Struggling to Support Remote Workers? It's Only Going to Get Worse

Your IT department will soon need to support more remote workers than ever before. Both technology changes -- such as video adoption -- and cultural issues -- such as user expectation -- will require that your company embrace telecommuting. Doesn't that just cheer up your day?

Look inside your briefcase. In addition to your laptop computer, you probably also have a smartphone, a digital camera, a thumb drive, an iPod and at least one special-purpose gizmo for personal or business use.

Your IT department has to support all of those devices, doesn't it?

The need to integrate existing IT infrastructure with the end-user and consumer technology adopted by remote workers is a far cry from the absolute control that IT departments long had over the office desktop computers. But new trends imply that the challenge is just beginning.

That's the picture painted by Jay Pultz, a Gartner analyst and vice president, speaking at the Gartner Emerging Trends symposium in Las Vegas. In a session called "The Remote Worker: An Instruction Manual," he said technical and sociological trends require that CIOs learn to manage the remote workers in their organizations, and learn what to change to cope with them.

Getting a Handle on Who's Working Remotely

The first step is simply learning how many remote workers your company has, and how much it costs to support them. According to Pultz, Gartner last fall did an extensive survey of 260 enterprises, in which it learned that 90 percent of enterprises worldwide have remote workers. But 25 percent of the organizations don't know exactly who those remote workers are or what "remote" looks like, he said. Were they executives, salespeople, engineering? Were they teleworking full time or only a few days a week? The IT departments often had no idea; they just provided the same service to everyone.

In many IT shops, end-user desktops are predictable; "We know what [traditional in-house end users] have because we [IT] gave it to them," said Pultz. But not every remote worker is the same. They use whatever technology they have, with a wide range of tools and functions —a range that is growing rapidly—and IT support is no longer only about networking. "Don't think of them as only one category of user," Pultz cautioned.

In answer to IT departments' need to grapple with these staff needs, Gartner put together a model detailing the different classes of users and their work styles. There are four ways for a remote worker to work: a fixed location at the employee's home, employees working at different office campuses, staff working at a client site, and the true nomad or "road warrior." The needs of these people vary, too, from someone who needs only alerts (such as a price change being sent to a sales force), to staff who work primarily with forms (like taking orders or providing customer service), to knowledge workers and power users. One size of IT support and infrastructure does not fit all, Pultz explained.

Knowing the Changing Reasons for Remote Workers

Also important: attitudes surrounding remote work are changing. Until recently, telework was justified on the grounds of efficiency and productivity—a way to maximize accessibility and rein in costs. From here on, however, expect remote working to be viewed as an issue of individualization, with an emphasis on increasing staff effectiveness. The worker today is thinking, "How can I maximize my comfort, allowing me to get on with the job?"

Plus, younger staff expect mobility and flexibility—where once the ability to work remotely was a real privilege given under extraordinary circumstances, according to Pultz. They also blend their home life with their work life, so there's no longer a separate "work computer" and "home computer" in their home offices.

For more on Gen Y expectations, see Management Techniques for Bringing Out the Best in Generation Y

Gartner defined six levels of organizational telework maturity on which each company can judge itself. (You don't necessarily have to aim for the "top" level; the right one is the one that makes sense for your company, he said.) At the bottom, Level 0, there's no official telework policy, and no monitoring or tools. At Level 5, more than 75 percent are working remotely, the IT policies extend to partners, and tools are available to all employees.

Providing Services and Tools for Teleworkers

New strategies for dealing with remote workers start by identifying the needs of each type of user. What do they need in terms of access, security, support and monitoring? IT departments are used to thinking about access and connectivity, such as network options and quality of service. They're probably also aware that remote workers can be the weak link in any enterprise security system. But few have thought about the changing support needs of people who may work 24/7. Concierge-style, individualized services become important, said Pultz, and contextual help is more than technical (such as "Where's the nearest WiFi point in this city? ").

Access is going to become an even bigger problem, said Pultz. "Video is going to have an incredible impact on teleworking," he said. This isn't March Madness putting extra stress on your network. "It's largely legit traffic," Pultz said, citing e-learning and webcasts as easy examples. And that video traffic will stress what remote workers can do over DSL, he added.

There are plenty of mobile workforce tools, ranging from network access tools to application delivery controllers. These are worth investigating, he said.

Looking at the Costs of Remote Workers

CIOs may find it worthwhile to reduce costs by buying converged remote communication solutions, too. Buying support and security software on a piecemeal basis for 1,000 remote workers can cost about $800 per user. Buying a converged remote communication solution can reduce that amount to $250 per user—assuming that a single vendor's solution really supplies everything you need.

Poor financial tracking of remote worker support is common. Right now, you may have no way to quantify the cost of supporting remote workers, much less comparing it to what it costs to have an employee in the office. (Gartner's numbers say the average cost to support remote workers is $307 per month above in-house workers—and Pultz didn't mention the savings from the boss not bringing donuts into the office. Even though some remote workers like donuts as much as their in-office counterparts.)

One problem with acquiring these remote communications solutions is that it shifts budgets in ways that may not be comfortable to IT departments. It's hard to get a handle on the total cost of the remote worker, since the dollars are spread across so many places. Some is paid for by a business unit; another portion of the money outlaid appears on the employee's monthly expense report; still another section is carried by IT. So, if a CIO looks into using remote policy services from an independent service provider, such as iPass, Fibrelink or Megapath, combining several types of expenses into one, the budget shift may land in your IT department's lap—even if it's less than the company was paying before.

And that's assuming that the company is picking up all the expenses. According to Gartner's research, 59 percent of employers pay the full costs for their remote workers, and 13 percent of employers reimburse workers for their telecommuting expenses. Pultz recommended that IT shops do their best to get a cost picture. That may mean adding new categories to expense reports, so that hotel broadband is identified as a telework expense and not just travel.

Go through the segmentation of remote workers to learn what each category of user really needs, he suggested; then look through the policies in place and see where to make changes. No matter how you go about it, he said, "Invest more substantially and strategically in remote working. "

Senior Online Editor Esther Schindler works remotely from her home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Without any donuts whatsoever.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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