Modern solutions are giving staff the option of using the virtual office. What could your company gain from allowing staff to work remotely?
Ten years ago remote working was only possible for those who only worked on paper, but thanks to leaps and bounds in modern technology virtually anyone who works in an office can now split more of their time between the office, working off-site, or at home.
Wireless communication, PDAs, smart mobile phones, more-powerful laptops, and a host of other tools now make remote working not only easier but also allow everything you did at work to now be completed virtually anywhere.
"Working remotely gives people choice and better time management," says Hala Batainah, IBM sales manager. "E-mail plays a large part in bridging the gap between work and home, but as a manager you don't just want to communicate via e-mail, as this only exacerbates the disconnection that you sometimes feel."
"Instant messaging has also become one of the most useful tools to have on the road. You can chat with someone without invading their space. It's great for when you just want to ask someone a quick question and saves on a phone call. You can see instantly if they are online and it has made life a lot easier."
One of the main problems with remote working is the "disconnection" that many feel while working outside the office. The first is being physically disconnected from your team, your boss, and your customers. The second is the disconnection from the community. By being away all the time you can no longer just walk over and ask someone a question.
Batainah says that one of the main problems with working from outside the office is that you lose the community aspect of working in a team. A lot of people use e-mail to communicate their ideas, but she believes that you lose a lot with single threads bouncing back and forward.
"We use a team workplace program that allows everyone to come together on one site," Batainah says.
"You come through a browser, so you can access it anywhere. There is a set of databases, a team calendar, and instant messaging built in and you can see who is online looking at documents and you can chat to them instantly about it.
"We also do teleconferencing. Now when you have four or five people involved it's usually ok, but when you have up to 40 it can be very difficult. With new advances you can have many people online sharing a presentation and making comments as the e-meeting goes on. You simply host it on a Web site. There is a URL and calendar invite, and you just click on the calendar and that's you in the meeting. You can see who else is there, raise a virtual hand and ask a question. There is a whiteboard and you can ask the meeting holder to write information on it -- all in real time. All of these things are helping remote workers feel less disconnected."
The latest in end-to-end security systems recognise users, and depending on what program they are using, be it a laptop, mobile, or PDA, repackages the application for the screen being used and optimises the connection. You have a single sign-on that understands who you are and saves you having to log into different applications separately.
Video conferencing from the desktop allows remote workers to communicate and collaborate with colleagues, customers, partners, and prospective customers online instead of face-to-face. During a Web conference people share documents, work together and give presentations with the simple use of a web camera.
The conferencing device by WebEx means you don't have to invest in hardware or software to use it -- all you need is a phone and Internet connection. You can pay per use or subscribe monthly or yearly. And only the host has to be a subscriber, anybody else can attend a meeting once invited.
"Web meetings save time and travel costs, and make it much easier for employees to be part of the team when they work remotely. You can see them, talk with them, share information, work together on presentations and proposals and they can shout at you and you can shout back, and all in real time, live, and on the Web," says Kevin Mackin, managing director of WebEx Australia. "Remote workers can do sales demos, make customer presentations, train the team in the latest service, provide online technical support, run marketing seminars, and collaborate with colleagues, all on the Web."
Other businesses have found that voice over IP is becoming incredibly useful in allowing remote workers to contact customers and colleagues, but at much cheaper cost.
Last month Australian communications integrator NSC Group installed a voice over IP network linking the Australian (Melbourne and Sydney), Malaysian, Hong Kong and offices of the MYOB. One of the benefits of the system is that it is capable of routing customer calls throughout the network during peak business times. Streamlining to an IP telephony network has ensured cost-effective improvements to voice and data convergence, call centre services, and advanced applications across their network.
"The challenges demanded by infrastructure variations between countries requires business and technical expertise with a solution like NSC's to deliver a significant business benefit," says MYOB's Group IT Manager Duncan Mok. "The proposed IP implementation promised the reliability MYOB and its customers required."
Using an Avaya Interactive Voice Response software solution in the Melbourne offices, the system provided leading-edge customer identification and call-allocation to customers across the region allowing the company to promptly identify callers, their service needs, and current service subscription status. The system connects to a customer database and provides a contact structure for each of the company's Asia-Pacific offices that would otherwise be too costly on an office-by-office basis.
"Increasingly, technology upgrades are essential to attain business goals," says Duncan. "We realised that with customers working to time critical deadlines, IP telephony was a critical infrastructure to ensure that they received the necessary service levels."
Access all areas
Citrix is also providing a service to aid remote workers and all they need is a laptop and Internet connection to give them access to everything they need from work.
"I work from home two days a week, and have full access to all the applications in work," says Phil Montgomery, senior product manager for Citrix. "Our Metaframe Presentation Server centralises all applications and data, and allows you to access the information whenever you go on the Web. All of your client applications are run on the server, but it comes up on your screen and it detects your keyboard commands and mouse clicks. It's all SSL secured with two-factor authentication."
"While in a hotel room recently, all I did to access work was to dial into the Web, click on our server, type in my username, password, and RSA authentication to confirm my identity and that was me with access to everything that I would normally have at work.
"Citrix provides the infrastructure and then it's just a matter of publishing your information on the server. You can use any machine to do it. So if you have a Apple or Linux machine at home you can still log on and use the PC applications that you use at work. The other great thing about the system is that you can make it available to partners, clients, or customers and you can choose what that can get access to. You simply send them the secure ID, and the URL. And as everything is controlled centrally you have full control, which means nothing gets sent out."
Deskbound no more
"Unified communications is becoming a hot topic for customers at the moment. As enterprises are leveraging recent investments made in their IP networks they're now looking for applications that will give them substantial productivity gains," says Vaughan Webster, national channel manager for Alcatel Australia's Enterprise Solutions. "Our OmniTouch system sets up communications access policies and permissions, aggregating and compiling messages into a single view and providing multi-device access to information.
"For example, if an employee is stuck in traffic they can manage their e-mails and voice-mails from their mobile phone by using text to speech translation and speech recognition.
"The interface can be a Web browser, mobile phone, wireless PDA, Outlook, Lotus Notes, Outlook Web Access, iNotes, or any kind of phone for voice access."
And thanks to Vodafone slashing the cost of it's unlimited monthly data usage fee, many companies can easily afford to allow more staff to work at home or while travelling.
To use the system, all you need is the Vodaphone Mobile Connect data-card which plugs into your laptop and you have unlimited Web access covering 92 percent of the country's population. The bundle allows customers to download as much data as they can use, within the company's fair use policy.
"We are committed to providing businesses, large and small, with affordable access to the Net, so they have the freedom to get online where it suits them, and not where their landline connection is located," says Declan O'Callaghan, business marketing manager for Vodafone.
Yet another aspect of technology which is making the life of staff working away much easier is e-learning. Students can access the lessons on the Web and dip in and out when they have the chance. "As a remote user and someone who spends a lot of time on the road I don't get the chance to attend courses but now I can do it all online. I can log in anytime to do a learning course," says IBM's Batainah. "At IBM, we use it all the time. I can continue learning any time I want by simply logging in. Remote working is all about utilising your time better, and thanks to modern technology it's become more of a reality."
"I've been a sales manager for four years, and the changes in technology have made my life easier and easier. There has never been a better time to become a remote worker."
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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