Homeworking poses new problems for IS

Enabling home working within the enterprise can present challenges for the IT department but the benefits for the organization may be too compelling to be ignored.

No commuting and more time with family are just some of the benefits for the employee, but the benefits can be even greater for the employer.

Brendan Read, author of Home Workplace, a Handbook for Employees and Managers and himself a home worker, said the benefits for the company can include lower real estate costs, higher productivity and less sick time.

He added studies have shown home workers spend previously spent commuting time on work. He pointed to a study by Parker, Col.-based consulting firm Jack Heacock & Associates that showed a company with 100 home workers can save US$10 million over five years.

“That’s money companies should not leave on the table,” said Read. “It could be put to much more productive uses.” Perhaps the biggest challenges to be overcome in launching a home working program revolve around IT.

Todd Tanner of The Tanner Group, home working consultants from Salt Lake City, Utah, said that security of the corporate network is the biggest issue, although recent advances from companies like Cisco Systems and Avaya have made it easier.

Most network attacks come through the computers of employees, and Tanner said whether a person is working from home or within the office, the steps IT must take to secure the network are the same. An important first step is intrusion detection software.

The IT department should also make sure they are included in designing a home working program from the start. Tanner said the corporate side is often reluctant to include IT until the end, for fear it will slow the process down. “(Corporate thinks IT gets) in the middle and jams things up so people can’t do what they want to do,” said Tanner.

A report looking at networking home workers from Burton Group, a Midvale, Utah-based researching and consulting firm, concludes that by properly configuring an SSL-based VPN and taking basic precautions, home workers can be given secure access to the corporate network.

Proper education is important, though, and detailed procedures should be laid-out and followed.

“Working and networking from home has become routine,” read the report. “With the increasing popularity of employee home networking, enterprise network staff are thus now faced with significant new technical and management challenges.”

The always-on nature of residential broadband access makes security more of a concern, since an unsecured home computer can be a weak backdoor for external threats into the corporate network.

The report recommends home workers be required to install a software firewall, and if they’re running a home LAN, a NAT/DHCP router should be required. Also, if the enterprise permits its workers to connect their corporate computer to an 802.11 home wireless network it should ensure encryption is turned on.

The benefits have become clear to Nortel Networks over the 10 years since they launched a home working program. Mary McClintock, who works out of her home in Raleigh, N.C. as Nortel’s remote access solutions manager, estimated Nortel has saved US$22 million annually in real estate costs alone through home and mobile working.

While people in areas like manufacturing obviously can’t work from home, McClintock said nearly 90 per cent of their employees, from marketing to research and development, take advantage of the program at least a day or two a week.

The program has also served as an internal test bed for Nortel projects, leading Nortel to expand its mobility product offerings. McClintock’s Nortel laptop doubles as a VoIP phone, allowing calls to her work line to be routed to the laptop when she’s on the road.

The IT department played a key role in launching the program, from ensuring the backend network was ready to developing standards around what equipment should be used. Only Nortel-issued laptops can connect to the network, a company phone is supplied, and only certain peripherals can be connected.

Also, by owning the computers, Nortel doesn’t worry about privacy or ownership issues around the hard drive data. “You didn’t want a conglomeration of a lot of different things out for IT to support,” said McClintock.

Home workers can call a 1-800 number for IT support, where help desk staff can use remote access tools to attempt to diagnose the program. If that fails, the computer is boxed-up and couriered to the nearest Nortel office to be quickly repaired.

Besides IT, the other major challenge for Nortel was getting their managers onboard with the idea of managing people they can’t see. “It was the fear of the unknown,” she said.

She noted with many Nortel offices across North America, and some in Europe, it’s rare for a manager to have all their employees on site. Regular conference calls and e-mail reports help keep managers and employees in touch. “We tell our managers, you don’t manage your people by seeing them in the office every day, it’s based on objectives.”

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