Advances in telecommunication and IP technologies has enabled millions of Americans to free themselves from the office environment and become what is now commonly known as “telecommuters”.

The 1990s saw a rise in the popularity of telecommuting and there seems to be no end in sight. The International Telework Association and Council predicts that a full one third of the workforce- up to 50 million workers-will telecommute full or part-time by the end of 2006.

The obvious benefits of increased flexibility and less travel time for workers makes telecommuting an attractive choice for many. But employees are not the only ones to benefit from full or part-time telecommuting. By allowing their staff the convenience of working from home, business owners experience lower overhead, an increase in employee productivity, and a higher level of employee satisfaction.

Is telecommuting right for you?

Unfortunately for some, many jobs are simply not prime candidates for telecommuting. Careers that require physical labor, or require facilities such as a lab, hospital, etc. are obvious non-telecommuting scenarios. Employees or management executives who spend much of their time attending meetings or who need to interact with employees face-to-face probably will find the need to spend much of their time on-site.

But for those that spend the majority of their day in front of a computer, on the phone or for those that simply do not need to be physically in the office five days a week, telecommuting can be the perfect fit.

Confronting the telecommuting issues

Once the decision has been made to allow for the option of telecommuting, both employee and employer need to agree on a number of basic issues. The following points can serve as a checklist and step-by-step process for successfully implementing a seamless telecommuting solution that works for everyone.

1. Decide on which employees will be allowed to telecommute. Before implementing any technological aspects of telecommuting, the first step is to determine which employees or specific job positions can benefit the most from a telecommuting scenario. Individual work habits of employees should be considered as a basis for identifying possible telecommuting candidates. Working from home carries with it distractions that are not present in the office environment. Personal phone calls, a crying baby, friendly neighbors, television, and a variety of other distractions can be counterproductive to those who do not have the discipline it takes to be a telecommuter. In the beginning, allow just a few workers telecommuting privileges so that all the “bugs” can be worked out.

2. Decide on a PC. Virtually all employees will probably already own a home based PC. The first step for successful telecommuting is to decide on whose PC to use. If the decision is made to use the already existing home PC, the machine will need to be updated with e-mail profiles, VPN and firewall software, and the appropriate applications needed to do the job. It is also a good idea to partition hard drive space to be used for work only and also to implement a reliable means for data storage and backup. Most importantly, the home PC will require current and up-to-date virus software to be installed at all times.

A better choice is to have the employer provide a laptop PC that can easily be transported between home and office. With this option, all of the appropriate software can be installed by the company’s IT department. The convenience of a portable laptop also makes for easy maintenance, repair or replacement if necessary.

3. Decide on the Internet connection. The essence of telecommuting involves the transfer of information from one location to another. Since telecommuting requires transfer of both data and voice, a high-speed Internet connection in the home is required - a dial-up connection simply won’t cut it. Not only is dial-up painfully slow for even the most simple tasks, it will never be able to handle voice and data due to the low bandwidth and high latency. Implement the fastest Internet connection possible-you won’t regret it.

4. Decide on telephony endpoints in the home. Once the broadband connection is in place, you’ll need to decide on just how the telecommuter will make and receive phone calls. For purposes of reliability and ease in which others can reach the telecommuter, it is best to have a variety of telephony endpoints in the home. Certainly you will need to decide on an IP-based telephone. It is also a good idea to equip the telecommuter with a IP headset to enable hands-free communication. In addition, having a cell phone in place provides for one additional access point.

The IP-based phone eliminates the need for the telecommuter to use their home phone number for business, as well as the need to have two separate business phone numbers. The IP phone can be set up to provide one number access from both home and office. Since the phone uses the same data connection as the employee’s e-mail and file access, it provides seamless access to voicemail and other features used most often within the office environment.

Although the IP phone is the best choice, a more economical option is to connect an analog phone to a one-port gateway in the home. The disadvantage of this option is that it does not provide all the features of an IP-based phone such as caller ID, message waiting, etc.

5. Set up VPN access and Firewalls. Undoubtedly the telecommuter will need access to files located on the corporate file servers. The next step is to set up VPN access and firewalls so that the user can safely and easily access corporate files over the Internet. The necessity for VPN access is also another good reason to use a company owned laptop.

6. Configure existing PBX with a gateway extension. To provide remote workers with the full benefits of PBX functionality-i.e. complete voicemail features, access to calling plan discounts, access to corporate directories, call transfer capabilities, auto attendant, etc. it is advisable to implement a PBX extension or gateway to the existing PBX.

With the PBX-IP gateway, callers can reach the telecommuter by simply dialing the telecommuters normal office number. If the telecommuter is unable to answer, the call will automatically be forwarded to their office voicemail box. The telecommuter connects to the corporate gateway and eventually to the corporate PBX using their IP phone, their IP headset or their analog phone connected to their one-port home gateway.

The rise in popularity of telecommuting makes sense mainly because it benefits both employee and employer. In response to changing market demands and resources, many companies are now turning to telecommuting solutions to not only reduce expenses, but to offer their employees a more flexible and satisfying work environment.

Submitted by: TelCon Associates, Inc.