Tele-Commuting Trend Taking Off for Small Biz - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
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A key requirement for many small businesses is secure remote access to corporate data and applications. There are a few options.

Companies such as Citrix Systems Inc. sell server-based solutions that manage remote connections to a local network and use virtual private network (VPN) technology to encrypt data to keep it secure as it passes over the Internet. These systems have been available for several years and are well understood, at least by IT professionals.

Several vendors, including Citrix, with GoToMyPC, also offer lighter-weight software solutions that manage secure remote access to an individual office PC over the Internet. They allow a user to log in from home or from a wireless hotspot and work as if he or she were sitting at the office computer.

A relatively new alternative is WorldExtend LLC’s IronDoor remote access service, which requires no on-site server and minimal software loaded onto remote PCs, but provides secure, permissions-based access to corporate network resources.

WorldExtend's CEO, Steve Landau said most small firms simply can’t afford a Citrix-like server-based solution, which he claimed can cost as much as $30,000 and require a full-time IT person to administer.

“We’re a solution that rivals Citrix for the robustness of its security, but IronDoor is as easy as downloading and installing a little piece of software. It’s very intuitive,” he said.

Employees need only a browser to access data and/or applications on the corporate network. An added bonus is that IronDoor doesn’t require opening any additional ports on the network firewall. Cost: $25 per employee, per month.

If you want employees to be able to use applications on the network – which saves managing and maintaining separate instances of the programs on each employee’s computer – it means installing a server and using Iron Door’s Application Publishing features to make them available to remote employees, which involves modest up-front costs.

Cloud Computing

A more radical alternative: switch to “cloud” computing solutions, software that resides on the Web, at a service provider’s facility, which employees access, again, using a browser.

Some solutions aspire to be browser-based alternatives to Microsoft Office – Google Apps from Google, for example, or the Zoho suite from AdventNet Inc. Google Apps so far includes e-mail, calendar, word processing and collaboration tools. The Standard Edition is free. The Premium Edition costs $50 a year per person with 25 GB of storage.

Zoho comprises 12 applications to date including many not found in Office, such as customer relationship management (CRM). All are free for a limited number of users. Some, including CRM, are priced per-user, per-month for larger installations – as little as $12 for CRM.

More and more software developers, including Microsoft with its Office Live, are offering software as a service (SaaS) solutions priced per-user, per-month. Many are highly specialized and feature-rich. The best known example is the online CRM service from SaaS pioneer SalesForce.com.

Unified Communications

IP-based unified communications systems, such as Avaya’s IP Office solution, extend office communications functions – four-digit internal dialing, call routing, presence, voice mail, etc. – to people logged in to the company network over a broadband Internet connection or a cellular network.

The all-in list price for a 20-user Avaya IP Office system – a server-based system installed at your premises: $120 per employee – typically discounted 15 to 20 percent by resellers, Sonty said.

It may be difficult to justify investing in such a system solely to enable telework – after all, employees could get by using home or company-issue cell phones – but most firms will end up implementing such systems at some point anyway. IP and unified communications are the way of the future.

In the meantime, there are also pay-per-user-per-month “virtual PBX” solutions, from companies such as Phone.com and RingCentral that offer some of the same benefits.

They provide central answering and PBX-like routing of calls to “virtual extensions” that could be your employee’s home or cell phone. Prices start as low as $10 per month per user.

Other Costs?

Issuing laptop computers and smartphones to teleworking employees – if they don’t already have them – can cost as little as $1,500 in capital costs. But like IP-based unified communications systems, both do more than just enable telework.

Covering mobile communications costs and broadband access at home can add as much as $100 a month, conceivably more, depending on the services and features you choose.

Due Diligence

Technology can be the key enabler, but if it's deployed willy-nilly, it doesn't make for a successful telework program.

You need to think through the implications of telework, Angl said, especially what it will mean in human terms. And you have to spell out expectations to employees and their supervisors in a formal policy.

  • When and how often will employees work from home?
  • How and when will they be available to respond to supervisors or to customers?
  • How will their work, much of which will happen out-of-site, be evaluated?

“If there aren’t any changes in how these things are viewed and handled, there will be issues,” Angl said. “Another concern is that teleworker employees may get the impression there is not the same opportunity for them to advance.”

What’s clear is that telework can potentially deliver crucial benefits, helping small businesses control costs, recruit top talent, be more nimble and increase productivity. It’s not free, though, and like any investment in business re-engineering, it comes with some risk attached.

Bottom line: Proceed thoughtfully with your eyes open.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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This article was originally published on September 22, 2008
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