Best practices the key to telecommuting

There are a lot of benefits to telework, including increased productivity, retention and morale. But if a telework program isn’t rolled out correctly, it can lead to problems and even failureOf Canada’s approximately 1.5 million teleworkers who, on average, telework two days a week, the majority are informal, without a telework agreement in place, said Bob Fortier, president of InnoVisions Canada, which provides telework and flex-work consulting. A formal telework program has a framework in place, where organizations have thought of the various angles, benefits and risks, and addressed some of the barriers, such as equipment risks.

Deciding whether to purchase computer equipment for a teleworker is a judgement call for every organization, said Fortier. While it’s possible to partition hard drives, some companies don’t want to take any risks and prefer to supply the equipment. It’s also easier to enforce policy decisions on corporate equipment.

Pay for everything
Part of this decision depends on the type of teleworker: is it after-hours, a few days a month or a couple days a week? Will it displace a dedicated office space? If a teleworker is working three-plus days from a home office or other remote location, then the company should pay for everything, said Brownlee Thomas, principal analyst of enterprise telecom services and sourcing with Forrester Research. That includes the laptop, the printer, the phone line (unless the employee prefers to use their own line), as well as a soft phone for long-distance calling. Often, a company will allocate a certain amount of money for start-up costs, along with a list of products and specs to choose from.

Occasional teleworkers can bring their laptop back to the office for IT support, but if they’re expected to be on the road, staying in hotels or working from a home office, then they should be provided with an appropriate level of remote IT support, said Thomas.

For companies such as virtual call centres that have a lot of employees working from home, it’s in their best interest to make sure the IT department can take care of both at-office and at-home employees, said Fortier. And, for companies going through massive growing pains, provisions should be made for increasing IT support. “In some cases, that becomes the bottleneck where you have perhaps 200 to 300 teleworkers pulling their hair out because they can’t get any support,” he said.

Employers should put together policy guidelines and rules of practice about what they’re going to cover and not cover, said Roberta Fox, director of Fox Group Consulting. Otherwise, they could be putting their IT professionals in an uncomfortable position, such as being asked to support a home computer. But, if the equipment is 100 per cent paid for by the business, it should not be considered a personal home computer. “People should not be allowing their children to use it and play games, because it’s a company asset,” she said.

Another issue is updating software and hardware. For software updates, a best practice is to image the PC, so the organization has a uniform image for all its PCs – and it locks the user in, said Thomas. “If you’ve disabled the anti-virus program and you’ve spread a virus to the company, you’re liable,” she said.

Appropriate use
It’s not always a good idea to be too strict about what sites employees can surf or what they can download (such as iTunes), because such companies have a hard time hiring anybody who’s younger than 30 years old, she said, so it’s about creating an appropriate use policy.

For security purposes, some organizations choose to use a virtual private network for remote access to the corporate network. If you’re using voice over IP, then it’s necessary to have VPN software and hardware, said Fox. Smaller organizations can get hosted VPN services.

It’s important to have a formal, written telecommuting policy that’s updated yearly, said Thomas. A policy should include an HR section, a legal section and an IT section.

Fox recommends doing a pilot first with a cross-section of employees from different departments to work out the bugs. “Most companies jump right into it and there may be people it doesn’t work for and they judge the program as failing,” she said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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