Can Telecommuting Prove It Is Safe at Home?

Carl Weinschenk

For telework proponents, there certainly is good news in CDW Corporation's latest survey. For instance, it says that 14 percent of private sector employees telecommute and 17 percent of federal folks work at home. Seventy-six percent of private companies offer remote work support -- an increase of 27 percentage points from last year -- and 56 percent of federal agencies do as well.


Security remains the top concern of 42 percent of federal and 27 percent of private IT pros. Over 80 percent of the professionals in both groups said that they rate their security systems and procedures as effective. More than half in each group -- 56 percent of federal and 74 percent of private -- authenticate machines and people separately. Almost 70 percent of employers provide the computers and equipment that telecommuters use.


This is all good. The question, however, is whether it is enough.


For a while, it was axiomatic that telecommuting was the wave of the future. Then the common wisdom shifted, and telework became a disappointment. The reality is that telecommuting can find a way through almost all the doubts and obstacles that skeptics throw in its way. People will goof off if they work at home? It's possible to compare productivity and incentivize people to work at the appropriate level. (Indeed, in this economy, the incentive should be that they keep their job.) Telecommuting hurts team building and cooperative projects? New software alleviates a lot of the problems of a dispersed work force.


The only immovable barrier, it seems, will be security, simply because what is at stake in that discussion is so much greater: A worker not generating as much work at home as at the office or who feels isolated is too bad. The loss of sensitive data because a home computer is poorly protected is a potential crisis. It is important to note that the CDW study focuses on the attitudes of IT professionals. Of course, it is possible for them to say that they feel the organization is adequately protected. The key, however, is how the CEO and CFO feel.


This Wall Street Journal story seems to want to have it both ways. While essentially saying that telecommuting is alive and well, it cites repeated instances of companies -- some of which are vocal telework proponents -- that are cutting back. The federal government, the story says, reduced teleworkers by 7.3 percent between 2005 and 2006. A deputy assistant director of the Interior Department, which was a leader in the cutbacks, said some managers were nervous about hacking on home wireless networks and stolen laptops.


Nonetheless, the feds have always been ahead in advocating telework. This 40-plus page document on how to secure a network was released by The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) late last year. The executive summary says securing a telework PC involves installing the right software and making sure it is kept current, restricting access, disabling unnecessary features, using content filtering, following the organization's requirements and recommendations, and changing passwords regularly.


The provenance of this piece is uncertain, and it is a bit frightening. It's worth a look, however, as an example of an approach that can lead to trouble. The writer starts by extolling the virtues of telecommuting. So far, so good. She then points to the dangers of family members and others using work-related machines. Good point. The next element, however, is where there is a problem: She says the solution is a user-friendly e-mail security program. That's true, of course, but securing e-mail is only a small portion of what has to be done to confront the tricky problem of outsiders using corporate machines. The writer should have addressed the issue head on.


Telecommuting is a great tool, a great way to recruit workers, and a great prize for work well done. It will not reach the heights predicted for it, however, until it tackles real and perceived security issues -- if indeed it can at all.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 2, 2008 1:46 PM Brian Honan Brian Honan  says:
CarlHere in Ireland and indeed Europe you also have to ensure that teleworkers comply with privacy regulations for data not just on their PCs but other confidential information that you may have on paper or other formats. We also have to ensure that employees are provided with a safe working place that comply with health and safety workplace regulations.Finally another item to consider is companies retaining the right to audit or monitor the teleworker's PC and/or working environment. If the PC is a work PC then fine but if a personal PC then there is a lot of issues to consider. Even if you supply a work PC then you also have to ensure that you retain right of access to the employee's property in the event you need to take possession of company assets.So while teleworking offers many advanatages it should be thought through thoroughly beforehand.Brian Reply

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