Virtual Work, Real IT Challenges

As virtual working becomes more prevalent, organizations need to ensure they have the right tools and processes to support remote employees.

Telework-webVirtual working has become the reality of business today. The number of virtual workers — including telecommuters and mobile personnel — continues to increase dramatically, as employees take advantage of ubiquitous connectivity to free themselves from the confines of headquarters.

In February 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced that the company would ban telework. In October 2013, HP decided to cut back telecommuting significantly. Nevertheless, a study released that same month by global human resources association WorldatWork found that 88 percent of companies offer some form of telework. Respondents said they believe workplace flexibility has a positive effective on employee engagement, motivation and satisfaction.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in April released its 2014 National Study of Employers, which found that flexibility over when and where full-time employees work is on the rise. This includes options such as occasional telecommuting, which saw an increase to 67 percent from 50 percent in 2008.

Virtual working offers numerous benefits, including increased job satisfaction for employees and access to a larger talent pool for employers — 89 percent of survey respondents rated the opportunity to work remotely as an important fringe benefit. Time savings, increased productivity and the opportunity to focus on work rather than becoming distracted by office politics emerged as the top three benefits workers appreciate in remote collaboration.

However, organizations need to ensure that remote employees have the IT tools they need, and that IT teams are ready to support them. Of course remote workers need a PC or laptop and a reliable Internet connection. But they will also need strong collaboration tools and trusted access to applications and data. In addition, the organization needs to ensure that it has enough bandwidth to support remote users, strong security and solid help desk support.

Supporting Collaboration

While Yahoo’s decision to ban telework was motivated in part by a sense that employees were shirking their duties, HP ostensibly wanted to increase “face time” within the organization. An internal company memo reportedly stated that the desire to “create a more connected workforce and drive greater collaboration and innovation” drove the new policy.

Without the right collaboration tools, virtual workers can feel isolated. A lack of direct communication remains the biggest obstacle to efficient remote collaboration, along with hindered data accessibility and poor visibility into colleagues’ activities. The right technology can overcome this roadblocks, however.

Unified communications solutions enable remote workers to use the company phone and conferencing systems as if they were in the office. Calls can be forwarded to the worker’s home or cell phone, or a PC-based softphone utilized to serve as the worker’s extension. Voice mail can be managed through an email client.

Video and web conferencing bring remote workers together for face-to-face communication and allow content sharing. Easy-to-use conferencing solutions support spontaneous, ad-hoc meetings among geographically dispersed teams, boosting productivity, cutting costs and enabling faster decisions.

The unified communications solution should also enable instant messaging for rapid communications with team members and other coworkers. Instant messaging is a subset of so-called “presence” technology, which enables workers to see who is available and the best way to communicate with them. Presence eliminates phone tag and enables remote workers to collaborate seamlessly — an instant message can become a phone call which can become a video conference with just a few clicks.

Enabling Access

Virtual workers also need access to applications and data. A virtual private network coupled with remote desktop protocol can enable remote workers to access their work PCs. However, this may not be the ideal solution for employees who only work remotely. A virtual desktop solution stores the user’s desktop on a server in the data center so that it can be accessed from a wide range of devices.

With application virtualization, applications are centralized in the data center where they can be accessed by various devices or streamed to a PC for offline use. Application virtualization makes it possible for remote workers to access legacy applications that aren’t web-based. Best of all, remote workers get the same performance as in-house users, even with bandwidth-intensive applications.

Of course, web- and cloud-based applications can be accessed by any employee with an Internet connection. Single sign-on solutions can make it easier for remote workers to access these resources and also improve security.

Whatever the solution, it must be easy to use and reliable. In addition, help desk personnel should be trained in supporting teleworkers. Remote employees should not have to troubleshoot IT problems in order to do their jobs.

The results of the WorldatWork and SHRM surveys underscore the growing demand for virtual work capabilities — whether employees are on the road or working from home — across both small and large enterprises. Given the prominent role virtual work is expected to play in the future of business, organizations should begin planning now to ensure that remote employees have the IT tools they need.