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Teleworking Technology is Mainstream

By Allen Bernard

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In the wake of hurricane Katrina, many companies are probably revamping their business continuity plans and wondering what they can do better when such a disaster — natural or otherwise — occurs again.

One often overlooked idea is now becoming more viable: teleworking. And not just for a worst-case-scenario planning but as a way for companies to save on footprint, operations, and aid in employee retention all while enabling the work/life balance so important to many employees today (not to mention saving employees gas money).

Five years ago teleworking (or telecommuting as it was once called) was an idea many thought was just on brink of taking off. But, like so many technology-enabled predictions, the idea fizzled somewhat; broadband, application mobility and remote access, PDAs and WiFi were all absent from the scene.

Technology Here Today

Today, however, much has changed. Broadband is becoming ubiquitous, WiFi is a lot more than just an idea, just about everyone has a cell phone and the ability to access email remotely, 3G cell phone networks are gearing up to carry ever increasing amounts of data, voice over IP (VoIP), etc., etc.

"The way technology has advanced in the past five years has been really helpful in making teleworking more efficient more productive and therefore more feasible," said Bob Smith, director of the Telework Advisory Group at World At Work, a HR professionals association. "You'd be hard pressed these days not to find some level of connectivity."

Perhaps the best part is most large organizations already have the technology they need to enable a tele-workforce. Windows Terminal Server, Citix, hosted applications, Internet-based WANs, VoIP (in some cases), Blackberry contracts with RIM, portals, SSL/VPNs or IPSec VPNs for secure communications, etc.

In the home, technology is has also become much more wide spread. Most knowledge workers — the group most likely to benefit from a teleworking arrangement — have home PCs and Internet access. If there's no cable broadband available, DSL seems to work well as a substitute. And with WiMAX on the horizon, it may just be a matter of time before entire swaths of geography have broadband coverage.

Joe Roitz, AT&T's telework director and HR incident manager, said AT&T is saving $30 million per year in hard dollars from reduced footprint and operations costs and is netting an additional $150 million in productivity gains from its telework program.

In fact, the telework program is so successful, the company is basically only outfitting employees with laptops now. "That's really our office, is just a laptop," he said. "Work is something you do, not a place you go."

Business Continuity Planning

During Katrina, Roitz was responsible for helping AT&T's affected employees and having a workforce already used to teleworking was a big plus.

"It's a tremendous business continuity tool that's really been ignored at this point," he said. "That's been something we've observed several times with teleworkers: the ability to close an AT&T building and all the employees distribute themselves and pick back up without missing a beat."

Not only can employees scatter and reconnect at will today, CIOs can also use existing IT infrastructure to help their companies save big dollars on the bottom line. By enabling teleworking, CIOs can help the COO reduce overhead, the CFO increase top line growth through productivity gains, the CEO attract and retain top talent, and on down the list.

The best part is the CIO really doesn’t have to do anything new or install expensive new infrastructure to make this happen, said Clain Anderson, director of Wireless and Security for Lenovo's PC line. In response to customer requests, Lenovo, which bought IBM's PC division, has and is outfitting their laptops with mobility functionality that includes biometrics, remote management controls, hard drive "air bag"-like protection, and a, b, and g WiFi cards.

"(Our customers) say 'We want to close offices and put people out in the field'," said Anderson. "The enablers are a lot better today than just a couple of years ago."

Some companies like Alpine Access have based their business plans on a tele-workforce. Alpine's thousands of call center workers are spread all over the country and only work from home. Using custom software the company tracks who is doing what, for how long and when they are available to work.

By going completely mobile, Alpine has a much larger workforce to draw from and they are attracting higher-caliber people than a geographically isolated call center might, said Founder Jim Ball.

"Ten years ago you really couldn't pull it off," he said. "Between not having enough Internet connectivity to the home … and then the technology infrastructure necessary to be able to get calls out to the home and do what we're doing in order to manage this; it's absolutely a great example of technology supporting a direction and way of working which we strongly believe is the way of the future."