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Ten years ago, an executive set up to work from home would have been kitted out with an ISDN line and a desktop PC in the study or spare bedroom.
Just 15 years ago, the idea of working remotely, but using electronic communications to stay in contact with the office, was the stuff of the research labs rather than a practical reality.
Yet today, in many parts of the world, the idea of working from home scarcely raises a comment. The technology to do so is robust, easy to use and inexpensive to set up and run.
The main change has been the rapid take-up of broadband connections into employees’ homes, and the move to IP (internet protocol) based communications.
A remote worker can set up a virtual private network (VPN) connection to head office over broadband, without the need for complicated diallers or dedicated data links. And once they log in to the network, a phone at their desk – or even a software program on their computer – becomes an extension on the company phone system.
Nortel, the communications equipment manufacturer, is typical of many hi-tech companies in striking the cost of broadband from its list of claimable expenses, except for full-time teleworkers. “The availability of broadband opens up the ability for us to roll out some great technologies, such as voice over IP,” says Albert Hitchcock, chief information offier. “28,000 of our employees have the ability to work remotely.”
The rate at which broadband service providers have boosted performance of their networks, without necessarily raising subscription costs, is one factor that has made working from home a more realistic option.
In North America and much of Europe, speeds of 8mbps (megabits per second) are widely available from cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) networks; some Asian networks are significantly faster.
This allows companies to run connections for remote workers over one, single fast connection rather than having to install separate lines for voice and data. And although many business applications have become more data intensive, security and authentication systems are both better and easier to use.
Companies that have moved to integrated, IP-based communications systems for remote workers say that the quality of work and quality of life both improve.
On Hold Marketing, a small company based in Richmond, Virginia, makes audio recordings for businesses to play while their customers are on hold. The company employs technicians, script writers and voice-over artists, several of whom work from home.
“We have a studio here but we also have studios in folks’ homes,” says company president Rich Moncure. “It is important for creative people to be able to work at home. We were using OPX (off-premise extensions) which were costly. Now, with IP they use a software client on their computer, and as long as they have broadband, they are truly connected.”
The fact that staff connect directly to the company’s phone system, a Nortel BCM50, is a further advantage. There is no need to set up complex call forwarding routines. And the company has also saved space. “We have saved about $5,000 in rental costs,” says Moncure.
Large companies as well as small, especially in North America, are seeing remote working as a way of reducing their premises costs. In Europe, however, managers are more likely to see home working as a perk.
A study carried out by IBM and the Economist Intelligence Unit found there were still significant cultural and managerial barriers to widespread remote working.
In the survey, 79 per cent of remote workers said that the ability to work independently was the most important skill – a point companies often overlook.
At the same time, companies are investing heavily in communications tools and instant messaging to enable remote workers to feel part of the community.
“We are seeing more use of collaboration applications, team rooms and web conferencing that simulate what you do when you are in a room with co-workers,” says Eric Lasser, human capital management leader at IBM Global Business Services.
Higher bandwidth to the remote worker makes using many of these tools practical for the first time. But businesses are finding that, especially for large-scale remote working programmes that extend beyond senior managers, solving the bandwidth issue simply reveals problems elsewhere.
“A lot of companies are finding that they have not yet developed business practices that allow for seamless working in a remote environment. The business practices and applications are not designed for distributed employees,” cautions Dan Elron, a consultant in the communications and hi-tech operations group at Accenture.
Remote workers also need to know they are receiving the full support of both managers and technical staff in head office, if they are not to feel they are second-class citizens.
IBM found that, despite improvements to broadband, the greatest demand from remote workers was for improved connectivity and bandwidth.
Reliability, too, is an issue. Despite the promise of seamless, integrated communications over IP, experts say any remote working scheme needs a Plan B.
“Very few broadband carriers offer any type of service level agreement for voice or video for consumers,” says Jorge Blanco, vice president for software strategy at Avaya, the telecoms vendor. “What we recommend is taking advantage of the three networks that are available: broadband, fixed phones and mobile. That way a call can move from broadband to the fixed line if there is congestion, but you stay connected to the PBX.”