The homeworking comfort zone

Teleworkers are fragile beings, which makes it essential that you provide an infrastructure that supports them.

A whopping 1.2 million of the UK workforce - some 5% of the labour market - are teleworkers, according to the Institute for Employment Studies. With that figure expected to double by 2003, it is no surprise that IT directors are anxious to ensure they have the infrastructure to make remote working a success.

SECURITY: Security is, of course, their prime concern. Apart from impressing upon individuals the importance of safeguarding equipment from theft, it is essential that the IT infrastructure is sufficiently tight to keep unwanted users out. Passwords and user IDs, both to log on and use e-mail, are standard practice nowadays, but many companies think they afford little real protection and have additional security measures in place. Some use dial-back one-time-only passwords. Under this system, a smartcard issues a network password that matches another that is simultaneously created by the network. The card is protected by its own password.

Signatures are also gaining in usage. The veracity of the signature given is assessed not only in terms of accuracy, but also on whether the strokes are formed in the same way as usual and at a speed consistent with previous logins.

Another method proving increasingly popular is the use of biometric passwords: identifying users by their thumbprint, for example. This way employers are reassured that users are who they say they are. "In the past, it was pretty James Bond to have biometrics, but it's becoming much more useable and widespread now as identification is paramount," says Ben Schofield, head of e-business strategy for Catalyst Solutions. One drawback to biometric testing is that there is little margin for error. For example, users need to make sure their hands are clean and free from cuts or blemishes or access might be denied.

Dave Cordy is a workstyle consultant at BT. The company actively encourages homeworking and has 40,000 people working remotely, 4,000 of which are formally home-based. Cordy advises BT and other organisations on how to make mobile working a success. He says it is vital that remote workers back up any important data on a regular basis as a damage limitation exercise in the event of theft or loss.

While Cordy thinks the individual has to shoulder some of the responsibility of keeping such data safe, he also believes it is incumbent on the IT department to make sure all employees appreciate the importance of backing-up data and are given the tools with which to do it, with a minimum of effort.

"Companies need to have a code of practice or charter that explains to people what is expected of them," says Cordy. "That's fundamental good practice. And when people are working nomadically, you need technology to back up the data and the discipline to make sure that it's done. I have a reminder set up to my diary that prompts me to back up all my data."

Viruses are another headache for IT staff and users. A lot of viruses are caught during home surfing, particularly as individuals are likely to be using their machines for personal use as well as business purposes, so they need to have the very latest in anti-virus software and firewall protection. Furthermore, users can be taught which e-mails are potentially dangerous. With Microsoft Outlook, for example, people can see the format of the document and check out the general content of an e-mail before they open it.

Training and support: What about training and supporting your mobile workforce? Good communication between the IT department and individuals is essential if remote working is to be a success. Cordy thinks a lot of problems can be avoided if users properly understand how to operate their devices. "Many people that work in organisations aren't IT-literate so it's no good giving someone e-mail, for example, if you don't train them to use it effectively. People need education and guidance, so that they know they don't have to send their 7Mbytes Powerpoint presentation via e-mail." A common complaint from IT support staff is that users contact them with minor problems that they could easily solve themselves.

Carolyn Patterson, Internet tools marketing manager at Oracle UK, thinks companies could do more to educate users on how to use their devices. She thinks IT directors should consider having an online reference point that can be accessed when problems occur. "We are making more and more information available so there is a degree of self-service. People can look up known problems and find hints and tips on the Internet rather than having to ring up support. Also, if you're working out of hours, very often IT support will not be in the office."

Meanwhile, says Cordy, support staff will need an increasingly diverse set of skills, both technical and inter-personal. "Their roles will change as they support people remotely. They need skills that don't involve face-to-face contact because they might be talking through problems over the phone."

Problem solving over the telephone is different to sitting down in front of a machine and working out what the problem is through trial and error. That said, a lot of companies are opting for remote diagnostic facilities. These often cut costs and time spent solving a problem. The advantages of using these technologies to serve a mobile workforce are obvious.

Geoff Brown, managing director at Brown's Operating System Services, says standardisation of technical equipment makes it easier for IT departments to identify problems and carry out maintenance, thus lessening the demands on the support desk. "The main answer to the IT support issue that organisations use is standardisation for a particular work group. If everyone is allowed to do their own thing it becomes difficult." Standardisation also tends to reduce overall costs.

However, Patterson says the first consideration has to be the user's needs. "The danger of standardisation is that it doesn't always fit everyone's needs. Some people want PDAs, others want PCs - they need the device that best fits the job. It's important for the individual to choose what's best for them to access. How can you have infrastructure of the technology so that everything is standardised? You can standardise on how you get access to people from the application point of view. Integration is key to getting around standardisation problems."

Culture: Finally, don't forget the culture change remote workers experience. Employees who are new to teleworking tend to go through a transition period while they get used to this way of life. One of the things that they fear most is isolation, losing touch with their colleagues and not being up-to-date on any changes in their company. This is why many companies set up dedicated community spots on their intranet. Most importantly of all, some even have an informal gossip room so that remote workers know what everyone is up to.

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