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Fortune 500 Best Practices for Telecommuting

Prime Time for Telecommuting

In the 2008 list of Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, 84 out of the top 100 allowed their employees to telecommute or work at home at least 20% of the time. Some have been doing it for years. But you don’t have to be a Fortune 500 company to make a telecommuting program work; even very small businesses can learn from their experience.

Implementing a successful telecommuting program requires more than simply providing a high-speed connection and a laptop. There are a number of factors to consider that will determine its success. Critical technology issues such as security, access, asset management, reliability and support are vital. You’ll also need take into consideration issues like maintaining your workplace culture, ensuring employee fairness, corporate legal protection and trust.

Fortune 500’s Eight Steps to Success

To be a success, a telecommuting program must be well planned, implemented and managed, and requires thorough communication, corporate support, technology standardization, well-defined processes, ongoing training and robust implementation tools.  Sound like a lot to handle? Don’t worry. Start with these eight steps:

  1. Planning: Do your homework and document key phases of the project. You’ll need to determine what business problem or process your telecommuting program will address, what applications need to be mobilized, and how you’re going to measure success. Consider what functions and jobs can still be effectively executed from remote locations and put policies in place to ensure you get the productivity you require. Don’t forget to map out a training program, expense reimbursement and ongoing technical support for your mobile workers.
  2. IT Technical Considerations: Start by identifying a member of your IT staff that understands or can be trained on mobile technology so they are able to evaluate equipment and vendors. Your mobile workers are going to require technology that might include a computer, phone, modem, printer and software such as an operating system, applications, firewall, security keys, backup software and diagnostic tools. Determine what you’re willing to provide, a budget for acquiring, configuring and shipping equipment logistics, and how you’re going to support ongoing maintenance.
  3. Standardization: The heart of the telecommunication technology bundle is the VPN or Virtual Private Network. The VPN is comprised of all the hardware and software required to gain authorized access to corporate resources and can include security tokens, phonebook/dialer software, hardware or software-based data encryption, shared authentication keys, and preconfigured paths to authorized servers. To get the most out of your program, all these must be transparent to the user. Plan for a single, integrated VPN and Dialer graphical user interface that makes establishing a connection seamless, then maintain the same front end regardless of how to user connects. The firewall, digital certificate, virus protection and other embedded software should stay in the background so the employee doesn’t have to manually launch or configure each individually. It’s also important to ensure everyone is working with the same equipment as much as possible. This equipment-level standardization will help cut down on support time and costs and ensure a unified user experience across the telecommuting workforce.
  4. Security: A successful program leverages your existing network infrastructure, creating a seamless LAN experience extension to the users. To minimize security risks, consider one of two main VPN technology models: IP-Security (IPsec) or Secure Socket Layer (SSL). In an IPsec model, a secure, encrypted datapath is set up between client software on the user’s PC and the network via a host router or firewall. In the SSL model, the encrypted datapath is established between either client software or the web browser on the user’s computer and a host server. By using the web browser, users can use any computer that has a web browser (e.g., Mac, Linux, PDA) and there is no software to install or support. The host server can also check to make sure that the user’s computer has up-to-date firewall and anti-virus software. And, contrary to popular belief, SSL-based VPNs provide access to any file shares and applications, including client/server applications like MS Outlook and ERP and CRM systems.  For added security, make sure your system provides user- and device-specific authentication. Someone using a company device should receive access to more corporate resources than someone using a personal or unregistered device.
  5. Employee Connectivity:  Often the most complicated challenge a telecommuting program faces comes in the last mile circuit to the employee’s home office. Since they can’t be very efficient with dial-up technology, DSL or cable connectivity is going to be required. The challenge comes in sorting through each user’s options and how best to deal with the different equipment each service provider is going to install in your telecommuter’s residence. You’ll also need to consider how it’s going to be paid for. Now is the time to determine if the bills should be sent directly to your corporate office or if you’re going to reimburse your employees through expense reports or some other accounting method.
  6. Training: You’re going to need to provide training for employees, particularly if you expect them to set up their home office themselves. But don’t stop at technical training. Understand that the mobilizing processes will almost inevitably change them and consider the social and working issues at all stages. You’re going to need their buy-in so use best practices for change management. Some common objections you might hear include a perceived lack of privacy, a concern about the breakdown of workplace communities and alienation, as well as a rejection of the mobile devices you provide. Be willing to explore alternative approaches to ease the transition.
  7. Maintenance:  There are couple of maintenance issues that need to be addressed immediately. The first is the matter of backing up data. If a user’s computer fails, helping them recover lost data can turn into a nightmare. Your best bet is to implement an automatic backup program to make backup as painless and user-independent as possible. Face it, if you depend on your users to backup their own data regularly, it’s probably not going to happen. The second issue is ongoing technical support - particularly if users aren’t using standardized equipment or are apt to require help during off-hours, like evenings or weekends. Since flexibility is one of the biggest benefits for telecommuters, chances are they are going to be working outside of the 8-5 box your corporate office is used to. Make sure your IT department has a plan in place to deal with these expanded hours.
  8. Look to the Future: Whatever system you put in place, make sure there’s room to grow as new technologies and applications become available and useful to your telecommuting workforce. Even if you don’t implement a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone system for your at-home workers immediately, for example, consider that eventuality when you determine the right infrastructure for your program.

Consider a Partnership

If all of this information has your head swimming, don’t worry. While Fortune 500 companies often have large IT departments and deep pockets, small and mid-size companies often don’t. Outsourcing some or all of your telecommuting infrastructure and implementation, including ongoing maintenance and technical support, can often be a cost-effective option for smaller organizations. These partners can offer best practices, economies of scale and a stable, secure infrastructure to work with. Look for a partner that has a track record of success implementing programs for companies your size and has existing relationships with last-mile service providers. Check for Service Level Agreements that guarantee uptime and make sure you understand deployment and maintenance costs upfront. With the right partner, you can better manage the costs of implementing a telecommuting program by reducing upfront capital expenditures and integrating all elements of the program into a user-based, variable cost model.

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