Why teleworkers need help with their networks

If your users work from home, their home connection is as important to your organisation as your office LAN is.


Consider this: According to a 2005 study by The Dieringer Research Group, of 135.4 million workers in America, 45.1 million worked from home at least once in the previous year. And that number continues to rise.

Yet many IT organisations are hopelessly out of the loop when it comes to how home-based networks are configured. That is a scary thought considering that in many cases the organisation is reimbursing users for their connectivity expenses and that corporate data is riding across those networks.

Experts say the stakes are too high for IT to be disconnected from home network decisions and that IT should be involved in every decision, including the foundation of it all, connectivity.

"If there's a corporate mandate that users work from home at some point, then IT has to help them with their networks," says Steve Taylor, an industry consultant and editor of Webtorials.com.

Danny Briere, CEO of telecommunications consultancy Telechoice, agrees. "Broadband to the home is more than just a luxury today, it's a requirement," he says.

"More and more broadband is playing a critical role in corporations. If you're doing call centre applications or have senior managers working from home, you need to be involved," Briere says.

Here are seven tips for helping users with connectivity decisions.

1. Know your options. The options for home-based and small-office networks continue to grow. Users can often choose between cable, DSL, satellite, fibre-optic, cellular and wireless connections, depending how close to an urban setting they are. Speeds these days range from 500kbit/s for cellular to 50Mbit/s downstream for new fibre-optic services such as Verizon's FIOS offering. IT managers should help users research all the available options in their geographic area.

2. Know the applications your users need to access. If user are trying to access big files such as CAD/CAM drawings remotely, a 500K bit/s. connection is insufficient. However, if they're only accessing Web-based e-mail, then that option might suit them well.

3. Know when they will be accessing the network. Briere says timing is everything. He points to cable as an example. "Cable might tout higher bandwidth speeds than other connectivity options, but it's a shared connection, so when kids in the neighbourhood come from school to do their homework online, that performance is degraded," he says. Therefore, if your employees plan to do most of their work during after-school hours, those who live in congested areas might have problems with cable connections.

4. Don't forget about backup connectivity. Briere says one of the biggest issues with home office and small office connections is that they are very susceptible to outages. If a CFO is working from home to churn out the company's quarterlies, an outage would be devastating. "People have become so reliant on their cable and DSL connections that when they go out, they are in trouble," he says. He recommends giving users with mission-critical duties access to two connections, such as cable and DSL or DSL and cellular.

Taylor also recommends having a backup plan. "It's cheap enough these days to have more than one connectivity option. When one goes down, you're not stuck since they are physically separate," he says. Taylor himself has both cable and DSL connections to his home office.

5. Set boundaries. "No matter what, you're going to end up supporting home connectivity issues, so you might as well be proactive," Taylor says. He recommends creating a punch list of configurations IT will support. "You don't want to have to troubleshoot 10 different services," he says.

6. Develop acceptable use policies. Just as companies have acceptable use policies for their corporate networks, they should develop home-use policies that address security and legal issues. For instance, a policy should state that no one other than the employee should be able to access company files. "Having kids share the computer or being on a Wi-Fi network has the potential for backdoor attacks that could affect the corporate network," Taylor says. That type of use could also put the company in legal hot water. IT managers should make sure that telecommuters are accessing company assets via connections that are protected by a security infrastructure featuring SSL, IPsec or other security and encryption standards.

7. Keep an eye on provider deals. "Don't be afraid to pick up the phone and call your users' providers to find out the deal of the day," Briere says. More and more companies are taking on the expense of broadband and therefore shouldn't leave it up to the user to negotiate pricing. "The provider isn't going to proactively call you and say we've got a cheaper plan," he says. IT groups can also bundle user contracts for bigger savings company-wide.

Being a part of the home connectivity decision has other benefits, such as understanding what applications can be supported by employees' home systems. For instance, if users have high-speed connections, companies can take advantage of productivity-enhancing and cost-saving tools such as collaboration software and virtual receptionists. "There are a lot of things that broadband enables that people are just getting around to," Briere says.

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