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Trends in telework

Remote offices will change the way companies do information systems.

The other day I participated in a focus group for a budding company. It was held in the basement conference room of a large office tower, right next to the parking garage. Two dozen interested parties crowded around a series of folding tables arranged in a square with a big gap in the middle. Participants left and returned throughout the meeting to take calls on their cell phones. Not the best environment for this kind of meeting, but we made the most of it.

The premise for the business is the fact that telecommuters are straining the information systems staffs of small and medium-sized businesses. The few administrators on site for small companies have enough to do in the office maintaining and upgrading its servers. They don’t have time to go around to executives’ and partners’ homes fixing computers. Whatever time they spend off site delays essential network upgrades in the office, leaving them with irate users who have to wait to access their e-mail or the Web.

The founders of the company wanted to pick my brain, and the brains of the support technicians and IT managers in attendance, about the potential business opportunity. What kind of market opportunity is there for a small-business computer service and repair company? What challenges does such a company face? What problems lurk in the weeds that the founders haven’t considered?

The consensus of the meeting is that there is indeed a huge market opportunity here. According to the GartnerGroup, there will be 30 million teleworkers in the United States by 2003, up from the current estimate of 21 million. The reasons for the rapid rise in telecommuters are myriad, but they all boil down to one simple fact: Telecommuting programs save companies money by reducing payroll and facilities costs. Telework surveys indicate that employees are often willing to take 10 percent less in compensation in exchange for being able to work from home at least part of the time. Other studies suggest these companies get increased productivity from the same lower paid staffers. Other intangible benefits also are positive: stronger employee loyalty and better overall mental and familial health, to name just two.

What companies find out after they install telecommuting options for their employees is that there are hidden costs for these arrangements in the form of computer support. In a home environment, a lot can go wrong that businesses typically don’t have to deal with. Storms can cause power problems that wreak havoc on computer equipment and can cause data loss. Telecommunications systems are not nearly as sophisticated in homes as they are in commercial properties. Employees often use the same system for work that they (or their kids) use for after-hours gaming and other activities that influence the health of their PCs. Couple this with the difficulty in fixing home systems and businesses quickly eat up salary savings in computer support.

The main challenge the focus group participants identified was not in finding business; many small companies will gladly outsource those IS headaches. The problem we saw was talent. Remote service and repair is a labor-intensive business and it is hard to find the uniquely talented individuals who can do it. I call these folks Renaissance techies–people who can solve complex technical problems and communicate in a friendly and professional manner.

My friend Robert Stephens–who has run a service and repair company called the Geek Squad for several years–used to hire waiters and waitresses and train them in service and repair. He found it easier to train a service person to do technical work than vice versa. I hire writers and editors and train them on technical topics for similar reasons. But few people endowed with these soft skills are willing to keep up with the fast pace of change in the industry. And natural tech wizzes are not often wired for soft skills. The result: Renaissance techies are quite rare. For this reason, a remote-office service and repair business would need to carve out a profitable niche rather than being able to serve a wide swath of small businesses.

The growing market demand combined with the talent dearth will have far-reaching effects on the state of the PC industry. Businesses are trying to shave IT costs in their in-house staffs by reducing the maintenance of their own PCs. The way to do this is to improve reliability. I have been preaching about the hidden costs of in-house maintenance for years. Problem was, small IS departments had a lot of obvious costs they could cut first, such as too-frequent upgrades. It took a lot of belt-tightening by IS departments for them to finally look for hidden costs, and they are coming around to understanding the whole total cost-of-ownership thing. This puts a premium on self-healing applications, disk-imaging utilities, and other preventative PC health technical solutions. Those efforts will need to be redoubled for the telecommuting masses.

With our cover story on building the ultimate telecommuters home office and a complementary feature on virtual private networks in this issue, I don’t think we can emphasize the service aspect enough. Several solutions can reduce the remote-office burdens IS departments have to shoulder. The most common are remote-access applications like PC Anywhere. These allow administrators to do remote diagnostics and sometimes fix problems without leaving the office.

The managed service provider (MSP) is another type of outsourcing solution. Rather than hiring a team of service and repair specialists, you hire an application service provider to manage all the remote workers’ access and application issues. In theory, all a teleworker would need is a Web browser to access every aspect of her office computing solutions. Downsides include integrating in-house with hosted applications and slow application loading times over broadband. These downsides will continue to prevent widespread adoption of MSPs for the foreseeable future.

In the end, there is no way to eliminate those calls from the vice president of sales and marketing whose system crashed, leaving his database crippled. IS has to account for these costs and they must be factored into the telecommuting equation. Still, all things considered, telecommuting is one of the most effective ways to retain good talent.

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