Information Technology Demystified
A Report from the UniForum Technical Steering Committee
The Technology of Telecommuting
By Anthony I. Wasserman
Each month, the TSC examines a key emerging technology or its use.
This time, we look at the technical side of telecommuting.
For many people, the notion of telecommuting is a mixed blessing. It
avoids the unpleasantness of daily travel and allows greater flexibility
in scheduling than is typically found in traditional workplaces. At the
same time, though, it demands a high degree of self-discipline and a heavy
dependence on not always reliable technology.
On the positive side, companies are able to retain people such as new parents,
who need a period away from the traditional workplace or who would prefer
working from their homes one or two days a week. (There are also some people
who prefer to work from Telluride or Santa Fe, as well as those who move
away from their employer's location on behalf of a "significant other.")
On the negative side, there is currently no satisfactory substitute for
occasional face-to-face meetings as a complement to electronic mail, overnight
courier services and telephone conversations. Also, the cost of properly
equipping telecommuters and other "road warriors" is often higher
than originally forecast.
Among the technical issues for telecommuters and their employers are computing
equipment, telecommunications facilities, access to corporate networks and
software licenses. All of these issues must be satisfactorily resolved if
the telecommuter is to be productive. There are also, of course, a large
number of social and professional issues, including the ability of the telecommuter
to work effectively in relative isolation and the willingness of his or
her managers and colleagues to accommodate the arrangement. Although in
practice these social and professional issues often dominate the technical
issues, this article concentrates primarily on the latter.
Hooking Up and Communicating
Computing needs for the telecommuter have changed drastically over the past
few years. Not long ago, all that was needed was an alphanumeric display
and a modem. Today's requirements include a powerful personal machine (Macintosh,
PC or Unix workstation) with ample secondary and backup storage, a local
printer and high-speed communications. These systems need maintenance and
system administration in much the same way as those at a corporate location.
Updates for system software and common applications must be obtained and
installed, and repairs occasionally are needed. While major systems vendors
provide rapid turnaround (including over-night courier service) for hardware
repairs, telecommuters may be drastically less productive while their system
is being repaired. Access to e-mail, the Internet and the organization's
intranet limits the telecommuter's access to timely information. Thus, organizational
support for telecommuters should include the rapid delivery of loaner hardware.
An efficient telecommunications link is also essential. Requirements vary
from a dedicated high-speed (T1) line, which can be extremely expensive,
to occasional low-speed (14.4K or 28.8K) dialup for reading mail and transferring
small files. File transfer and World Wide Web navigation are often unacceptably
slow at these lower speeds. As a result, people have explored ISDN and its
128K rate as a better link. Unfortunately, ISDN service is not universally
available in the U.S., and some technical expertise is needed to install
an ISDN connection. ISDN service requires ISDN modems, as well as an ISDN
telephone line. Some regional telephone providers--notably Nynex--do not
offer ISDN throughout their service areas. Pacific Bell, by contrast, provides
good ISDN service but recently applied to double the fees charged for the
use of such lines.
Of course, a telecommuter's telephone call to connect to his or her organization
is often a toll call, adding yet another incremental cost. There are, however,
some viable alternatives to such calls. One approach is to establish an
account with one of the major online services, preferably one that does
not charge for e-mail messages. These services have local points of presence
across North America and are developing additional foreign sites. The telecommuter
can forward e-mail messages from the corporate account to the online service
account. There is, however, an hourly charge after the first few hours each
month, so it is uneconomical to be a heavy user of such a service. Nonetheless,
this approach can be useful for mobile telecommuters, such as consultants.
A better approach is to establish an account with an Internet service provider
(ISP) that can be reached with a local telephone call from the telecommuter
and that offers a large number of hours (preferably unlimited) for a fixed
fee. (In San Francisco, there are several alternatives that cost $30 or
less per month for unlimited access.) The telecommuter can dial this ISP
and use Telnet to connect to his or her employer. Note that the telecommuter's
computer may need some additional software installed to support the Internet
Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP). Also note that neither of these alternatives
provides access to an organization's intranet, which is typically protected
by a firewall from outside access.
Balancing Security and Access
The firewall is but one way that an organization protects its systems from
unwanted intrusion. Other security issues arise for systems used in telecommuting.
First and foremost, some organizations (both commercial and military) attempt
to maintain highly secure environments. Many of those systems can only be
accessed over dedicated, private lines. Dialup connections are viewed as
being inherently insecure. Next, the ability of a telecommuter to transfer
files raises the possibility that proprietary materials may reside on the
telecommuter's personal machine, outside the boundary of an organization's
typical security. Finally, a telecommuter's machine is itself insecure,
since it can be lost more easily than is the case with equipment located
at a corporate site.
Organizations should establish a security policy for telecommuters, based
on the value of the programs and data on the telecommuter's computer. For
many telecommuters, the proprietary material is limited to saved e-mail
messages along with other text and graphics. Some organizations may recommend
that this material be encrypted.
Most of the other material on the telecommuter's storage devices is system
software and commercial applications. These programs are typically purchased
and licensed by the telecommuter's organization. Licensing of them may be
subject to different rules than those applicable to programs used on the
organization's local networks. For example, some software is licensed for
use at a physical site, for which the telecommuter's software may not qualify.
Similarly, some software is licensed for a fixed number of concurrent users
on a network; again, the telecommuter's software may require separate licensing.
The World Wide Web contains numerous sources of additional information about
telecommuting and related issues. There are two excellent overviews of the
professional and technical issues: the Pacific Bell Telecommuting Resources
Guide at http://www.pacbell.COM/Lib/TCGuide
and the Smart Valley Telecommuting Information Guide at http://smartone.svi.org:80/PROJECTS/TCOMMUTE/TCGUIDE.
TeleCommute Solutions, a Sugar Land, TX consulting firm, maintains both
a home page (http://tta.com/TCS/home.html)
and a set of links (http://tta.com/TCS/
links.html) to other relevant sites.
Finally, telecommuting is just one example of a growing trend toward distributed
work. The Institute for the Study of Distributed Work maintains a bibliography
on that topic (http://www.dnai.com/~isdw/Bibliography.html).
The group can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More sites can be found by searching on the word telecommute with
one of several WWW search engines, such as AltaVista (http://altavista.digital.com).
Anthony I. Wasserman is chairman and founder of Interactive
Development Environments in San Francisco and a member of the UniForum Technical
Steering Committee. He can be reached at email@example.com