What gadgets, gizmos and gremlins do employees need to worry about to work remotely? Matt Henkes investigates.
With over 41 million employees globally working out of the office for at least one day a week, the technological requirements of the modern mobile workforce can have IT managers wringing their hands. It's a jungle out there, so what do you need to know to equip your troops for work in the big wide world?
Research from the TUC suggests around 3.5m UK employees currently work from home, an increase of 600,000 since 1997. A recent report from analysts Gartner also confirmed that remote working is on the increase worldwide.
1. Connect to a legitimate access point
2. Encrypt sensitive data
3. Use a virtual private network (VPN)
4. Use a personal firewall
5. Use anti-virus software
6. Update your operating system regularly
7. Be aware of people around you
8. Use web-based email with secure http
9. Turn off file sharing
10. Password protect your computer and important files
However, it also highlighted that many firms are failing to make formal plans for creating and maintaining virtual offices, opting instead to implement remote capability on an ad hoc basis. Yet, lack of a proper plan or business case can leave your remote aspirations floundering, with little support from staff or management.
There are various remote working terms. They all mean slightly different things and require differing technology to work efficiently. Let’s take a moment to work out exactly what we’re talking about. Remote workers spend the majority of their time out of the office, usually sales people or reps that spend a lot of time on the road. Mobile workers are those that have a desk in the office but occasionally work from home.
Home workers will, as the name suggests, work entirely from home, only journeying to the office for occasional meetings or staff parties. Ideally, you want these people to experience exactly the same level of communication and IT capabilities as they would enjoy in the office, i.e. email, file access, applications and so on.
Guard against mischief
Secure access is the name of the game. Matt Cantwell is the head of product portfolio at business telecommunications specialist Thus. He says the majority of home workers will use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access their company’s computer system.
There are two types of VPN: IPsec and SSL, which both essentially do the same thing by providing a secure tunnel across the internet between the home computer and the company’s system. SSL (secure sockets layer) is the simpler of the two as it doesn’t require any additional software to be uploaded onto the home machine.
However, by using private access broadband (PAB), it’s possible to link a home worker’s computer to the company network in exactly the same way as if they were in the building. “It still uses a broadband connection,” explains Campwell. “The difference is that rather than the traffic going out onto the internet before it goes back into the office, it never touches the internet. It goes over a private network.”
There are numerous benefits to this, he says, mainly to do with control. The PAB connection allows you to control the quality of service more closely than a VPN, making voice-over-internet and video conferencing options much more viable. And because employees access the internet through the firm’s network gateway, you can monitor the content they’re viewing, and ensure their machine is protected by the company firewalls.
But there’s also the cost of voice calls to be considered. You could issue home workers with mobile phones without any logistical difficulties, though this is unlikely to win you the undying love of the firm’s finance controller. You could also install a permanent landline that connects to the firm’s switchboard.
A number of firms are now using the internet to connect their people by telephone. The advantage of this is that it can be quite cheap. It’s also great for looking as if you’re in the office as the number follows your computer, not your location. A colleague or client could dial you at home or in the office using the same number.
It can also work out cheaper for regular calls, or free if you’re calling people who are on your network. It can be integrated into video conferencing, as well. So if you’ve got lots of remote workers, it’s free for them to call each other.
Out and about
Ian Mcgurk, Plan Net
Remote workers are a whole different kettle of fish. The most popular gadget these days appears to be the Blackberry which, for those who have been living underground for the past few years, is a handheld computer/mobile phone that allows the owner to access email and the internet from almost anywhere. “They present great productivity benefits,” says Cantwell. “If you’re out travelling a lot, it is probably the best thing.”
There’s also a way for your travelling employees to access the internet through the mobile phone network using a 3G data card. While the speeds are not quite up to the level you would expect from a conventional broadband connection, they’re not far off. The best coverage is around central London and most airports, but the quality of service is improving all the time.
The only drawback with these is the cost. Most network providers will charge you for the amount of data transfer, so if you’re using it a lot it can get quite expensive. But if you’ve got sales people out on the road, the value of allowing them another few hours of productivity a week may balance the scales.
With all this information flying around the ether, though, how can you be sure that people aren’t up to mischief with your systems? Ian Mcgurk, head of security consulting at IT firm Plan Net, points to technology out there that enables you to lock down your system in any one of a number of ways; from one-time passwords, intrusion detection and prevention systems, to biometric readers.
“There’s a wealth of different products out there,” he adds. “Just knowing what to buy and what’s going to give you the greatest value is, for many IT managers, probably one of the biggest headaches.”
However technology is less of a worry than people. You can invest in the most advanced authentication software but if someone is tricked into disclosing their password then it’s mostly useless. “There needs to be some level of education about what sort of threats are out there,” says Mcgurk. “It’s easy to do, doesn’t cost much and can be a very effective way of controlling things.”