More and more employees are working from home or on the road, and the practice can benefit both the company and the telecommuter. However, it's important to recognize that connecting to the network off-site poses unique management and technical problems. To help you decide if telecommuting is right for your organization, I'll discuss some compelling reasons for and against implementing telecommuting in the workplace. I’ll also cover the importance of monitoring policy compliance and enforcing any security policies that you’ve established in relation to your telecommuters.
Telecommuting security policies
Check out this article on security policy considerations for multiuser telecommuting environments if you are trying to define your own telecommuting policy for your organization.
The benefits of telecommuting
Telecommuting, properly implemented, can benefit everyone involved. For example:
- Telecommuting benefits companies: The most obvious benefit to the company is cost savings. Office space doesn’t come cheap, especially in major urban areas. According to the 2001/2002 Telework America survey, reported on the International Telework Association & Council (ITAC) Web site, AT&T saves $25 million per year in the cost of office space alone because of telework. Perhaps more surprisingly, the same source says that AT&T saves $65 million annually from the increased productivity of teleworkers. The time savings inherent in telecommuting (less time lost to travel, getting ready to go to work, and office socializing and distractions) lead to more efficiency. Telecommuting is part of a decentralized business model in which companies are no longer tied to a single location. As enterprises grow and the economy becomes more global, this model becomes more effective and desirable; in fact, decentralization may become necessary for a business to survive and thrive. Telecommuting programs also fit into the growing trend for corporations to offer more job flexibility (incorporating options such as flextime and job sharing) to attract and retain the best workers.
- Telecommuting benefits employees: The ability to work some or all of the time from home benefits employees in many ways. Again, cost savings is a big consideration, although many of the costs of commuting to work everyday are hidden and may not be realized at first glance. Savings in the cost of gasoline and parking, or public transportation, are obvious. Telecommuting employees also typically spend less on food (eating lunch at home instead of at expensive restaurants), clothing (working in more casual clothes that might not be appropriate at the office), and incidentals. More important to many employees is the flexibility to juggle job duties and personal tasks more effectively and, in many cases, to work during the hours that best suit their own biological clocks, instead of during a prescribed 9-to-5 format.
- Telecommuting benefits society: While the advantages of telecommuting for both employers and employees are fairly obvious, it is more difficult to assess the impact of telecommuting on society in general. Some may argue that it creates isolation and social withdrawal, but studies don’t seem to support that contention. On the other hand, more telecommuting means less traffic congestion (and less pollution from vehicles), and the ability of employees to work literally from anywhere in the world may help cut down on urban sprawl and overpopulation in urban areas.
The downside of telecommuting
Despite all these advantages, telecommuting can also pose some unique problems for both employers and employees:
- An initial investment in equipment is required.
- Employers have less control over employees’ time.
- Productivity may be more difficult to measure.
- Technology issues may create problems when employees don’t have access to on-site IT personnel.
- Telecommuting can limit promotional opportunities.
- Telecommuting is not for everyone—or every job.
- Security can be a thorn in the telecommuter’s side.
Importance of proper policy implementation
Now that I’ve covered some of the pros and cons of telecommuting, it should be apparent that creating sound telecommuting policy guidelines for your users is vital for telecommuting to work. However, this is only the first step. Those policies must be implemented properly in order to accomplish their purpose. Proper implementation has several facets.
Disseminating policies and educating users
It's important to disseminate the policies to all users who will be telecommuting. This includes those who may work from home only occasionally or who connect remotely only while traveling on business. It isn’t enough to see that employees receive a copy of the policy. They should also be given an opportunity to ask questions, and they should be required to sign a statement verifying that they received the policy and agree to read and abide by it.
Ideally, a short course for new telecommuters should be provided, and ongoing education should be a priority to ensure that all users are aware of changes in the policy. The policy (and updates) should be available on an intranet site or downloadable from a company FTP site.
Monitoring for compliance and policy enforcement
How closely you monitor employees’ activities to determine whether they are complying with the policy depends on the company’s overall philosophies and a cost-benefit analysis. The easiest way to ensure compliance is to use software restrictions to enforce policy. For example, you can configure settings so that if a user tries to set a password that doesn’t conform to the length or complexity policy, it won’t be accepted by the system. Many elements of your policy can be enforced this way.
The policy itself should clearly state what constitutes violation and what the consequences of violation can be. Possible disciplinary actions should be spelled out for each policy issue, and the maximum penalty (for example, termination of employment) should be stated. The policy should also state that criminal prosecution or civil lawsuits may be initiated if the violation constitutes an illegal act.
Update policies for off-site access
The number of company employees working all or some of the time from home or on the road has grown steadily over the past decade. This sharp increase began in the early 90s, and the annual Telework America surveys sponsored by AT&T have shown a steady rise.
Because of this growth and the fact that technology changes so rapidly, new security issues arise when a telecommuting program is implemented. Just as hardware and software need to be updated regularly, so do your security policies. Updates should reflect changes in equipment and software, new products that become available, and changes in the company’s organizational structure and ways of doing business.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.