The top 10 telecommuting traps

Most IS managers focus on the myriad technical details when developing a telecommuting program. However, personnel, psychological, and legal issues can overwhelm even the most technically perfect program. We discuss the top 10 reasons why telecommuting programs fail and how to prevent them. Issues are presented in reverse order of importance.

10 Insufficient Support Infrastructure: Because they often work extended hours or in a different time zone, teleworkers can stretch an enterprise’s support infrastructure. Teleworkers cannot easily give their machines to technical support when problems arise, nor can technical support use remote-control tools to troubleshoot remote computers if the employee’s problem is with remote access. Solution: Train telecommuters on remote workstation configuration and maintenance before they begin to work from their home offices. Train the support staff on the remote-access environment and consider expanding the hours for which technical support is available.

9 Insufficient Security Policies: Teleworkers typically require full access from home to all the system resources that would be available to them within the enterprise. But it can be difficult to validate the teleworker’s identity. Solution: Revise security policies to address the issues regarding employees working in a home environment (e.g., corporate use of personal computers and personal use of corporate computers should be discouraged, and sign-on and authentication procedures should be strengthened).

8 Union Difficulties: Many unions feel that telecommuting interferes with their representation and collective bargaining power. Solution: Approach union leaders early to construct a program that is acceptable to both the enterprise and union.

7 “Quantifiable” Productivity Gains Aren’t Achieved: Too frequently, the enterprise embraces telecommuting to attain a mythical 20 percent increase in user productivity. However, changes in productivity are difficult to measure; many knowledge workers don’t have quantitative (or even objective) performance metrics. Solution: Rewrite performance metrics for all eligible job roles to focus on objective, output-oriented metrics, and train managers to use the new performance metrics.

6 Teleworker Productivity Declines: Telecommuter productivity usually declines in the first six to 10 weeks of the program’s implementation. These decreases are due to insufficient training in using the remote workstation, isolation from the workgroup, and inexperience in filtering out distractions at home. The productivity decline is generally temporary but can dishearten the telecommuter (and the enterprise), leading to high dropout rates. Solution: Minimize the impact and duration of the productivity decline with proper training. A telecommuter training lab can provide an excellent introduction to telecommuting, and lets employees practice setting up and maintaining remote equipment.

5 Overall Productivity Declines: Without sufficient workgroup tools to support on-line and off-line collaboration, overall productivity will decrease as the workgroup disintegrates. Solution: Encourage communication by publishing home office numbers and work-at-home schedules so that coworkers feel more comfortable calling the teleworkers. Longer term, modify workgroup processes to take advantage of collaboration tools.

4 Employee Morale Drops: Without formal policies that define employee eligibility, available equipment, the amount of telecommuting that will be supported, and other details, a telecommuting program can result in lower employee morale. Unevenly distributed telecommuting privileges can lead to frustration. Solution: Establish policies that outline eligibility requirements.

3 Budget Overruns: Although many think telecommuting can help reduce operating expenses, telecommuters are more expensive to support than their office-bound counterparts. According to GartnerGroup’s 1998 study of remote-access total cost of ownership, a full-time telecommuter can cost as much as 124 percent more than an office-bound worker in terms of equipment, support, and voice and data communications. Solution: Perform a thorough cost/benefit analysis at the beginning of the project and allocate enough money to support the program.

2 Legal Morass: When deploying telecommuting, the enterprise must ensure that it is in compliance with all local, regional, and national regulations. Solution: The legal department should provide guidance in all stages of the telecommuting program and should review all telecommuting policies.

1 Management Reprisal: Many telecommuting programs (even those initially driven by end-user demand) find a surprisingly small number of volunteers for the program’s pilot or deployment stage.

This is mostly due to employee fear that management will look harshly at people who do not work in the office. A lack of consistent productivity metrics enhances the fear that “out of sight” will mean “out of mind.” Without sufficient participation, telecommuting programs tend to be canceled after about a year. Solution: Managers must be convinced of telecommuting’s benefits and should be trained on how to work with remote employees. Management buy-in is the single most important prerequisite.

VPNs for Small Businesses

New products make it more affordable for small and medium-size businesses to take advantage of virtual private network (VPN) technology. VPNs have attracted the attention of large, distributed enterprises because they let businesses create links across public and private networks to customers, branch offices, and telecommuters for less money than the cost of a traditional private network.

The choice of which VPN is best for a smaller business often comes down to how much programming you are willing to do. One such product that you can use to build a VPN inexpensively–although you’ll have to tinker with it a bit–is Microsoft’s BackOffice Small Business Server (SBS). SBS delivers elements of its parent BackOffice suite, including NT 4.0 Server, Exchange Server 5.0, SQL Server 6.5, Proxy Server 1.0, fax and modem services, and a simplified administration console. Another product, Lotus’s Domino Intranet Starter Pack (DISP) 2.0, includes the Domino 4.6.1 server, five licenses for either Notes or browser clients, and the SiteCreator tool for generating and managing 12 business applications.

Novell has Microsoft’s SBS in its sights with NetWare for Small Business (NSB) 4.11, which combines a single-site version of Novell Directory Services (NDS) with GroupWise 5.2, NetWare Multi-Protocol Router, Network Address Translator, Netscape FastTrack Web Server, and other third-party database, fax, virus, and backup products. Netscape has no small business suit; instead it partners with Concentric Network Corporation to offer Netscape Virtual Office, an on-line intranet center hosting private discussion, e-mail, calendaring, and other applications for a monthly fee. Microsoft continues to upgrade NT Server, which is part of SBS, with capabilities that improve its viability as a VPN platform. The NT 4 Option Pack, Routing and Remote Access Services (RRAS) update, and Service Pack 4 add an enhanced IIS 4.0, Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS), Microsoft Message Queuing Services (MSMQ), Index Server, Certificate Server and SSL 3.0, and Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), all for free if you already have NT Server. You can upgrade Small Business Server to take advantage of NT’s new tools with careful planning. RRAS lets you tunnel into a PPTP-enabled server, and then to any workstation on the internal network. However, this defeats the security provided by Proxy Server 1.0, forcing an upgrade to the 2.0 version that supports packet filtering.

You’ll also need to apply a new Proxy Server hotfix to repair support for multihoming (the ability to host more than one site on a server), as well as an SBS service pack to allow use of Internet Explorer 4.01. Still, the hotfix and service pack upgrades are free, and the cost of the Proxy Server upgrade is just $505, which makes this solution almost $2000 less than buying BackOffice 4.0. The SBS solution won’t be suitable for some scenarios. For example, SBS disables NT trusts between domains, limits SQL Server database size to 1GB, and does not support Exchange directory replication. These changes cripple SBS’s flexibility for use in satellite offices. Microsoft is readying an upgrade path from SBS to Back Office 4.0 that will add the full version of SQL Server 6.5, Proxy Server 2.0, Exchange Server 5.5, Systems Management Server (SMS), SNA Server, and Site Server, but at press time, pricing was not determined. While SBS, RRAS, and the Option Pack provide the infrastructure for business-to-business communications, you need programming expertise, especially in Visual Basic and Visual InterDev, to make it all work. Domino Intranet Starter Pack on the other hand, comes ready with a secure, browser-based application suite.

Contact management, customer tracking, company forms, job postings, project management, registration, discussion, and document library databases are all part of the package. You can manage sites remotely via a browser or the native Notes client. Lotus’s DISP includes the latest Domino server and on-line documentation, but you’ll need to buy the Notes Designer client to customize or add applications. Domino 4.6.1 comes with a Certificate Server and sample registration templates for SSL 3.0 client authentication, but DISP only uses the less-secure password technology. Multihoming will not work with SSL certificates; the work-around requires partitioning with the more costly ($1000 additional) Advanced Services version of the server. NSB, DISP, and SBS are tactical products, balancing a mix of features and services that evangelize their underlying architectures without cannibalizing full-blown suite sales. Novell is counting on GroupWise’s user friendliness and advanced document management tools to retain mind share in the face of NT’s application services momentum. Lotus continues to provide a Web-based application development environment that outperforms Microsoft in its own NT backyard. And Microsoft moves steadily forward, integrating security, messaging, indexing, standards-based file formats, and directory services that the competition can’t afford to give away.