Putting productivity back on track

Have you ever battled into work purely because you need to check your business e-mail? Ever spent hours working on a document in...

Have you ever battled into work purely because you need to check your business e-mail? Ever spent hours working on a document in one office only to discover that it's an out of date version and someone has been working on a different version back at headquarters? Or maybe you're the IT manager who cops the flak when the technology disappoints.

Even without transport strikes to eat into the working day, business productivity is clearly suffering. E-mail and data transfer networks have created as much stress as they have alleviated.

But recent improvements in remote access technology now mean that an increasing number of businesses are enjoying competitive advantage from being able to offer their employees the opportunity to work more flexibly.

Being able to afford private networks that enable staff to access e-mail and company servers securely when away from the office has traditionally been the preserve of a select handful of the largest companies. The latest developments in Internet protocol on virtual private network (IP-VPN) technologies have made these benefits available to many more users.

Start-up costs are no longer prohibitively high, and suppliers have begun to demonstrate that they can deliver improved levels of reliability over the public Internet, and can create flexible networks that will expand or contract with the companies' needs.

New users and office connections can be added to an IP-VPN with the minimum of effort. This is invaluable for companies with large mobile workforces or for businesses looking to relocate. In fact, outsourcing the management of secure IP-VPNs has taken much of the hassle out of the process of setting up systems that allow employees to work more flexibly, and so more productively.

Remote access means much more than giving employees the perk of working from home one or two days a week. By helping employees to strike a better work-life balance between time spent working and commuting, IT managers can improve the productivity of their companies.

A TUC survey found that the average working week in the UK is 43.6 hours, compared to an average of 40.3 hours elsewhere in Europe. Little surprise then that the Work-Life Balance Trust estimates that British industry lost seven million working days - costing £5bn - to absenteeism and stress-related illness last year.

IP-VPNs are not a panacea for such ills, but increasingly companies that can offer staff the flexibility to work from a variety of locations will enjoy competitive advantage in terms of improved productivity and staff retention.

Recent research by Ovum, surveying IT directors in more than 800 mid-sized retail, media and financial services companies, indicated that one in three of the respondents' employees now require remote access to information held on company networks or servers.

The European Commission estimates that 10% of workers now work in more than one office or location, and that 39% of UK workers were teleworking or home working in 2001. According to IDC, the number of telecommuters and mobile workers in Western Europe is set to rise from 9.9 million in 2000 to 28.8 million by 2005.

It is clear that the need in the UK for employees to work remotely and flexibly is unlikely to diminish any more so than the problems of our crumbling transport infrastructure.

The IP services industry is maturing to deliver secure, reliable remote access technologies over the Internet. And the economics of this technology have shifted in favour of the majority of users rather than the richest few. So VPNs may finally be helping IT managers to accommodate this cultural shift.

Simon Harrison is managing director of Netscalibur UK

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