Masters of the virtual world

Nearly one-fifth of the employed adult U.S. workforce, or 24.1 million people, worked from home at least one day a month in 2004, according to a recent survey by business researcher The Dieringer Research Group. That’s an increase of 2.6 per cent over 2003.

Clearly, teleworking isn’t just for loners in fuzzy slippers anymore. As enabling technologies such as the Internet, wireless, VoIP and broadband to the home proliferate, so does the number of employees who choose to work virtually. In fact, prominent top executives at some companies say they rarely spend much time in a corporate facility. Instead, they work from wherever they are — whether at home, the airport, a customer site or an overseas field office.

Work is what you do, not where you are, they say. Virtual work programs cut costs (especially in office real estate), improve the bottom line, help attract and retain topflight staff, enhance productivity and improve overall competitiveness, they add.

AT&T, Sun and Nortel are virtual-work pioneers. Practicing what they preach, they use such deployments to cut costs in the face of tough financial times. Their virtual work programs range from the sci-fi to the traditional.

Teleworking at a glance

A summary of best practices at AT&T, Sun, and Nortel.

Sun: Working anytime, anywhere — on anything.

When Sun CIO Bill Vass sets out from the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., to visit other Sun sites across the country, he packs his entire desktop into his wallet.

This is because he uses an ultra-thin client computer, called a Sun Ray, that runs off of his corporate badge, which is about the size and shape of a credit card.

Sun Rays are diskless, operating-system-less laptop-like devices that can be used with any type of monitor, keyboard or mouse. When a user inserts his corporate ID badge into the Sun Ray, the device communicates to Sun Ray servers at headquarters. Those servers manage all the data and applications, including VoIP soft phones, and simply deliver the GUI to the remote user. The badge contains a small Java chip that handles authentication and encryption.

“At work, I insert my badge into any Sun Ray around, and within three seconds, my desktop pops up,” Vass says. “When I’m finished at work, I can remove my badge, go home and insert it in my home Sun Ray. Within three seconds, my desktop, which is encrypted with the certificate on my badge, pops up exactly as I left it at work, even with my cursor still blinking on the presentation or the e-mail I was working on.”

The result is a mobile workforce that is far more secure, and easier to support and administer than traditional laptop-wielders. The Sun Rays cost just US$200 apiece and require the same amount of technical support as a typical TV, meaning zero, Vass says.

“We save (US)$15 million a year in administrative costs alone,” Vass says, adding that the Sun Rays, which use only 11 watts of power, also save the company US$2.8 million in power costs. The company garners another US$6.5 million a year by not having to refresh its desktops. “Plus, it’s a tremendous leap in security,” he says. Remote workers can’t become infected with worms or viruses and pass them onto the corporate network, because the Sun Rays have no operating system to infiltrate, he says.

As many as 17,000 of Sun’s 33,000 employees work virtually in some capacity, and because any employee can work on any Sun Ray, cubicles at headquarters and other sites are virtual as well, divvied up on a first-come, first-served basis. “It’s a lot like parking — if you get in early, you get your favorite space. If not, you get what’s left,” Vass says. (Even Sun President Jonathan Schwartz has no permanent office space.)

The setup lets Sun designate 1.5 people per office, a move that saves US$68.9 million a year in real estate costs, Vass says.

Also, as part of this telework program, internally called iWork, Sun offers “edge services.” Any employee can log on to Sun’s intranet portal via any device — be it a Windows PC, Macintosh, Palm Pilot, Symbian phone, Linux desktop or Solaris desktop. All the employee needs is a user name and password. The portal senses the client device and delivers enough features and functions so the employee can get most work done, Vass says.

“For example, I had parent-teacher conferences at my kids’ school recently, and while I was waiting for a teacher, I walked over to a Mac that was in the waiting room and logged in and started working, doing e-mail, looking at a presentation and checking my expense report,” Vass says. “With edge services, I could have done all that on my cell phone. But I’d rather use the bigger screen on the Mac, and it was there. It really lets you work anywhere and use anything.”

This all results in increased productivity, as surveyed teleworkers report that they are productive for three hours more per day and give back 60 per cent of their commute time to the company. And Sun’s iWorkers are happy with the trade-off. In fact, “73 per cent of worldwide iWorkers said they were very satisfied and really liked their jobs working in this environment, and 80 per cent of U.S. workers said they were very satisfied,” Vass says. “That compares with 25 per cent of the American public.”

Nortel: Flexible mobility

At Nortel, the key to successful virtual work lies in one word: flexibility. “We’re a global company, so we looked at telework as a way to operate more flexibly with respect to time zones, while allowing our employees a level of flexibility in their work and personal lives,” says Nortel CIO Albert Hitchcock, speaking on a conference call from his home office in London.

Today, Nortel reaps huge benefits from its decade-old virtual work program. Annually, the company saves US$22 million in real estate costs and US$18 million in phone charges for teleworkers who use VoIP. The program also chalks up a 15-per-cent improvement in productivity annually, primarily because of increased flexibility.

“We’re able to recruit people into roles where we may not have a geographical presence, enabling us to get the best people. And employees who work virtually tend to be more flexible in terms of taking evening conference calls and things like that,” Hitchcock says. “In return, their managers are more than happy to give them the flexibility to pick up their kids from school in the middle of the day.”

Fully 65 per cent of Nortel’s workforce works virtually in some capacity, and eight per cent are full-time teleworkers. The company equips all its employees with a wireless laptop configured with the Nortel Contivity VPN client. This provides IPSec authentication, encryption and protected application access for both voice and data to the corporate network. Each laptop also is configured with Nortel’s Multimedia Communications Server VoIP software for voice and video calls, find-me, instant messaging, video conferencing and a variety of collaboration tools. With the laptop, employees can connect to Nortel’s internal network via dial-up, broadband, 3G wireless or Wi-Fi — from anywhere in the world.

“It’s common now for employees to work at a hotel, on a customer premises or in a Starbucks cafe,” Hitchcock says. “Essentially, they can work as if they’re sitting at a desk in a Nortel facility, so it really makes no difference where they are.”

In the future, Nortel is looking for the program to reap even greater savings in real estate costs.

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