Knowing that they planned to work at home, employees would back up the needed documents on a thumb drive and take it with them. Demaree became far more comfortable with the idea of telecommuting after he enlisted a technology solutions provider to set up servers with remote network access at the company's offices in metro Washington, D.C., and Cary, N.C.
"Until you have the right technology in place, telecommuting isn't easy," says Demaree.
The right technology can make the difference between a successful telecommuting initiative and an unsuccessful one, says Victor Liu, president of Link High Technologies, a New Jersey provider of managed IT solutions and network services.
Beyond a VPN for security, Liu says a Citrix server or terminal server is a must for quick connection speeds. "Otherwise it's pretty painful," he says.
He also recommends outfitting each telecommuting employee with a dedicated PC or laptop to be used exclusively for work, as his company has done. This allows the employer to securely lock down the computer and control the environment. "Everyone I know of who's said, 'Here's a client, put it on your home PC,' it's gone badly," Liu says.
One of Link High's clients found that many telecommuting employees could not connect to the corporate network using their home PCs, says Liu. When his technicians took control of the PCs via remote administration features, they found such issues as an employee with overly stringent security settings and another worker who had blocked needed ports in a wireless router. Though Link High worked through all of the issues, "there's a lot of frustration" for remote users when they cannot connect, he says.
The CareGroup Health System, a Massachusetts-based health care system with more than 13,000 employees, provides its remote workers with a mobile thin client they can take home and use to connect to the corporate network. "The home office is an extension of the corporate network. A corporation's security is as a strong as its weakest link," says CIO John Halamka. "A thin client provides a secure, easy-to-manage, low-cost extension of the corporate networking into the home."
Telecommuting critics, and many proponents, agree that communication and collaboration can suffer even when employees use e-mail and instant messaging to stay in touch. That's why Web conferencing services like GoToMeeting are a good idea, says Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, an online service that helps people find jobs that offer telecommuting. The company's employees in Colorado, California and New York convene for weekly virtual meetings using GoToMeeting.
"It's as if you are standing behind someone's computer looking over their shoulder," says Fell. "It's great to have those visual cues, so you don't have to describe everything verbally. It's especially helpful if a creative process is involved."
Liu says Link High also uses GoToMeeting at least twice a week and employees gather in a central location for face-to-face meetings at least once a month. SharePoint is also a valuable collaboration tool, he says, largely because a clear revision history is created when employees alter common documents.
Companies like IBM also try to gather employees periodically for physical meetings, says Jay Mulki, a marketing professor at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration, who has published research on telecommuting and its impacts on the workforce. More than half of his research sample for a new study to be published soon came from IBM.
In addition to occasional face-to-face meetings, says Mulki, IBM encourages employees to gather in virtual environments like Second Life, where they can participate in online activities that mimic those in a real-world office, such as gift exchanges.
Citing the holographic technology CNN used during the recent U.S. presidential elections to make it seem as if anchors and other personalities were virtually transported to distant locales, Mulki says he thinks that kind of technology may eventually become mainstream among remote workers.
"When you communicate with someone remotely, you miss their verbal cues and facial expressions. Videoconferencing is one way around that, but these kinds of technologies could go well beyond videoconferencing," says Mulki. "If you could communicate in a three-dimensional way, then you'd close that gap."