Greg Enright: Remoteness now a reality

Office workers, traditionally required to be tied to their desks in order to carry out their jobs, have increasingly seen their tethers severed to varying degrees, courtesy of such networking technologies as wireless LANs, laptops and videoconferencing connections.

And it is not merely in the traditional corporate environment that these offerings are cropping up. Colleges and universities are unearthing an entirely new source of revenue by offering correspondence courses to students over wired and unwired nets instead of the traditional snail-mail method. In hospitals, doctors are now able to talk to patients in remote locations and even assist in surgical procedures thanks to remote access technologies.

All of these developments are encouraging to those workers who have relished the life of the home-based entrepreneur. Unfortunately for network managers and technicians, however, the picture is not quite as idyllic.

One of the most common problems in maintaining a network is people-related: explaining complex technical malfunctions to a user who desperately needs the company’s internal network to be up and running so that the year-end financial data won’t be late for the CEO is never easy, even when the user’s cube is only a few steps away from the techie’s.

When the user is working from a remote location, the problem can become potentially worse for the technician due to a lack of face-to-face contact. Communicating by way of e-mail, messaging systems or even over the phone is still not always an effective substitute for good ol’ in-person conversing.

Repairing network outages remotely also frequently involves more action to be taken by the user, which always courts disaster. In a traditional office environment, a major, time-consuming repair often means a trip to the coffee shop down the street for the user while the tech staffer fixes the problem. The user gets his coffee, the technician works unencumbered, and everyone is relatively happy.

In a remote-fix scenario, users might have to perform some of the repair tasks themselves. It’s not an unfounded fear on the part of IT departments that such situations can exacerbate the problem rather than making it go away.

Other perhaps less-obvious impediments that remote access proponents will have to overcome in the near future include many corporations’ level of discomfort with having its precious human resources scattered here there and everywhere. Most companies still like to foster a sense of cohesion and corporate unity, and this is challenged when employees only see one another at the company’s annual golf tournament. And there is also the fears surrounding data security, both the unfounded and founded varieties.

Despite these concerns, however, don’t expect the move toward remote access to slacken. Increasingly frazzling commutes in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, and two-income households increasingly looking for ways to spend more time at home, will help drive its growth – perhaps even more effectively than will any corporate bottom-line advantages the technology offers. Network managers should therefore be prepared to grow more accustomed to the new challenges that accompany it.