Tele-Commuting Trend Taking Off for SMBs

By Gerry Blackwell

September 24, 2008

Employees love it--and the benefits to small businesses can be multitudinous--but what do you need to do to enable your employees to work remotely?

One of the fast-growing trends in small business these days is teleworking ‑ employees working from home or away from the company’s main office. Surging gas prices driving up the already high cost of commuting and growing environmental concerns are just the most recent and headline-grabbing inducements that make telework increasingly attractive to both employers and employees.

Why does telework all of a sudden make so much sense? And what do you need to enable employees to work away from the office?

The benefits, some quantifiable, include reduced operating costs, increased productivity, better ability to recruit talent, and a more nimble, responsive organization with fewer vulnerabilities. To make telecommuting work, you may need some new technology, but it doesn’t have to be terribly expensive and most of it will pay dividends in other ways.

Even more, important, experts say, is thinking through the larger implications, especially the human factors, and performing due diligence on technology and other telework-related decisions.

More and more companies are doing it. According to a March 2008 report from consulting and systems integration firm CDW Corp., 36 percent of private sector organizations now permit teleworking, and 14 percent of employees are actually doing it. Telework can mean anything from working full time at home, to telecommuting one day a week, to staying home and working when a blizzard or power outage hits.

More telling indicators that companies taking telework seriously, CDW said, are the number of telework-permitting firms with formal policies in place (65 percent in 2008, up from 40 percent last year) and the number with plans to extend technical support to teleworkers (up from 49 percent to 76 percent.)

Storm coming

As topical as gas prices and green consciousness are, a bunch of other business and market drivers have been swirling together and gaining force over the past few years. Not the least of them is technology evolution.

“Telecommuting was done in the past to a certain extent,” said Jayanthe Angl, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. “But technology today, especially remote-access capabilities, makes it’s more feasible for more job functions.”

The prime technological prerequisite is reliable, inexpensive broadband access in the home. That wasn’t always available, now it is.

Broadband enables secure technologies and services that let employees remotely access data on company servers. It's also IP phone systems and services that let workers appear to be in the office – and use all the features of the office phone system – even when they’re at home, in an airport or in the back of a cab.

Availability of technology alone wouldn’t persuade hundreds of large companies and federal agencies and departments to establish telework programs. Telework has to deliver real benefits, and it does. Small firms may have even more to gain than bigger ones, argued CDW director of technical services and solutions Firooz Ghanbarzadeh.

“One of their challenges is that they have to do more with fewer people,” he said. “With that limited, yet so valuable resource, you cannot afford to box them into a specific location or times for them to be as productive as they can be.”

Ghanbarzadeh believes that telework is a necessity for small businesses if they want to get the most productivity and value from their limited resources.

Jack be nimble

Just enabling employees to login from home or the road and respond to e-mails or return calls can be critical to making small firms as nimble and responsive as they need to be to stay competitive. “Companies have lost business as a result of not having that capability,” Ghanbarzadeh said.

While productivity increases and the benefits of being more adaptive may be difficult to measure, savings in real estate-related costs are quantifiable. Some of it, said Angl, is cost avoidance--not having to lease more space as you add employees because some are now working at least part of the time at home.

“Having that [telework] capability, affords you the flexibility to make those kinds of decisions,” he said. “Without it, you may be forced to take on another lease when you add more people.”

Big firms, including Nortel and some top-five consulting organizations, have implemented aggressive telework programs in which employees are no longer assigned dedicated workstations at the office. They share--a practice often referred to as hoteling.

Nortel claims its telework program has saved the company $22 million in real estate costs since 2003, in part by allowing it to sell property and reduce space under lease. There are also incidental costs associated with office-bound employees--services and support such as moves, adds and changes to technology--which can also be reduced, Angl said. “And they can really add up.”

Raj Sonty, vice president of solutions in the small-and-medium-business division at Avaya Inc., a network equipment vendor, said Avaya research shows real estate-related costs for each employee with a dedicated workstation add up to $5,000 a year.

Employees love it

Telework is also hugely attractive to employees, of course. They save commuting time, cost and aggravation. Many see it as a way to better balance home and work life, reducing stress and making it easier to fulfill family and household obligations--picking up the kids from school at 3:30 in the afternoon, for example, or being home for the cable guy.

They may as a result be more productive, some analysts said. And having a formal telework program may make it easier to recruit top talent who want those benefits.

Finally, implementing a comprehensive and carefully thought out telework program also means that when faced with a major weather event you and you’re your employees can keep the company up and running from home or even from an evacuation site if necessary.

So what do you need to make it happen? And how much will it cost?

Home base

A key requirement for many small businesses is secure remote access to corporate data and applications. There are a few options.

Companies such as Citrix Systems Inc. sell server-based solutions that manage remote connections to a local network and use virtual private network (VPN) technology to encrypt data to keep it secure as it passes over the Internet. These systems have been available for several years and are well understood, at least by IT professionals.

Several vendors, including Citrix, with GoToMyPC, also offer lighter-weight software solutions that manage secure remote access to an individual office PC over the Internet. They allow a user to log in from home or from a wireless hotspot and work as if he or she were sitting at the office computer.

A relatively new alternative is WorldExtend LLC’s IronDoor remote access service, which requires no on-site server and minimal software loaded onto remote PCs, but provides secure, permissions-based access to corporate network resources.

WorldExtend's CEO, Steve Landau said most small firms simply can’t afford a Citrix-like server-based solution, which he claimed can cost as much as $30,000 and require a full-time IT person to administer.

“We’re a solution that rivals Citrix for the robustness of its security, but IronDoor is as easy as downloading and installing a little piece of software. It’s very intuitive,” he said.

Employees need only a browser to access data and/or applications on the corporate network. An added bonus is that IronDoor doesn’t require opening any additional ports on the network firewall. Cost: $25 per employee, per month.

If you want employees to be able to use applications on the network – which saves managing and maintaining separate instances of the programs on each employee’s computer – it means installing a server and using Iron Door’s Application Publishing features to make them available to remote employees, which involves modest up-front costs.

Cloud computing

A more radical alternative: switch to “cloud” computing solutions, software that resides on the Web, at a service provider’s facility, which employees access, again, using a browser.

Some solutions aspire to be browser-based alternatives to Microsoft Office – Google Apps from Google, for example, or the Zoho suite from AdventNet Inc. Google Apps so far includes e-mail, calendar, word processing and collaboration tools. The Standard Edition is free. The Premium Edition costs $50 a year per person with 25 GB of storage.

Zoho comprises 12 applications to date including many not found in Office, such as customer relationship management (CRM). All are free for a limited number of users. Some, including CRM, are priced per-user, per-month for larger installations – as little as $12 for CRM.

More and more software developers, including Microsoft with its Office Live, are offering software as a service (SaaS) solutions priced per-user, per-month. Many are highly specialized and feature-rich. The best known example is the online CRM service from SaaS pioneer SalesForce.com.

Unified communications

IP-based unified communications systems, such as Avaya’s IP Office solution, extend office communications functions--four-digit internal dialing, call routing, presence, voice mail, etc.--to people logged in to the company network over a broadband Internet connection or a cellular network.

The all-in list price for a 20-user Avaya IP Office system--a server-based system installed at your premises: $120 per employee--typically discounted 15 to 20 percent by resellers, Sonty said.

It may be difficult to justify investing in such a system solely to enable telework--after all, employees could get by using home or company-issue cell phones--but most firms will end up implementing such systems at some point anyway. IP and unified communications are the way of the future.

In the meantime, there are also pay-per-user-per-month “virtual PBX” solutions, from companies such as Phone.com and RingCentral that offer some of the same benefits.

They provide central answering and PBX-like routing of calls to “virtual extensions” that could be your employee’s home or cell phone. Prices start as low as $10 per month per user.

Other costs?

Issuing laptop computers and smartphones to teleworking employees--if they don’t already have them--can cost as little as $1,500 in capital costs. But like IP-based unified communications systems, both do more than just enable telework.

Covering mobile communications costs and broadband access at home can add as much as $100 a month, conceivably more, depending on the services and features you choose.

Due diligence

Technology can be the key enabler, but if it's deployed willy-nilly, it doesn't make for a successful telework program.

You need to think through the implications of telework, Angl said, especially what it will mean in human terms. And you have to spell out expectations to employees and their supervisors in a formal policy.

  • When and how often will employees work from home?
  • How and when will they be available to respond to supervisors or to customers?
  • How will their work, much of which will happen out-of-site, be evaluated?

“If there aren’t any changes in how these things are viewed and handled, there will be issues,” Angl said. “Another concern is that teleworker employees may get the impression there is not the same opportunity for them to advance.”

What’s clear is that telework can potentially deliver crucial benefits, helping small businesses control costs, recruit top talent, be more nimble and increase productivity. It’s not free, though, and like any investment in business re-engineering, it comes with some risk attached.

Bottom line: Proceed thoughtfully with your eyes open.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

Article courtesy of SmallBusinessComputing.com.

 



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