by Mark Gibbs

How to Make Telework Work

Dec 13, 2011 4 mins
Consumer Electronics IT Leadership

Teleworking, or telecommuting, has the potential to save money and the environment, but it's still underused. blogger Mark Gibbs discusses what IT needs to do to make teleworking work.

A few years ago, “teleworking,” a.k.a., “telecommuting” was set to save us all.

We’d seen the price of gas go through the roof, and in most major urban areas traffic congestion was getting worse by the week. Pundits everywhere proclaimed that teleworking would not only save money, it would save the environment.

So, why is it that according to a June 2011 report, “The State of Telework in the U.S.” published by the Telework Research Network “Fifty million U.S. employees who want to work from home hold jobs that are telework compatible though only 2.9 million consider home their primary place of work (2.3% of the workforce)”?

The report also points out that:

  • * The existing 2.9 million US telecommuters save 390 million gallons of gas and prevent the release of 3.6 million tons of greenhouse gases yearly.
  • * If those with compatible jobs worked at home 2.4 days a week (the national average of those who do), the reduction in greenhouse gases (51 million tons) would be equivalent of taking the entire New York workforce off the roads.
  • * The national savings would total over $900 billion a year; enough to reduce our Persian Gulf oil imports by 46%.

Part of the problem is that many organizations’ IT infrastructures aren’t set up to make it easy to telework. To make teleworking a plausible organizational strategy, IT needs to be proactive.

Here’s a list of top-level things IT can do help make telework programs successful:

Remote library access. Staff will need access to organizational materials ranging from Word documents and PowerPoint presentations to CAD drawings and databases. In most environments, these documents will need serious access control and, where editing is allowed, check-in/check-out functionality.

Better email. While most organizations allow staff to access corporate email, the range of email clients found in any large collection of users with home PCs, tablets, and smartphones can lead to problems, for example, one type of client not being able to handle attachments from another type of client. While there’s nothing, per se, wrong with a user population with a mixture of email clients it is vital that they all play nicely and that sensitive corporate messaging is handled appropriately. If IT doesn’t know what email clients staff members use and that they are correctly configured it is pretty much guaranteed that something will go wrong. And if that something goes bad when someone is trying to meet a deadline you can be sure corporate politics will become serious.

Videoconferencing facilities. If staff are going to be working in groups then simple telephone conferences and email may not be enough for effective collaboration. People may also need to see each other, display what’s on their computer desktops, run through presentations, and so on. Making sure that everyone who needs to can do these things from their remote locations ensures that workgroups can be effective.

Instrumented telework infrastructure. All of the services and facilities that support remote workers need to be instrumented so that usage patterns, error conditions, error rates, and misuse are recorded. Without this kind of oversight there’s a real danger of wasting money on over-provisioned services as well as wasting staff time when they have to use slow, under-provisioned services.

Telework infrastructure testing. It’s one thing to provide telework facilities and quite another to know that they actually work as intended. And that’s not just one time testing, it’s an ongoing series of tests to ensure that nothing gets broken. While instrumentation will help you spot problems as they arise, planned testing will catch many problems that aren’t obvious from statistics and errors reports, particularly those that concern usability.

Education. In large organizations, some staffers are bound to have less refined computer skills than others. If you are to have any hope of accelerating your organization’s telework program, you need to make sure that all staff to know how to effectively use every telework tool they’re going to need. Educating users on how to best use telecommuting tools is one way to ensure effective telework habits.

So, where is your IT organization at in making it easy for your staff to telework?