Harness the best technologies for telecommuting

Telecommuting has grown tremendously over the past 10 years, thanks in part to a number of technological advances. Jason Hiner examines some of the technologies that make working remotely more viable than ever.

The advances in networking, telecommunications, and computing technologies in the past decade have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for telecommuting workers. The Internet, remote access communications, mobile computing, and new small office/home office technologies head the list of advances that can now greatly benefit telecommuters.

Here’s a look at both current and coming technologies that are revolutionizing the telecommuting experience and allowing more and more employees to do at least part of their work from home offices or remote small offices.

The Internet
Clearly, no technology has empowered telecommuters more than the Internet. We now have the World Wide Web as an unlimited information resource, e-mail as a communication medium, and the Internet itself as a remote access infrastructure. It is difficult to imagine as many employees moving their work from a traditional office setting to small and home offices without the tools and the communications infrastructure the Internet provides. According to a Gartner forecast, 54 million U.S. employees will participate in some form of telecommuting by 2002.

The World Wide Web also holds great potential for the future of telecommuting. As application service providers mature and develop in the coming years, many line-of-business applications will be provided over the Internet. Employees will be able to access these applications from a Web browser without a remote access connection to the office. In addition, when the wireless Web takes off with the help of Web pages customized for cell phone browsers, mobile workers will find it easier than ever to access mission-critical business information.

One of the biggest catalysts for telecommuting in the next few years will be broadband Internet. When cable, DSL, and satellite Internet access become more affordable and more widely available, telecommuters will be able to use these services for fast, always-on Internet connections and remote access (see the following section). It will become increasingly difficult to distinguish a difference in performance between working at the office and working remotely.

Remote access
Whether telecommuters connect to the office via the Internet or through traditional dial-up remote access, they should have nearly the same user experience as those sitting at desks in the office. In the past decade, network operating systems have made it much easier for remote workers to connect to the company network and access e-mail, line-of-business applications, and other important information.

However, as more employees have begun to use remote access, many IT managers have seen their servers and modem pools get bogged down and result in busy signals and poor performance for dial-up users. To resolve this problem, some have implemented virtual private networking (VPN). With VPN, the main office sets up a connection to the Internet (usually broadband) and a VPN server with a public IP address. Users connect to their ISP and then to the company VPN server and get a connection to the company network that looks and feels like traditional dial-up. Security is managed through the VPN’s encryption and encapsulation protocols.

VPN is making a serious move to displace dial-up as the standard in remote access, and it will really take off when broadband Internet becomes more widespread. While a VPN client connection using dial-up access to an ISP provides a similar user experience to traditional dial-up access, a VPN client that connects over broadband Internet delivers a user experience that is truly comparable to sitting at a desk in the office.

Currently, the dark horse in remote access for small office/home office workers is an older technology that has become available on a fairly wide scale—ISDN. This technology is especially appealing in areas that do not yet have DSL or cable Internet. ISDN is a digital line that uses two “B” channels with speeds of up to 64K, each with its own phone number. There is also a “D” channel with a speed of 16K that is used only for error correction.

The benefit of ISDN is that you can use both channels to make a 128K connection to the Internet while plugging a phone into one of the channels on the router and a fax into the other channel. You can set up your ISDN service and your router so that incoming and outgoing calls on the phone or fax will automatically drop your Internet connection down to one channel (or disconnect both channels if you are on both lines).

With ISDN, you don’t have to purchase separate phone, fax, and data lines for a home office or remote small office. Instead, you can purchase one ISDN line and get much faster data performance while sharing the same line with your “dedicated” phone and fax numbers. Also, ISDN usually costs less than purchasing two standard phone lines.

Mobile computing
With the advanced functionality and plummeting cost of laptop computers, many remote workers now have portable machines with the same power and capabilities as their desktop computers at the office. Docking stations have also allowed workers with laptops to have a desktop experience in their office at home and/or at corporate headquarters while carrying their data with them wherever they go.

For example, a sales manager with a laptop has a desk at his company’s main office in New York City. At that desk, he has a docking station with a full-size monitor, mouse, and keyboard. He has a similar setup at his home office in Atlanta, since he’s responsible for the southeast region. In between docking stations, he can work on the laptop itself when he’s at an airport or hotel. This kind of efficiency and flexibility was impossible before the advent of laptops.

For professions that rely heavily on appointments and personal contacts, personal digital assistants such as the Palm Pilot have nearly become standard tools of the trade. In some cases, workers have been able to carry PDAs instead of laptops, since they can now be used for checking e-mail as well as for storing documents, contacts, appointments, and to-do lists. PDAs can also sync up with desktop software such as Microsoft Outlook and with multiple computers. For some professionals, a phone and a PDA are practically all they need to do the majority of their work.

Cellular phones have also served to greatly mobilize the workforce. The competition among vendors, the widespread roaming ability, the vast improvement in clarity, and the tumbling prices have made cell phones a real competitor to traditional lines in many cases. For telecommuters, the nice thing about using a cell phone is that they can have one phone number to give out to business contacts and they can receive calls at that number no matter which office they work out of on a given day.

SOHO technology
Like other technologies, the price of office machines, such as paper shredders, copiers, and fax machines, has become much more reasonable in the past decade. Many manufactures have even developed a specific line of small office/home office products (the “SOHO” line) that scale down certain features and make the machines very affordable. As a result, the cost of setting up a home office or remote small office has decreased considerably. The rise of office supply superstores, such as Office Depot and Staples, has also made getting office supplies a much easier and less expensive endeavor for remote workers.

One of the most helpful developments in SOHO technologies has been the multifunction machine, which combines a fax, copier, computer scanner, and computer printer. Quality companies such as Xerox, Brother, and Hewlett-Packard are offering some multifunction machines that average around $400.00.

Bringing it all together
The technologies that users need to set up a home office or remote small office will depend a great deal on their profession and job description. The great thing is that the recent technology advances have made telecommuting possible for many additional types of jobs. Over the next decade, look for new technologies to extend telecommuting to many other professions and sectors of the economy.
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