Networking

The challenges of supporting a client with telecommuters

Employees who work from home have specialized needs. Susan Harkins offers tips on how you can help your clients determine and meet those needs and protect yourself in the process.

 Remote employees are on the rise, and if you're not supporting them now, you might face the challenge soon. The first thing to understand is that there are two types of remote workers: telecommuters and teleworkers.

  • Telecommuters work at a remote site, usually their home.
  • Teleworkers have access to data from home via remote access. They work onsite and at home.

Supporting the IT needs of either or both type of worker is tough. Clients are put at risk when their networks extend into employees' homes. Another challenge is that you're in a position to recommend and implement the technologies telecommuters need, but you generally aren't in a position to control abuse or enforce standards. You'll have to find a balance between your clients' needs and your participation in the process.

Consider telecommuters' specialized needs

Policies Your clients will need strict and clear policies about what their telecommuters can and cannot do. These policies should address everything from inappropriate access to company data to personal e-mail and surfing. It's fine to allow telecommuters to use systems for personal use, as long as they're well-educated and mature.

Keep in mind that no blanket policy is going to cover all of your clients or even all telecommuters within the same organization. Help each client define their challenges and their goals for their telecommuting employees.

Standardization Your best support stance is to help clients standardize their telecommuting needs. You can satisfy this early process by doing the following:

Once the needs and resources are clear, you can make recommendations within existing standards and help your client write new ones for new areas.  

Connections Telecommuters need the fastest and most stable connection possible. Unfortunately, don't expect to standardize this area; not everyone will have access to fast broadband or DSL. If dial-up seems to be the only option, check into satellite connections. Those connections are unpredictable, so an emergency dial-up connection might be in order for those times when the satellite connection goes down.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), while perhaps the best way for telecommuters to connect, are still vulnerable. Yes, they provide a point-to-point connection, but telecommuter systems still need firewalls and antivirus software. If telecommuters are working with sensitive or confidential data, suggest a Transport Layer Security (used to be Secure Sockets Layer) solution to encrypt data.

A reliable wireless option is a good idea, but it opens a new can of security worms. If your client wants this flexibility, protect yourself. If you're responsible for supporting these devices, telecommuters must report all new devices to you. If they fail to do so, make it clear that you won't support them or be responsible for any damage. That is a bit unrealistic — it's like asking neighborhood parents to sign a release form before letting their children climb into your pool — but try to sound convincing. Otherwise, you could find yourself supporting any number of PDAs, smart phones, and so on, leaving you open to all kinds of headaches. Without a clear policy in place, your hourly rate will plummet (if you have a fixed fee agreement). In fact, you might refuse to support these devices at all. Many consultants and IT departments don't.

Additional equipment You'll have to recommend and support a variety of equipment beyond the PC and connections. Some telecommuters will require dedicated phone service or perhaps Voice over IP (VoIP) and videoconferencing.

You might consider deploying wideband and super wideband audio technology for telecommuters who spend a lot of time on the phone. A mobile phone is preferable for telecommuters who want to move around the house while working. Help your client decide if mobile technology is a necessity for some telecommuters.

Teleconferencing is an older technology, and it has its problems. Video conferencing is superior because telecommuters can actually participate rather than just listen. In short, telecommuters can take an active role in meetings.

Audio and video technologies are a huge undertaking and require specialization. If you don't have the expertise, you might consider contracting that business to an expert.

In-house contact You aren't obligated to make judgment decisions or jump through hoops to satisfy the needs of telecommuters. Recommend that telecommuters communicate their changing needs with someone in-house rather than directly with you. Let the client decide whether telecommuters need additional hardware, software, or access options. You can always help them evaluate realistic needs and recommend solutions. Training Training is critical because, despite your best efforts, some telecommuters will be tempted to ignore policy. A well-trained and informed telecommuter is your best defense against security breaches and technical problems.

Clarify your responsibilities

Your clients will expect you to recommend and implement standards and policies for supporting their telecommuters. After implementation, you'll support the existing program and help clients determine and adapt to changing needs. Be sure to protect yourself in the process by making your responsibilities clear.

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About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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