Feature

Moving targets: supporting a flexible workforce

As a manager supporting a mobile or home-based workforce for the first time, what do you need to know? Alison Classe reports

The costs of flexible working are not as actively publicised as the benefits, and many of these costs are incurred in support. Mobile workforces add a further dimension of complexity. According to BT almost 8% of the UK workforce is teleworking, while 75% of organisations have some mobile workers, so it can only be a matter of time before your support function has to grapple with the support of remote workers, if it isn't already doing so. What can you expect when that moment comes?

Hardware

The most obvious complications relate to hardware support. Mobile workers can't usually carry a spare laptop, and probably don't have either the time or expertise to carry out repairs. But if their PCs fail, disappear or get run over - apparently a frequent occurrence among sales people - they may be literally unable to do their jobs. And that's before you take into account the emotional effects.

Recent research commissioned by ICL from Benchmark suggests that 12% of respondents find being unable to access their PC for a day more stressful than being left by their partner. An astonishing 70% find it more stressful than spending a weekend with their in-laws.

Hardware support in the field is often a good case for outsourcing, because the geographical reach and levels of coverage needed are expensive for a single organisation to tackle. John Harrison, ICL business manager for mobile user support services, says, "A mobile worker can put a call in to ICL at any time of the day and night. We'll then arrange to meet them anywhere in the country, usually the following day, and deliver a replacement piece of equipment."

As he points out the hardware on its own is no use, so ICL will configure the software as per the client organisation's instructions before delivering the machine, enabling the recipient to get back to work straight away. Different service levels can be arranged for different individuals - the top 50 sales people might get a four-hour service rather than next day.

Attitudes to in-the-field repairs vary. ICL uses couriers to transport a complete replacement PC. "We can still do a limited amount of technical work using the couriers, but in general repairing a PC away from a proper repair centre is a nightmare," argues Harrison. Other services use engineers rather than couriers; transferring a hard disc to another PC overcomes the problem of needing to recover data to the new machine.

Data protection

There are various approaches to recreating data in the event of laptop failure or loss, the common assumption being that end-users don't do back-ups. The systems commonly used by mobile salesforces tend to include an overnight (or more frequent) process in which the data on the laptop is synchronised with a collective database on a head office database. "You can synchronise data daily or even hourly, and the most data you lose in the event of a crash is what you've accumulated since the last synchronisation," says Alistair Bremner, UK managing director of customer relationship management (CRM) supplier Saratoga Systems. "If a user needs to switch to a different PC, a system like ours makes it easy for them to recreate their data for themselves."

So synchronisation addresses data recovery, in theory at least. Simon Barker, practice director of financial services with another CRM specialist Oxygen, says inducing the workforce to sign on regularly can be a headache in practice. There are different approaches to encouraging them to do so. "Some companies set the software up so that if a field operative does not synchronise regularly they're locked out of the system until they've contacted a manager to explain what's happened," Barker adds.

But the carrot can work better than the stick. "E-mail can be a good motivator, and if you can only pick up your mail by signing on for your nightly synchronisation session, that can get people into the habit," he says.

Similar approaches to recovery of hardware and software may be applied to home-based workers, although for them there are additional options. For one thing, holding spare parts, or whole spare machines, may be more viable. Alan Denbigh, executive director of the Telework, Telecottage and Telecentre Association (TTTA), points out that having a desktop PC synchronised with a laptop provides a measure of resilience. "The cost of doing that is minor, and is offset by the advantages of homeworking such as improved productivity and staff retention," he argues.

In future, home-based workers could be online all the time via ADSL or similar, which should further simplify matters since data and software will be stored centrally. If the client fails, recovery will mainly be a matter of replacing the hardware.

Helpdesk implications

Name any current pressure on your support desk and it is likely to be intensified by the addition of a remote workforce. First-line support has got to go beyond message-taking: a salesperson whose PC packs up as they're about to dash off to their next meeting is not going to be delighted if they have to be called back later by a technician just to give an account of the problem.

More than ever, support staff will need the communication skills to elicit an adequate description of the problem from even an inarticulate user, and to describe the solution in terms that an inexperienced one can follow, since there's no possibility of sending someone round to do the job in person. Remote control software such as Symantec's PC Anywhere can help provided the end-user is able to establish a communications link to HQ.

Longer hours of cover may well be required. Homeworkers are likely to work non-standard hours, while mobile workers will probably do their synchronisation after they've finished their sales meetings. At BT, where they practise as well as promote flexible working, the out-of-hours workload is quite impressive.

Head of the workstyle consultancy group Neil McLocklin says 30% of BT's remote access capability is used up by 8am on a weekday, and 30% is still being used at 10pm Even at 9pm on a Sunday evening, 25% is in use.

While 9-5 support is clearly not going to hack it in this situation, some lateral thinking may reveal ways of achieving the necessary flexibility without necessarily manning the support desk 24x7. One solution is to make your own support staff into teleworkers, providing out-of-hours support from home. With Web-based helpdesk solutions becoming available, they may even be able to process calls using the same system that they'd use in the office.

Training

Remote workers sometimes miss out on training, but because they're often working in isolation from technicians and more experienced users they arguably need more, not less.

The TTTA's Denbigh points out that even workers who are usually home-based tend to spend some time in the office, and suggests that these occasions should be taken as an opportunity for formal and informal training. "Sitting next to someone experienced is one of the main ways office-based workers learn, and it's a good idea to give home-based workers a chance to learn face-to-face too."

On-line training can usefully complement, if not replace, classroom training of remote workers. Dominic Keogh, marketing director of training specialist fuel, points out that one advantage of this style of training is particularly pertinent to the mobile sales force.

"Salespeople often have a short attention span, as I know from having been one, so it's helpful to give them learning material which involves the user by getting them to click on hotspots, type in information about themselves and so on," Keogh says.

Online training also has the advantage that it can be delivered in short chunks, and possibly on a need-to-know basis. A support desk faced with a recurring problem that's due to user error could pre-empt further recurrences by directing the workforce to relevant online training material.

Security risks

Then there are security risks to think about. Research suggests that for every three laptops purchased this year one is likely to be stolen. If a laptop falls into the wrong hands, would you risk prosecution under data protection legislation?

If your mobile workers are sales people, for example selling financial services, it's likely that sensitive data about individuals resides on their hard discs, points out Matthew West, senior technical support manager with Norman Data Systems.

Encryption of sensitive data is the least you can do, West suggests. "In practice, encrypting the whole hard disc is often the best option. You can make this part of the process of configuring a laptop, and it doesn't cause any inconvenience to the user."

Encrypting just the part of the disc that holds the sensitive data is an alternative, but encrypting the entire disc covers other eventualities, like the danger than someone will use a stolen laptop to get access to your corporate network.

As a further safeguard, West recommends configuring laptops so that the user has to log on - and not just via the basic Windows log-on procedure which is easily circumvented. Two-factor authentication, involving a hardware key as well as password log-on, is a technique gaining popularity

Home workers introduce security problems of their own. Ian Kilpatrick, group managing director with Wick Hill Group, says, "Home workers connecting to head office are potentially the weakest link in any company's security plan - trojans planted on a home worker's machine have the potential to create major security problems.

"Authenticating their access and also securing their machines with firewalls is, therefore, extremely important and if they're using virtual private networking to connect to the headquarters over the Internet it's often crucial that these communications are encrypted," Kilpatrick adds.

Wick Hill suggests WatchGuard's SOHO firewall as means of providing firewall and virtual private network facilities to small offices, including home workers.

Conclusion

It does all cost money, but if businesses want to adopt flexible working practices they have to bite the bullet. McLocklin says, "It's typically 65% more expensive to look after someone working outside the office than a traditional office worker, but the savings in terms of accommodation, staff retention and recruitment greatly outweigh those additional costs.

"The trick is to persuade the business that it has to invest the money in support to obtain the savings," he adds.

What "road warriors" don't want to hear from their support teams

  • "Just try these 10 simple steps and phone me back later to let me know what happened"

  • "Your modem's down? Can you e-mail me a full report of the problem?"

  • "I'll pop a diagnostic disc in the post - where are you going to be tomorrow...or it might be the day after?"

  • "Sign on to the support database via the Internet - oh no, you can't sign on can you?"

  • "Have you got a screwdriver with you?"

  • "Yes, we do have a spare PC - you can pick it up next time you're in the office"

    Case study: Monsanto Searle

    At pharmaceutical company Monsanto Searle, sales support systems manager Jim Dougans says the challenge of supporting the sales force goes beyond the technical. "We address technical support in a variety of ways. We have our own helpdesk that receives calls, does some initial triage and takes ownership of the problem. Hardware support is done through a third party that sends an engineer to meet the user within four hours.

    "That's the technical side, but the harder part has been to support the business use of the application."

    Monsanto Searle uses a customer relationship management system from Oxygen, and Dougans says that while IT can provide basic training, a system like this is so intimately linked with the business that something more is needed. "You can split training into the 'how' and the 'why'. The how is the easy bit, but if there's no 'why' it will never happen."

    So Monsanto Searle has instigated a business support function alongside its IT support. Staffed by business experts rather than IT professionals, this department supplies the "why" answers that motivate use of the system. It works on improving the way the system is used, and advises staff on how best to achieve business goals with it.

    "This kind of support is often left to IT, but if so it's rarely successful. IT can handle the mechanics of keeping the system working, but making the system deliver results for the business is down to the business itself," Dougans says.

    Tips for supporting a remote workforce

  • Convince senior management that, to make mobile or home working successful, the board needs to invest in support

  • Establish service levels commensurate with each worker's importance to the organisation and their dependence on their PC

  • Even if it costs money, try to ensure that hardware and software used by remote workers starts out and remains uniform - that simplifies support immensely

  • Carefully rehearse any major upgrade and schedule it to minimise disruption

  • Recognise that a certain proportion of laptops will be stolen, dropped, even run over, and plan accordingly

  • Flexible working practices mean flexible hours - so home and mobile workers are both likely to need support outside of normal office hours

  • Don't allow remote workers to become the weak link in your security chain

  • Depending on industry, mobile users (such as sales people) can be less experienced and less enthusiastic than average about using technology and may need extra training and support

  • Mobile workers may be under intense time pressures so make sure first-line support is skilled enough not to waste their time

  • Home workers may feel starved of human contact and therefore be less happy to use an automated solution than other workers.


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    This was first published in September 2000

     

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