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COMPUTING

Telecommuting causes, solves problems

June 2, 1999
Web posted at: 12:01 p.m. EDT (1601 GMT)

by Thomas York

From...
InfoWorld

(IDG) -- Petroleum processing is a highly competitive business, one in which competitors are keen to know as much as they can about each other.

So when Art Holden, who manages IT projects at Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based Statia Terminals Group, was asked to set up a teleworker program, security became a top concern.

Statia has five terminals located in North America, from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia. Holden had to connect several dozen of the company's 200-plus employees to his network of public and private lines, plus a satellite link.

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With the help of third-party vendor Information Resources Engineering, Holden extended the reach of his workforce whenever they work from home.

Statia's workers can now conduct business around the globe without fear of leaks to competitors, thanks to a virtual private network. Workers use smart cards that slide into their computers at home to protect the company's secrets.

Telecommuting has been especially beneficial for managers who start preparing for tankers well before they dock.

"They no longer have to climb out of bed in the middle of the night and go to the terminal," Holden says. They can coordinate most of the paperwork from home.

Statia joins the growing list of businesses large and small that allow employees to work from home. Two-thirds of Fortune 1000 companies now have teleworker programs in place, and most of the rest are planning such programs.

In fact, as many as 15 million workers will be toiling away from home offices at least one day per week by 2000, predicts Telecommute America, a Washington trade association.

But joining the boom can prove challenging for IT managers as they undertake the task of building the infrastructure and creating the policies needed to support such a large number of remote-access workers.

Indeed, they face many decisions, ranging from the choice of hardware and software to connections, security, and support and maintenance.

IT managers' decisions can involve areas in which they don't have much experience, such as ergonomic designs for the furniture that will be used in home offices and workplace safety rules required by workers' compensation insurance carriers. That's why many companies use cross-divisional teams to create successful telecommuting efforts.

"There is so much involved in extending out the workplace," says Jim Miller, general manager of Denver-based US West's teleworking/telecommuting division. "It can get quite complicated."

Miller should know: 20,000 of US West's 65,000 employees now telecommute. Miller says complications are why many companies turn to end-to-end providers such as US West's Extended Workplace Solutions, which he manages.

Putting a premium on planning

To be sure, workable telecommuting programs can be launched with a minimum of fuss and without outside contractors.

What's key, say managers experienced with telecommuting, is planning and coordination with everyone involved in setting up work-at-home programs, from human resources to facilities and legal departments. Personnel policies, communication, and technology issues -- as well as how a decision in one of these areas will affect the others -- need to be assessed before adopting telework programs.

The effort involves no small amount of cooperation and coordination with other departments.

"Technology is the easy part of it," says Faleesha Fackler, telecommuting coordinator at Alltel, near Cleveland. "It's the soft skills that become a little more difficult."

Christine Parsons, an IT manager at the Southern Co., an Atlanta-based electric utility holding company whose unit is supporting about 200 telecommuters from various departments, echoes that observation.

"We discovered that there were many, many issues that were more HR- than IT-related," Parsons says.

That's why her team worked closely with other departments to smooth the process and determine where savings could be made.

"A little planning goes a long way," says Gil Gordon, a consultant at Gil Gordon Associates, in Monmouth Junction, N.J., who helps companies launch telecommuting programs. "It's key to a successful program."

Gordon points out, for example, that one of the first decisions that should be made is who can and who can't telecommute.

"The managers must determine what work is portable, and what work isn't," Gordon says. The portability of the work, along with individual managers' assessments of their employees' abilities, determines who can telecommute.

Such a survey was one of the first steps taken when financial services giant Merrill Lynch decided to allow some employees in the company's private client group to work at home. The group now has 300 telecommuters out of its 1,800 employees in satellite offices in New York, New Jersey, and Florida.

"We looked at all of the different ways to bring flexibility into the workplace, and the type of work that would lend itself" to telecommuting, explains Janice Miholics, in Pescateway, N.J., a manager at Merrill Lynch's alternative work arrangements in the private client group.

Once the decisions were made as to who could work away from the office, Miholics says her team members closely examined what other issues would be involved, such as equipment and connectivity.

The team decided on laptops and simple dial-up connections. Miholics says she looked at connections with higher bandwidth, such as ISDN and Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL.

But she dismissed these alternatives as too costly, given the low bandwidth that would be needed by home-based workers.

Miholics says she discovered early on that most at-home workers would probably not do much more than process documents, such as letters and spreadsheets, and send and receive e-mail.

Focus on security

With the potential for hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of employees distributed away from the environs of the corporate network, security becomes a top concern.

Most managers decide to install several levels of protection, a digital moat and stone wall around the company's network and data.

Don Frazell, IT manager at Bank of America's corporate affairs division, in San Francisco, says keeping his network secure was a key concern before he started rolling out a telework program in 1998.

The program now includes about 20 of the division's 60 employees, most involved in activities such as internal communications, investor relations, and public relations.

Frazell says before he would let his teleworkers log on to the bank's local network, he turned to a special unit within Bank of America devoted to maintaining corporate security to develop a system to authenticate users and ward off unwanted intruders.

After six months of testing, Frazell feels comfortable enough to let his telecommuters log on from anywhere in the world. In fact, Frazell says a telecommuter traveling to Asia this summer will be able to sign on as easily as he would in his cubicle in San Francisco.

After security, the next area to examine is connectivity, managers say.

Gil Gordon says telephone bills can wreck a budget, so he advises managers to "really look at the work of the people involved and what kind of functionality they need when working remotely."

"Too many managers agonize over the cost of equipment and don't give enough thought to the phone bill until two or three months down the road," Gordon adds.

Al Hukle, a Wood Dale, Ill.-based manager at Rockwell Electronic Commerce, a unit of Rockwell International, says the cost to support 750 teleworkers can run into tens of thousands of dollars.

For example, his unit uses toll-free dial-in lines, which cost $30,000 each month to support most of his telecommuters.

Alltel's Fackler reviewed different connections that could be used to tie home-based workers into the corporate network. She says she decided to spend $490 monthly on dedicated circuits instead of 8 cents per minute for toll-free service for most of the workers, most of whom are involved in call-center support services.

To date, Fackler has deployed some 60 teleworkers throughout the Midwest, and plans to add another 130 by year's end.

Critical support

Almost every expert says around-the-clock user support is critical to a successful program.

"I would look at what support you can provide," Parsons says. "There are limitations on what you can do remotely."

Even with support services in place, teleworkers and their IT counterparts can experience bumps in the road, such as time wasted solving technical problems.

"You can waste 20 minutes or more troubleshooting a problem that has a 2-second answer if the employee were in the office," notes Ben Durbin, IT manager at BridgePath.com, a Web-based employment service in San Francisco.

Sometimes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and can save those 20 minutes and more.

Merrill Lynch's Miholics set up labs where employees chosen to work at home could check out equipment before schlepping it home. Miholics says that after a 2-hour orientation, each fledgling telecommuter spends two weeks in the lab.

These test runs reduce the number of support calls, and in turn eliminate downtime and boost productivity.

Beyond support, issues such as maintenance, repairs, and upgrades need to be considered well in advance.

"There is a constant problem supporting all of the different PCs and the software," Hukle says. "If you're not upgrading the software, then you're upgrading the hardware."

To be sure, not every manager embraces the brave new world of telecommuting.

Some argue telecommuting contains a number of hidden costs, costs, and complications that are difficult to resolve.

Durbin points to the high cost of compatibility issues, such as setting up and administering a virtual private network or multiple modem dial-up connections for distributed workers.

"It's costly from an administrative standpoint," Durbin says.

Nevertheless, those who have set up programs have become enthusiastic supporters of telecommuting.

Alltel's Fackler says she's proud that she has helped the company's employee retention in a tight labor market.

Thanks to telecommuting, Alltel has been able to retain highly trained and experienced workers who would have otherwise been lost to competitors or normal attrition.

Rockwell's Hukle agrees that the benefits of telecommuting can far outweigh the disadvantages, and notes that he telecommutes a couple of days per week. On other days he drives more than 100 miles, or 2 hours each way, to his office. He says that this is a waste of time and energy compared to telecommuting.

"You can better schedule your time, and you're a lot more productive. I wish I could do it five days a week," Hukle says.

Checklist for successful telecommuting

Managers experienced with teleworker programs say careful planning is the key to success. A planning checklist should include the following considerations.

Connectivity. Workers who primarily process documents or send or receive e-mail many need only a 56Kbps modem and a dedicated phone line, but others who handle more complex tasks may need faster pipelines, such as ISDN, Digital Subscriber Line, or frame relay.

Security. When employees work at home, corporate data is at a higher risk: You have greater control of your machines on your private network. Consider what levels of security are needed before launching a teleworker program. Most companies add several layers of protection, using both hardware devices and software firewalls.

Hardware. A computer will obviously be needed. But what kind? A laptop? A desktop? And how shall it be configured? Then do not forget about such future needs as maintenance, upgrades, and replacements. Some companies handle all of the details internally, while others turn to outside vendors for equipment, as well as installation and maintenance.

Software. What applications will an employee need? What happens to the work, or data, generated by the employee? What kind of backup systems will you put in place to ensure that data generated in a home office does not get lost or destroyed?

Furniture. Some employers provide all of the requisite furniture, such as a desk, chairs, and lighting, but others don't. Advisers say it is a good idea to have employees agree in writing that they will provide ergonomically correct equipment. Don't forget the need for proper lighting, and home office safety issues.

Support. Make sure that workers have a quick, easy, and reliable place to turn when home technical problems arise. Support should be available around the clock most days of the year.

Training. What training is needed, and who will conduct it? What about training when new software, hardware, or ways of accessing the corporate network are changed or upgraded?

Scalability. Technical challenges become more complex as the number of telecommuters grows within an enterprise. That is why a pilot program is not always a clear indicator of how a growing telework program will perform. A program involving two dozen workers is easy to set up, but a program involving thousands could become a nightmare of epic proportions.

Thomas York is a free-lance writer in San Jose, Calif.


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