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Telecommuting – The Invisible Employee

The biggest advantages to having remote workers & virtual offices are in-house facility costs, expansion, & talent acquisition

One of the truisms in information technology is that everything old is new again - well, except maybe for punched cards. We went from big corporate data centers to regional/division corporate data centers back to big corporate data centers and now to even bigger cloud data centers. We have gone from dumb terminals were everything was done on the mainframe, to PCs, and now to virtualized desktops - where everything is run on the central servers. And now, we are back to talking about the IT advantages of telecommuting.

Telecommuting is certainly nothing new. But what is changing is how people are telecommuting and the IT processes and procedures that support them. Gone are the days of modem banks and analog days. Gone are the days when IT departments handed out PCs so people could work from home. And gone are the days when connecting remote employees meant connecting them directly into the corporate network.

When most people think of telecommuting, we hark back to the model that JetBlue made famous: the company supplied the personal computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and Internet connection (there is no need to go back to the caveman days with terminals and modems or acoustic couplers!). The PC was company property so that the policies, anti-virus, patches, etc., could all be controlled and managed by the corporate IT department. After all, a lot of employees still didn't even own their own computer.

These PCs had the necessary software pre-loaded on them, be it a thick client or a terminal emulator. When the remote staff connected in - their computers were placed onto the corporate network and became part of the companies extended network. When the PCs needed to be updated, patched, or upgraded - the employee had to bring everything back to the in-house IT department.

What changed? Well... EVERYTHING! There were four basic changes made for teleworking - and each of these changes required the IT department to adapt in different ways. As the ability to provide a realistic work environment kept increasing, we have gone from teleworkers to virtual offices.

One of the first big changes was that users no longer wanted to take a company PC home with them. They had their own perfectly good computer, and wanted to be able to connect using their machines. These machines/users wanted to connect to the company over the Internet instead of through dial-up modems. So IT departments started to increase their network connectivity, add Virtual Private Network (VPN) devices, and put in place intrusion detection/prevention appliances. Many a sleepless night was had by the IT administrator waiting for some remote user to spread a worm or Trojan through the entire organization.

The next big change was also Internet related - the death of thick clients. As browser technologies involved we were finally able to produce thick-client like look-and-feel inside a browser window. Most companies ported their internal applications to use browser-based web interfaces. These browser-based applications were exactly what were needed to allow better remote workers.

Ironically the Internet contributed the necessary technology to the next big change in our march to the virtual office: the move from IPSec-based VPN connections to browser-based SSL connections. IPSec, while a good protocol, proved problematic. Many travelers found out that their VPN connections were either blocked, or that the ISP or hotel lacked the technology to allow IPSec to pass through their networks. Just about every company's helpdesk received a call from some executive complaining about being unable to connect, and the helpdesk would have to try to work with the hotel or ISP to resolve the problem (and usual not be able to).

SSL VPNs resolve that issue because they work through the browser - an application that every PC already had loaded and that every user was already familiar with using. No longer would users have to be given CDs of the VPN software along with installation instructions (and the sure to follow helpdesk call). Most SSL VPN systems function as a proxy to allow dynamic access rights to the user. Instead of connecting them to the network (along with every virus, Trojan, and worm and the person's computer), we can now limit them to accessing the company's Intranet server, or to allow only access to specific company web pages.

Now that we have people using their own computers, over their own Internet connection, to securely access browser based applications - we must be done, right? What could be left? What is left is giving the user the necessary tools to have a virtual office instead of a remote connection.

Remote phone are required. The person needs to have a phone at his desk - even if that desk is 1000 miles away (or more). Here again new technology was required. We needed the new modern voice systems that allow Voice over IP (VoIP) so that we could have corporate phones remotely become part of the corporate telephone system. Even here, this is starting to give way to soft phones - software running on somebody's computer that provides that phone interface.

The remote person needs to know if his/her co-worker is available. After all, she can't simply look over the cubicle wall anymore to see if the coworker is there or not - and she can't see/hear if the co-worker is on the phone. But presence software, tied into the phone and using software on the person's computer, can tell the remote person if that co-worker is on the phone, in a meeting, or even at their desk working on their computer. Such presence software is normally built into an instant messaging client. These clients provide an easy way to communicate with somebody. Instant messaging is the new way to ask: Do you have a second?

The final piece of the puzzle to finally become feasible is video conferencing. IT departments no longer have to purchase expensive cameras, video conferencing servers, and large data connections everywhere. Point-to-point ad-hoc video conferences are easily done today with commercial "webcams" sitting on people's monitors and attached to their computers. In fact, most modern laptops have webcams built into them. Video conferencing allows the visual interfacing that is critical in modern communications. If you think that video is not important, remember that 70% of all our communication information comes from visual "clues". Without providing video conferencing, you are removing 70% of the person's comprehension.

Now that we know how to create a modern telecommuter environment, the question becomes whether we should allow telecommuting. Why are companies, both big and small, investing in this technology? Is this a technology that you should to be implementing?

The biggest advantages to having remote workers and virtual offices are in-house facility costs, expansion, and talent acquisition. Companies that have increased their use of remote workers have benefited from reduced building overhead expenses. One company that I frequently visit has been so successful with their remote worker program that they had to close the on-site cafeteria because there simply wasn't enough staff present to make use of it.

JetBlue used remote employees to staff their reservation lines. These were primarily part-time college educated women who only wanted to work 3-4 hours while their kids were in school. Using remote employees allowed JetBlue to staff across the country - thereby moving calls across the country as people's shifts changed. This is something that could not have been done with a traditional on-site call center.

Sometimes the perfect employee that you need to succeed isn't willing to relocate to where your office is. This leaves employers with the choice of either doing without a key resource, or figuring out how to allow that employee to work from home. Remote employees and virtual offices empower an employer to find the employee that will best contribute to the company - even if that person lives in a mountain cabin.

Those people who wonder if I really mean what I say about the advantages of virtual offices should know that it is what I use. I have a company phone that connects directly over the Internet to the company's phone system. I have an SSL VPN connection to gain access to the internal system. I use Cisco's Jabber service to provide presence information and instant messaging capabilities. And I use Cisco's WebEx Telepresence video conferencing service for when I need "face-to-face" time. The most important lesson I have learned about using a virtual office is to treat it like it is your real office - because the day you decide to wear your fuzzy slippers to the office is the day your boss will have a surprise video conference call with you.

More Stories By Dean Nedelman

Dean Nedelman is Director of Professional Services at ASi Networks, a network and voice services firm in City of Industry, Calif. In this role, he supports our major accounts, and oversees the implementation of advanced Cisco solutions and services. He has over 25 years of experience in technical and executive level technology roles, primarily in secure high performance computer environments across multiple industries and sectors. Dean's background includes security, high availability, telephony, advanced network, wide area application services, and storage area networks.

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