore, will ISDN users dial into a corporate ISDN modem over a long distance line, or using a corporate 800 number? Or will they use a local point of presence, and connect through some other authentication scheme? How do the costs differ, and what patterns of use will typify users of each type of connectivity? You may have to support a combination of RAS, ISDN RAS, and PPTP. And don’t forget to consider how many systems need to share the connection and how that sharing will take place.
Telecom Services. Early in the process, the question comes up whether a remote employee will function as a remote office or as a virtual employee. A remote office might be easier -- give the employee local phone and fax numbers and a local address. If the employee is virtual -- meaning he or she will be formally affiliated with a specific office -- line forwarding, voice-mail arrangements, and fax lines have to be configured, assigned, then supported continually.
Technical Support. Decide up front who will provide technical support for services. If a user is to be left on their own, make that clear from the beginning so line of business managers can factor in outside costs -- if needed. If the user will depend on the IT department, what support will the IT department provide? There are some things that will be the user’s problem. I learned that lesson two days into my telecommuting experience when the local telephone company killed my phone service while installing a new line into a neighboring house. No amount of complaining got the repair truck out sooner than when the phone company was ready to do so -- even though they caused the problem.
Local IT Infrastructure. Depending on the abilities and sophistication of your remote users, you may have inter-network issues to deal with, not just a lone remote computer. Consider devising some standards, or at least recommendations, for how remote networks need to interoperate with the corporate LAN.
Local IT Management Policies. Will offsite intellectual assets stored on remote users’ computers be placed into the corporate daily backups? If not, what policy will remote users follow to ensure corporate assets are protected?
You’ve heard it time and again: If you’re not part of the solution, you may be part of the problem. Take a proactive stance on this one. --Al Gillen is research manager for server infrastructure software at International Data Corp. (www.idc.com) and former editor in chief of ENT. Contact him at email@example.com.