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Enabling a Remote Workforce. Essay

Productivity – Are employees who telecommute more productive than their traditional office colleagues? 1

Savings – What types of savings from a telecommuting program should employers expect? 2

Planning – What kind of planning does an organization need to do to properly implement a successful telecommuting program? 2

Eligibility – How do managers determine the eligibility of employees for telecommuting? 3

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Social Interaction – What types of social limitations do remote workers experience? 3

Communication Limitations – Are organizations disadvantaged due to communication limitations with remote workers? 4

Management – How do managers successfully manage and support remote workers? 5

Technical Issues 5

Network – What are the security, bandwidth, and infrastructure implications for the company network to support remote access? 5

Hardware/Software Needs – What are the hardware, home infrastructure, and software licensing needs for the remote user? 6

Telecommuting Variations – What are alternative solutions or variations for telecommuting programs? 7

Connectivity – What are the tools and considerations to accommodate remote network access? 8

Communication – How do you allow your employees to communicate electronically and verbally from home? 9

Collaboration – What are the tools that foster communication? 9

IT Support – What are the options and challenges to providing remote employees with technical support? 10

Cost – How much does deploying a remote workforce cost? 10

Conclusion 11

Introduction

There are a number of good reasons why companies should consider supporting a remote worker program including an expanded labor pool, reduced traffic congestion costs (late arriving/stressed out employees), improved recruitment and retention of staff, facility cost savings, reduced parking costs, reduced sick leave and improved worker productivity. Conversely, there are some disadvantages that companies should also be aware of including an isolated work force, family turf problems, lack of social interaction with other employees and the fear by remote workers that they will be overlooked for promotions.

Companies obviously have a lot to factor in deciding whether or not to implement a telecommuting program. Thus, the goal of this paper is to provide consideration points to many of the common questions facing such companies. The questions and discussion herein are divided into two primary categories: technical and organizational. They are intended to provide more generalized information that decision makers can use to enhance their understanding of telecommuting issues.

Organizational Issues

Productivity – Are employees who telecommute more productive than their traditional office colleagues?

In general, remote workers appear to be more productive than traditional office workers. In an October 1995 survey of Fortune 1000 managers, 58% reported increased productivity by employees who telecommuted. Also, according to the State of California’s Telecommuting Pilot Program, companies that implemented a remote work force experienced productivity increases ranging from 10 – 30%. Further, telecommuters working for American Express produced 43% more business than their office-based counterparts1. Clearly the case can be made that remote workers are indeed more productive.

The primary explanation for improved productivity is a quieter work environment, which offers fewer interruptions. Certainly the remote worker also faces interruptions in their daily work, such as family business, neighbors, chores, television, etc. However these interruptions are generally much fewer than those experienced by the traditional office worker.

Savings – What types of savings from a telecommuting program should employers expect?

The biggest savings for companies result from reduced absenteeism costs and reduced real estate costs. Oftentimes when employees need to take care of personal business such as doctor visits, car repair, tending to children, etc. they call in sick for the entire day. However, remote workers can take care of personal business and still accomplish some or most of their work tasks from home. The International Telework Association & Council estimates that employees who telecommute can save their employers $10,000 each in reduced absenteeism costs2.

According to PC World, telework can cut corporate real estate costs from 25 to 90%, which can result in substantial savings for employers. In fact, AT&T saves $25 million per year from employees who are full-time telecommuters3. Many companies who have implemented a successful telecommuting program have instituted hoteling systems in their offices. A “hotel” is essentially an empty cubicle that is set up with a phone, network connections and basic office supplies that any employee can use, often by making a reservation with an office administrator. Hoteling offers telecommuting employees a place to work in the office when necessary without employers having to provide them with a full-time workspace.

Planning – What kind of planning does an organization need to do to properly implement a successful telecommuting program?

Without doubt one of the most important keys to implementing a successful telecommuting program is proper planning. And since every organization has their unique differences (i.e. size, industry, complexity, culture, locale), there is no single formula for such planning. However, successful telecommuting programs should address the following at a minimum:

* Perform an initial assessment

* Consider organizational strategy and culture

* Consider the role of management

* Consider the need for staff input

* Determine which staff tasks are most amenable to telecommuting

* Consider regulatory compliance and legal issues

* Determine technology needs

* Prepare a cost-benefit analysis and/or ROI analysis4

Eligibility – How do managers determine the eligibility of employees for telecommuting?

According to Langhoff, “tasks that are most appropriate for telecommuting are jobs where a person works alone, handling information such as reports, proposals, data or research. Writers, salespersons, accountants, programmers, graphic artists, researchers, engineers, architects, public relations professionals – all are prime candidates for telecommuting”5. In determining eligibility for telecommuting, managers should first consider whether the employee’s tasks can be performed remotely. Second, an examination of the individual’s level of performance should be made (i.e. are they hard working and self-motivated or do they need constant supervision and coaching?). Of course it can be tricky selecting who can and cannot telecommute; therefore companies should be aware of the potential legal implications stemming from employees who wished to work remotely but were turned down.

Social Interaction – What types of social limitations do remote workers experience?

Too often companies only view telecommuting as providing benefits to them and to their employees; however, there remains potential downsides. One potential downside is the lack of social interaction between employees. Employees who work at an office setting spend a considerable amount of their day interacting with other employees. These “water-cooler” discussions foster a camaraderie that translates into value for companies when the same employees work on projects together or are in need of support from each other. Also, the camaraderie indirectly benefits the company when management is trying to achieve buy-in on various initiatives. Lastly, having close relationships allow employees to maintain a healthy mental balance at work – resulting in an overall higher level of morale.

Once telecommuting is introduced into the mixed, some or all of those relationships are lost. Analysis of past telecommuting research shows that the most cited problem associated with negative impacts of telecommuting is the feeling of isolation and loss of morale6. Although isolation feelings and loss of morale (and the resulting decrease in a company’s value) are difficult metrics to measure, some workable solutions have been devised to combat these negative issues. Other solutions have included limiting telecommuting days and making sure to include telecommuting employees in company events7.

Communication Limitations – Are organizations disadvantaged due to communication limitations with remote workers?

The office environment offers some benefits that telecommuting cannot provide. Most important amongst these benefits is the company’s ability to communicate to its employees. Most offices display signs of the company’s direct communication whether it is embodied in mission statements, annual goal and targets, or newsletters. Indirectly, the company communicates with corporate color schemes, promotion company clothing, and other branding material such as coffee mugs. All of these communications are omnipresent throughout the corporate office setting and help to build company pride, employee loyalty, and a sense of corporate culture. Employees who tend to work remotely are only exposed slightly to this communication through email, conference calls, and other mailed material. This lack of corporate communication may lead to low motivation, lack of identification with the company, and reduced company loyalty8.

The solution to the communication challenge is to ensure that corporate communication includes channels to the remote worker. In fact, companies should recognize that off-site employees need more direct and indirect communication such that employees do not develop those negative feelings. Also, companies should make a concerted effort to limit telecommuting days and to include all telecommuting employees in company events9.

Management – How do managers successfully manage and support remote workers?

Another challenge with telecommuting employees revolves around their direct management. Not only do managers find it much more difficult to monitor the productivity and effectiveness of their telecommuting employee, but they are also challenged by having to change their management style to incorporate the limitations brought about by telecommuting10. Managers who have telecommuting employees are also faced with more potential issues such as family conflicts arising from their employee working from home. These conflicts cross the boundary of work and personal life, and almost always negatively impact productivity. Lastly, it is the role of managers to provide organizational support to the telecommuting employee. With the employee being off-site, the manager is usually limited to email and telephone to support his employee. This limitation further restricts a manager’s effectiveness and typically utilizes more of a manager’s time in sorting out support logistic11.

Solutions to the manager’s challenge involve setting up a detailed action plan between manager and telecommuting employee. This action plan should be supplemented with an active communication plan12. Once expectations for both parties are clearly outlined in the action plan, both parties can then communicate progress or support needs more efficiently. Moreover, managers can adapt their management styles to telecommuting employees by setting results-based milestones and orienting tasks into projects such that managers still retain control of certain processes13.

Technical Issues

Network – What are the security, bandwidth, and infrastructure implications for the company network to support remote access?

Before considering the strategy to deploying remote access for a company, a survey should be done of the existing network and current remote access configurations. Once a complete analysis of the current configuration and future needs are assessed, then the following issues need to be included in your strategy of preparing and deploying the company network for a remote force: security, bandwidth, and infrastructure.14

Table N1 – 3 Areas of Security15

Internal Network

Usually the most secure of the three, but still should be reviewed for any fallacies.

External Network

Must secure the PC in the remote location (i.e. firewalls, RSA encryption, etc…) to prevent unauthorized access and snooping from the remote location.

Remote Worker

Least secure, must require security policies to be followed about passwords, where to connect, and who to trust.

With more remote workers, there will be an increased demand of bandwidth on the network. Will the remote employees be productive with the current infrastructure that your network can provide? Perhaps considerations for upgrading from16:

From

To

Dial-up (56K)

ISDN (128K-256K)

ISDN (128K-256K)

T1 (up to 1.5M)

T1 (up to1.5M)

T3 (44.736 Mbps)

With the increase demand more infrastructure will be required for allowing an increasing number of remote workers to connect to the corporate network (more servers, security hardware, and routing hardware).

Hardware/Software Needs – What are the hardware, home infrastructure, and software licensing needs for the remote user?

For the employees who travel often, they are usually provided some mobile computing solutions and they have found ways to work from remote locations. However the new generation of employees, the remote worker will work from the comfort of their home. Working from home brings a new set of issues in to play.

HARDWARE

* Can the employee keep work and personal items separated?

* If not, should the company provide additional hardware?

* If the company does NOT provide additional hardware, then how much of the employees hardware can be expensed if upgrades are necessary?

* The employee may need/require a fax machine, an additional phone line, or other office equipment.

SOFTWARE

* Software licensing has be clear-cut as far as how many computers can use the same license, however what about home workers?

* The company’s site licensing may not cover home computers and will require the company to pay extra for these licenses.

INFRASTRUCTURE

* For someone at home who has a DSL, Cable, or Dial-Up connecting, how much of that should the company pay for?

* Support, Support, Support. Who will provide the maintenance and support?

* Is the home PC secure? If not, who will provide the hardware/software in order to secure it? Also consider how much of the company’s data should be on the personal machine. What happens if the home PC is hacked?

Telecommuting Variations – What are alternative solutions or variations for telecommuting programs?

Outlined in this paper is the most common setup for a company to develop telecommuting options for their employees. However most of these configurations allow the employee to use limited resources over the Internet (access to shared folders, documents and e-mail). Depending on the size, the costs of setting up an infrastructure for telecommuting workforce could be unaffordable. The following are other options available to companies who wish to have a telecommuting workforce.

Citrix

Remember or heard about the mainframe days? Well, history tends to repeat itself. As more PC’s were becoming powerful, we moved away from the mainframe days. However with the Internet, the paradigm of sharing resources has returned and now software applications and operating systems have the enhanced ability to handle more than one user concurrently. Citrix17 allows concurrent remote users access to a single server that will give a separate session for each user. Each user will have access to the same set applications on one machine. This solves the software licensing issues of working from a remote location as well as reduces amount of maintenance of hardware/software for the IT department.

Satellite Offices

Companies are opening satellite offices to reduce commute times for employees and help alleviate city traffic and parking congestion problems. This will result in reduced land costs since these centers are away from the city where the cost of living is lower.18 Telework centers are similar to a satellite office, but operate by independent parties. Unlike satellite offices, numerous employees use them. Think of these options as outsourcing building/infrastructure issues.

Connectivity – What are the tools and considerations to accommodate remote network access?

In today’s information environment, connectivity has become essential for a significant portion of the workplace. Access to email, network resources, server applications, and the Internet is a continual activity for the white-collar professional. At a minimum, companies would be well served to support webmail. In much the same vein as portal email (Hotmail, Yahoo), mail is maintained on the company server. This server is then linked to a website, and employees can gain secure access to the company server via any browser. Once logged in, an individual has the full functionality of their account – to compose, receive, store, and delete email without explicitly needing to connect to the company network. However, there will be a resulting lack of security – employees need to be encouraged to create and regularly modify complex passwords, and to close public web sessions. That said, the security risk is only to an individual email account; not the company network as a whole.

A second logical step for an IT department is to enable Virtual Private Networking (VPN). This will allow employees to connect their remote machines to the company network after establishing an Internet connection through an ISP. This machine then behaves just as a networked office-located computer. For users maintaining both an office and remote computer, this solution requires any desktop applications be maintained on both systems. To avoid this duality, many users will first establish a VPN connection and then emulate their office computer with built-in Windows 2000 and Windows XP remote desktop tools or 3rd party tools such as VNC19. In essence, the remote machine then acts as a terminal or monitor to the office computer, and the user can run the applications found on that machine without any needs for secondary software. The downside to this solution is that emulation is only as good as the connection speed.

Communication – How do you allow your employees to communicate electronically and verbally from home?

Today’s telephone solutions for the telecommuter generally consist of providing an office phone with call-forwarding features to an employee’s business cell phone – an often times reimbursed expense. This avoids some of the problems associated with using a home line for a combination of business, personal, and dial-up use. The office system simplifies contacting an individual (Simply dial an extension and press 7 to connect to the forwarded line rather than maintaining a constantly changing set of employee contact information).

A home line alternative is a distinctive ring system – multiple phone numbers (home, office, fax) use a single line with each producing a unique ring that can be directed to an appropriate voice mail box or machine (PC, fax). A second alternative consists of an off-premise-extension (OPX) or foreign exchange (FX) system. While more expensive, these systems truly mimic the office with a separate home line that is identical to an office extension20.

Electronic mail is a requirement for most remote users. IT departments can help support employees using multiple computers to access their email by allowing mail to be retained on the company server rather than downloaded to the individual PC. (As an unrelated benefit, this provides much greater redundancy in the event of a computer hard drive crash). Please see the discussion on web mail for more on remote e-mail use. A less intrusive substitute to phone conversations is instant messaging. While this has potential for both misuse and unproductive use (where conversation is more efficient), this is often times an ideal mechanism for sharing small tidbits of information and is especially valuable for troubleshooting. A more extensive tool would be the newsgroup in combination with a company intranet. Here, employees can develop an extensive knowledge base of processes, questions and answers.

Collaboration – What are the tools that foster communication?

At the lowest end of the technology spectrum, there is the traditional conference call – a virtual audio meeting with many parties. In an effort to fight the inherent isolationism of remote workers, the videoconference personalizes the conference call as participants better identify with the visual image than the audio. To implement, however, you’ll need additional webcam hardware, videoconferencing software and a fast Internet connection.

Chat rooms (a variation on the aforementioned instant messaging) are suitable for short discussions or as supplements to a meeting (agenda, minutes, links, data, follow-ups)

Web conferencing often includes both videoconferencing and chat room features, but distinguishes itself in that it allows a moderator to emulate his/her desktop to the attendees. Among the forefront of the software leaders in this area is WebEx21.

IT Support – What are the options and challenges to providing remote employees with technical support?

One of the drawbacks to working remotely is the absence of immediate technical support for both trivial and complex hardware and software issues. Given that troubleshooting is often a hands-on activity, solving problems for telecommuters is likely to be frustrating and time-consuming. However IT managers can take a number of steps to reduce downtime.

* Standardize the equipment and installation. The more alike your users systems are, the better positioned you will be to reproduce and diagnose problems.

* Maintain an inventory of back-up equipment in the same way that a car repair shop offers loaner cars.

* Set up remote users so their desktops can be emulated by technical support – in this way an IT department can provide step by step demonstrations to fix problems

* Maintain an easily accessible FAQ and update it with each new problem and solution

Managers may also want to consider outsourcing their technical support requirements. Companies like Voyus22 provide 24 hour help desk support and web-based support applications.

Cost – How much does deploying a remote workforce cost?

The decision that the companies face is how much ownership the company will take for each of the types of telecommuters. For an occasional telecommuter, the employee will more than likely take on the costs. For a heavy telecommuter, the company will probably need to cover the costs to the employee.

Telecommuter Type

Frequency

Implementation Costs Involved

Occasional

Infrequently

Dial-up, Web-based applications

Regular

Scheduled intervals

Remote Connection, 3rd Party Software, Laptop, Firewall, Router.

Heavy

Frequently to Full Time

Provide second computer, VPN connection, ISP costs, other office equipment, maintenance.

It is not the technology costs that make or break the telecommuting decision, but it’s the organizational issues that should benefit the company if deployed properly.

Conclusion

Telecommuting seems to be the answer to the “increased workload versus work/personal life balance” issue that many companies are seeking. While there exist many challenges towards implementing a successful telecommuting plan, there also seem to be many practical solutions. The real issue seems to stem from whether a company will change its processes and standards to allow for telecommuting to co-exist with office employees. Such a decision, as this paper has outlined, is not as simple as providing remote employees with an internet connection. Rather, the decision has significant technical and organizational ramifications that need to be well thought out before implementation; otherwise, the company is doomed to make the mistakes of many companies that have haphazardly gone down this path.

1 http://www.langhoff.com/faqs.html

2 http://www.youcanworkfromanywhere.com/infocenter/facts.htm

3 http://www.youcanworkfromanywhere.com/infocenter/facts.htm

4 http://www.tfw.org.uk/teleworking/contents.htm

5 http://www.langhoff.com/faqs.html

6 Pinsonneault, A. (1999). The Impacts of Telecommuting on Organizations and Individuals: A Review of the Literature, Cahier du GreSI, 99(9).

7 Guimaraes, T., and Dallow, P. (1999). Empiracally Testing the Benefits, Problems, and Success Factors for Telecommuting Programs, European Journal of Information Systems, 8, 40-54.

8 Davenport, T.H. and Pearlson, K. (1998). Two Cheers for the Virtual Office, Sloan Management Review, 39(4), 51-65.

9 Guimaraes, T., and Dallow, P. (1999). Empiracally Testing the Benefits, Problems, and Success Factors for Telecommuting Programs, European Journal of Information Systems, 8, 40-54.

10 Kirvan, P. (1995). How to Manage Systems for Remote Workers, Communications News, 33, 67.

11 Kirvan, P. (1995). How to Manage Systems for Remote Workers, Communications News, 33, 67.

12 Guimaraes, T., and Dallow, P. (1999). Empiracally Testing the Benefits, Problems, and Success Factors for Telecommuting Programs, European Journal of Information Systems, 8, 40-54.

13 Davenport, T.H. and Pearlson, K. (1998). Two Cheers for the Virtual Office, Sloan Management Review, 39(4), 51-65.

14 Ascend Communications, 2002, “Telecommuting Network Guide: A Resource for Planners, Excutives, and Information Managers”, http://users.skynet.be/teletravail/PDF/solut_technique.pdf

15 Jessica L. Hirsch, 2000, “Telecommuting: Security Policies and Procedures for the “Work-From-Home” Workforce”, http://www.teleworker.org/articles/telework_security.html

16 Bandwidth Savings, 2003, “Services In Detailed”, http://www.bandwidthsavings.net/servicesdetail.cfm

17 Citrix.com, 2003, Home Page, http://www.citrix.com

18 Hall, Aric, Bilski, Alicia, Wadman, Scott, 2003, “Ways People Telecommute”, http://members.tripod.com/~trom/page3.html

19 http://www.uk.research.att.com/vnc

20 Wrobel, Leo A., February 1997, “Helpful Hints for MIS Managers Supporting Telecommuters and Nomadic Users -Part I: Voice Communications”, http://www.rewireit.com/articles/w0297.pdf

21 http://www.webx.com

22 http://www.pcsupport.com/

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