The Olympics could provide a tipping point for remote working, but CIOs have to deal with some awkward issues to make it work
Remote working is set for a high profile test in the UK in August, when it is expected that many businesses around London will use it, some for the first time, in an effort to overcome the disruption caused by the Olympic Games.
The government has joined the Games organising committee, in its Preparing Your Business for the Games document, in encouraging organisations to think seriously about allowing staff to work from home.
This could provide a tipping point in which remote and home working becomes embedded within the culture of many organisations.
Its advantages are now widely known:
– It can cut the time and cost of travel for staff;
– Provide them with a better work/life balance and sense of autonomy;
– Help the environment by reducing the number of people driving to work;
– Help organisations to cut back on office space, which can provide significant savings.
In addition, the technology is now sufficiently robust to make it a viable option, with most people having access to broadband connections and the widespread use of extranets, virtual private networks and, to a growing extent, cloud computing.
Most CIOs, even if they will not be under pressure from the Olympics, are looking at the possibilities for remote working within their organisations; but there are a number of issues to address if they go ahead.
Some are related to security.
It is important to minimise the amount of sensitive data that could be downloaded to home computers or mobile devices, which could be stolen or lost.
The data can be encrypted when transferred, but its presence on a device outside the office always adds to the risk.
This adds to the case for keeping data and applications within a virtual private network, or a cloud service, which staff can access from outside.
This is accompanied by the need for robust identity management to ensure that only the appropriate staff have access to networks.
While the simple user name and password approach will often be sufficient, there may be a need for extra information only known to an individual, and ensure that access is based on their role within an organisation.
Simple rules for staff can go a long way in preserving security. For example, they could be told it is only permissible to access a network through their home internet connections, which should be password protected, and not allowed to log on from a coffee bar or wi-fi in a public building.
Another possible approach is to issue staff with trusted client devices, that can be plugged into home computers to provide an encrypted environment through which they can connect to a network.
Another issue is the suitability of home computers. When most people buy a PC or laptop they’re concerned mainly with the entertainment functions, web access and the price.
A computer at the budget end of the market should be okay for basic office applications, but may struggle with more complex demands, particularly if it involves software for areas like graphic design.
There are also people who are still using computers with old versions of web browsers or outdated operating systems.
It’s fair for any CIO to impose minimum requirements on the PCs and laptops used for home working. It can also be useful in providing the right security settings but it raises the question of whether people should be expected to pay for a new machine if necessary.
Some organisations are ready to equip staff with laptops for work, but this comes at a cost that could offset the advantages.
Reliability is also important. At the employer’s end, an organisation should ensure it has a good service level agreement with its ISP, and the flexibility to switch to another if it’s dissatisfied.
Things are more awkward at the employee’s end, especially for people living in areas with a weak broadband infrastructure.
There could be a case for an organisation to meet some of the cost of upgrading an employee’s broadband connection.
There are advantages in cutting phone bills by making calls over the internet, and in making video calls possible but again this has to be set against the expected benefits.
Managing staff provides another challenge. Some thrive when working at home, others begin to feel isolated and demotivated, and a few will use it as an excuse to cut their hours.
Their managers need to be trained in how to handle these factors, which is not easy and organisations need to be consistent in complying with health and safety and insurance rules.
CIOs should cooperate with other departments such as HR, facilities and operations teams to ensure the relevant policies are followed.
There are some serious challenges here, but an organisation that can deal with them will find plenty of benefits in remote working.
David Clarke, MBE is chief executive of the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT