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back to article The IT management impact of home working

We’re pretty familiar with the kinds of issues that cause hassle for help, support and service desks the world over. Indeed, few requests for Reg reader feedback have engendered such a response as desktop support. User support is never easy, but at least in the old days when most IT equipment was contained in the same set of …

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Anonymous Coward

home loafing

I would expect to be paid a hell of a lot more for providing the business premises....Plus skiving around out back for a crafty fag just wont feel the same...

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Anonymous Coward

I'm pretty convinced

that most of the home workers i deal with, just spend the day with their feet up watching loose women.

I know someone who always waits at least an hour before responding to all his email, just so you can't tell if he's there or not.

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Stop

I see your loafing and raise you...

... commute. I personally would want to be paid considerably more for wasting great chunks of my life in blood-pressure-raising traffic jams or ,god forbid, on public transport.

You all have sit near each other to do work? How last century.

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At Home, No One Can Tell If You Have Your Pants On

An interesting point when it comes to managing home workers, quite aside from the IT issue, is that as the above posts note, you can't tell what a person is doing at any given time, because you can't see them, short of occasionally video conferencing then, I suppose.

A lot of shops seem to find this problematic, and it is one of the reasons why home working is not more widespread. The traditional approach to management is very much 'bums on seats'. Arguably though, even when you do have everyone's bum on a seat you can't actually tell if, or how efficiently, they are working just by looking at them, it just feels that way.

Unless you are literally stood behind someone all day long, you;ve no idea how many work hours are spent actually working, and how many are spent chatting, wandering around looking purposeful, popping to the vending machine, sending personal email, and putting together oh so hilarious powerpoints featuring cats.

So in one sense, it arguably doesn't matter if your salaried worker does spend some of their day watching lunch slags, provided that they are still able to meet their workload and deadline obligations. Technically, you aren't paying them for their time, but for their output.

Frankly, if your only metric for worker productivity is being able to see them for seven hours a day, you're almost certainly doing something wrong.

Of course, there are abuses. I've lost count of the number of managers and execs I've known who start to take Friday as a "work from home day" as soon as they get their VPN access set up, only to be later discovered, uncontactable, on the golf course or doing DIY or gardening. The point being that these are senior people who aren't afraid of losing their jobs when they slack off.

Successfully dealing with home workers requires you to be very clear about what you're paying your workforce for, and to measure it very carefully. Management has to be by metric, not by the seat of the pants. Doing it this way eliminates the oft quoted 'trust' issue rather neatly.

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FAIL

Disciplined

Could well be that they are a little more disciplined than you are. An obsession with continuously monitoring your email and responding immediately is rarely (but might be occasionally depending on job) productive.

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Coat

Setting up a VPN is the easy option.

Running 2 works PC, both running XP Pro made it a snap.

Yes it does require the office PC to be on all the time but other than that hardware and software wise it was pretty simple. Saving the 90 mins a day to go to and from work was my major benefit.

Getting management to cough up for the home PC was and generally GFO was a real PITA.

However I'd feel this a low volume solution. People looking at this for more than 1 user should look at a *whole* lot of issues and proper remote access kit.

Note that one thing really mentioned is the level of *self* discipline this requires. You have to be able to say "This is my workspace. I am on *work* time. I an now *at* work."

Hint. Office workers do not have daytime TV on.

Mine's the one with "Home working rules" on the back.

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Stop

Er no...

Maybe small - medium sized businesses (or inept enterprises) might encounter some of the problems described here but in my experience these are not the usual issues.

Provided a solid VPN with sufficient capacity, and properly configured laptops with cenralised service delivery are in place then there really shouldn't be any difference for the majority of workers if they connect in the office or from home.

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Support

Who in their right mind is going to let a remote worker use their machine as anything other than a dumb terminal? That way there is no data/backup issue, and precious little security issue.

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Support

I run not only home desktops but a work desktop as well as a server hosting virtualised instances replicated from work. This allows me to do high bandwitdh work without a VPN tunnel to work.

I just need to get the vz image sycn down so that I no lonegr need to replicate the entre image.

We already distribute DNS and change control...

Jacqui

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Anonymous Coward

Citrix

Full Stop

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Anonymous Coward

Printing is a problem. Should the employer supply an OS?

My wife works at home (there is no office for her current job) and it has been very unsatisfactory. In fact, a lot of her colleagues are leaving because of the IT problems. She has to provide her own computer, but it is only used as a terminal; she is not allowed to store any work data on her own computer. The terminal client (Netilla?) is implemented in Java and only works with a particular, rather old version of Java. It takes at least 30 minutes to log on, sometimes longer, and if you don't want it to keep crashing you have to learn from experience what actions to avoid. But the biggest problem is printing. She has to provide and maintain her own printer so she can send stuff out to clients. If her employer could at least provide a print-and-post service life would be better but really they need to get a better terminal system.

I wonder if it would make sense for the employer to provide the whole OS rather than just a terminal client, assuming they can't provide an actual computer. They could supply a bootable memory stick or external disc drive. You could then have data encrypted and stored locally and you wouldn't have to worry so much about viruses as the OS could be configured to only communicate via VPN with the employer's server. If the OS is free software then you could reduce support costs by giving it out to job applicants and making installing it and getting it to work a precondition for employment. You might think it would be easier to just give the employees laptops, and you might be right, but apparently some employers don't want to do that, particular if they have a lot of part-time employees.

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Support skillset

IMO one of the problems with moving from hive based to home based work is that often your in house techs will not have experience of actual remote support. As an in house tech support bee, you might actually spend much of your time on the phone, but you always have the option to get up and walk to the affected user/machine/printer/etc.

Obviously you can retain some of this by having the appropriate remote support tools, OS X screen sharing, Windows Remote Desktop/Assistance, VNC, etc, etc, but these only work when your user can get online.

Being able to sort out a user's problems without being able to see them, or their machine, is a completely different experience, and much harder. There are ways that you can make it easier, but until you get used to it it's a bitch, and the whole process can be royally screwed by a confused or not particularly knowledgeable user. You really will deal with a number of those support calls that you thought were net myths "What can you see on your desktop ? A phone and some pens!". You laughed when you saw it on a list of "ten dumbest support calls", but when it happens to you - and it will happen to you - it's not quite so funny. Though you'll laugh about in the pub afterwards, I promise.

Many of the ways of easing this burden are the old tech support standards, common hardware and software configurations so that you know that what you're looking at at your end is what they're looking at at their end, if people need printers they all get the same one, issued by IT, so that when it goes titsup - and it will - you've got the same one handy. Give them a standard router. These are not so different from things you'd do in house. Someone mentioned Citirx, also good IFF the bandwidth is there at both ends and the horsepower is there at yours.

Things that are different : Send a tech round to set all this up at their end. If you can (and if the support load is high enough), rotate your phone monkeys between in house and phone based support, burn out rates for remote support are high, the stress levels can be astronomical, it really does require the patience of saint. If someone has some occasional need for some specialised bit of kit, put it in the office and make them come in when they need it.

And most important of all, never, ever, farm someone out for home working if their ADSL connection is like a wet piece of string, check their connectivity first, because this is the one thing that a) you can not fix or even control, and b) will give you the most headaches.

Oh yeah, and if someone comes round to your IT cave and asks you about home working, cost all this and be prepared to explain why it is necessary.

Caveat : if you're a small org, much of this probably *is* unnecessary, but the core point is that supporting remote workers is not like supporting them on site.

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I don't see the problem

I write this from home with a virtual system running of my works laptop connected via VPN. Granted I could just use the laptop but it slow and old and my main desktop is much better. Anyway I digress; I don't see the problem with home working. I understand that it takes a little bit more infrastructure investment but this won't blow the budget and the cost saving from office space will easily cover the costs of the investment in any new infrastructure.

As for the management side I have clear deadlines and I work to them, so if I feel like having a little bit longer in bed or watch working lunch then I can as long as I hit my deadlines. What it really means is that I can work when I feel like working which increases my productivity and quality of work. After all how much code has been re-written because you were not in the right mindset!

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Grenade

Just from my side

Have been home working for 5 years.

Have localised full desktop, remote backup, VPN, remote managed AV software and software distribution, remote support, encrypted hard drive.

Only issue I have is that I cant print when connected to the corp VPN, I could fudge that by changing my IP range of the networked printer but I prefer not to. I just disconnect and reconnect.

I work with PM's, SME's & Others around the globe often using following the sun support.

I have to say I work harder and more effectively without all the petty politics and intrusions of office life, also without the commute its one less pain in the arse.

It enables me to be at home so I am able to let the child in from school and allow my wife to be able to attend university.

For me it works well for the life and work balance.

Cheers

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Printing

A virtual network adapter for the VPN can solve the printing issue; Just need the VPN system to hand out REAL IP addresses for he corporate network and properly handle the packet route advertising... Then VPNd machine ends up having a "work network", a "local network" that includes the printer, and "everything else" all running over one NIC.

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OBTitle

$FormerEmployer had this entirely sorted. Second phone line for work purposes (calls all paid for) backing up VoIP service with smart call-routing software, VPNs from company-provided workstations (they'd have to provide workstations anyway, right?) with high-capacity external hard drives for backups, and overnight courier service for handling hardware failures or software problems that couldn't be handled with support IT staff VNCing into workstations over the VPN. They even shipped Steelcase chairs to home offices. And it was STILL cheaper than paying for leased office space. Productivity skyrocked as employees tended to start work within an hour of waking up, worked straight through until evening with no time wasted in office gossip or milling around outside meeting rooms waiting to scrounge pastries, took actually LESS personal time for things because it largely didn't matter when that happened so people picked times when whatever they were out doing would take as little time as possible, and there was no time wasted with commuting. Even the *marketers* cheerfully put in 50-60 hours a week.

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Homeworker of many years standing

I've been based at home now for around 15 years and have seen the equipment, facilities and support provided by my various (major corporate) employers change radically in that time. I started out with a dumb terminal on the end of a 32kbps dial up line and now have the same facilities as in an office. Essentially there is now no difference for me in working in an office or at home.

The company has provided me with some office furniture, home printer, external screen and keyboard and phone so I am properly equipped. Today I would be very, very reluctant to move to an employer that would expect me to go back to 9-5 office hours, the daily commute and a working style that is more last century than this.

I now have a laptop that is my only machine, it goes with me to any company office, external meeting etc. I also have a PDA which is synchronised with it so that I have access to all key information wherever I am or while I'm travelling whether or not the laptop is with me.

In our offices I log in identically wherever I am, there's no difference between being in the HQ building or any of the other buildings. Its the same at home, a VPN gives me access via my home broadband. I use WiFi whenever I need it, same access as everywhere else. So as an employee I am equally able to work in any environment......and, no, my employer doesnt mind when/where I do my work or what I'm wearing(!) just as long as I meet my targets. They measure output not activity!!

Many of the older apps I used to use have been upgraded in the last couple of years so much more of what I do is browser based, keeping support issues to aminimum for the IT group. If I have a problem there's a single number for all queries and phone support of everything from o/s to apps to comms is equally well dealt with. 95% of problems are fixed first time on the phone, occaisionally (hardware usually) either a home visit or office appointment is made for the following day.

Software updates, new software installs and patchesare controlled centrally to keep the laptop stable and stop folk causing too many self-inflicted problems. The laptop is locked down and update bundles are fed to me on a controlled basis. I can postpone these a maximum three times so they dont interrupt important work so no-one can get too far behind the standard build.

Consumables are ordered online from an outsourced corporate catalogue and couriered to home the following day. So replacing paper, printer, pens, cartridges etc is actually easier than in an office where you have to find the key or owner of the stationery store which never has what you want anyway.

My hardcopy post is delivered to a virtual mailbox on company premises so I dont have to hand out my home address. It's bagged up and sent to my once a week.

So assuming the type of work is suitable for this approach, if the employer is serious and provides the proper support there's now no reason for many people not to work at home/remotely most of the time.

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Home IT better than the office

I've been working from home for 10 years (going to the office one day a week). I am a Field Application Engineer so no one in the sales office understands a word I say when I go the office anyway. As I work in sales things tend to be setup for working "on the road". I use a laptop, I do my own backups on an external hardrive and my only connection to the corporate IT is email. Many of the support services can be accessed externally by internet. Printing? Don't bother, I store everything on an encrypted section of my harddrive, as my work is split between home and the office I avoid paper as I would need copies in the office and at home.

From an IT point of view I am better at home than the office, the bandwidth supplied to the sales office really is slow. Working from a home office sucks though, I started talking to myself years ago. The only reason I work from home is because the sales office is too far way and I need the money to feed the kids.

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The great privilege of educating others

@The Other Steve - Good post, old fart just wants to quibble and whine.

This whole thing about how IT specialists are 'different' from the masses can be overdone (don't think you did in ur post, be cool). Although it's easy to laugh at others (helps to prop up ego etc) I would just like to remind everyone of the moments when we, too, were faced with a steep learning curve - and (please) have some sympathy.

The term 'desktop' was created as an analogue of the original term, so, yes, it did originally refer to pens n stuff. For someone to say "Yes, I can see pens n telephone" is merely machine-logical, not dumb. Let me repeat - you should not assume that such people are dumb.

You are in a learning situation and have the great privilege of educating others. Don't knock it!

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Very much so, Mr_Toad

"The term 'desktop' was created as an analogue of the original term, so, yes, it did originally refer to pens n stuff. For someone to say "Yes, I can see pens n telephone" is merely machine-logical, not dumb. Let me repeat - you should not assume that such people are dumb."

I couldn't agree more, treating users as though they are dumb is, in fact, one of my pet hates, and something I have had to educate out of several people with a very pointy clue stick. I should have been clearer on this point I suppose.

But yes, absolutely, when that call comes, the response is not to treat the user like an idiot, but to find a way of gently, slowly, and clearly walking the user through what they need to, and what you expect of them without putting their backs up. When such misunderstandings take place, and they are fairly frequent when you do a lot of phone support, the onus is on the tech to restate in terms the user can understand - not because the user is dumb, but because it isn't the user's job to know all this shit. Often times you will have to explain it to them, and that's fine, because that's your job.

Sometimes, you will have to explain things several times, in several ways, until you find the right way to communicate with a particular user, and misunderstandings can happen on both ends of the line. The job of the remote support tech is get through all of this and have the user love them at the end of it. If your user puts the phone down and swears at you, you have failed.

This is why it needs so much patience to get right, you can't just bug out of the call and go round to someone's desk to fix it, you MUST overcome any and all difficulties in communication, and you must be prepared to take responsibility for them.

And just in case I haven't made the point strongly enough for it come across, and for anyone reading this who does support : If you (excluding Mr Toad, who clearly isn't since he raised it) are one of those all to common fucktards who boasts a big "IT are great, users are retards" attitudes, then you are not part of the support solution, you are part of the support problem. And believe me, someone, somewhere is sharpening a clue stick especially for you.

Thank you Mr_Toad for giving me the opportunity to vent that, and pointing out that it wasn't at all obvious from what I had said, good catch.

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Go

Remote Desktop Administration

...is certainly possible using tools like TeamViewer or the built-in Microsoft remote desktop access tools.

Also, a linux-based router can cheaply make these home-office computers part of a corporate network. Encrypted IPSec routing is a built-in capability of the Linux kernel. This means that a home-office PC is logically not different to a normal PC inside the corporate network.

Only when physical access is required, someone must go to the user's location.

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Some challenges we've run into

My organization has liberal teleworking policies. Here are some problems we've run into:

Some people ignore policies. For example we have a policy prohibiting use of public computers or kiosks for remotely connecting to our network. A user ignored that policy, used a public computer at a hotel that had been compromised with a keylogger, had his username and password stolen, and our email server was used to send out malicious email to a bunch of other innocent external users. (We've now implemented two-factor authentication which helps mitigate this sort of problem.)

While some people have equipment provided by us for use at home, we allow home users to use their personally owned equipment. That leads to several challenges, including:

- People call us for technical support when they have problems, but we can't effectively support them because they aren't running our standard configurations.

- We scan for existence of antivirus software before we allow remote machines to connect. But our scanner only detects certain brands of AV software so some users appear not to be running AV software when they are.

- We have a security policy that forces remote connections to time out after a certain period of idle time. Although people allowing periods of idle time with half completed unsaved work can be viewed as a self inflicted problem, the break in connection is still viewed as an inconvenience by users.

- People forget that they are connected to our network and sometimes do personal stuff (e.g., watching movies/TV online) that runs through our network and sucks up our bandwidth.

- We have a policy that prohibits use of P2P software and scan for it on our network. Some home users have P2P software on personal machines, which sets off alarms.

Patch management is an issue too.

- For personally owned machines we scan for the latest Windows patches before allowing connections, but we can't scan for patch status for a bunch of other applications that may be vulnerable (e.g., the oft-vulnerable Adobe Acrobat and Flash Player), and we can't push patches the way we can for machines we own, which run clients for our patch management system.

- For machines we own that do run our patch management system, patching compliance is still an issue. You'd be surprised how many machines that we own people have at home for official use but are very infrequently connected to our network, e.g., failing to meet our connect-at-least-once-every-90-days-for-patching policy. When they do connect, they are out of patch compliance and are therefore vulnerable, and also take multiple rounds of patch installation and reboot (perceived as an inconvenience) to bring into compliance.

Many of the issues above increase IT management costs, IT service costs, and security risks. And add to that the fact that one can never underestimate the ability of smart users to subvert important security controls. (Imagine the user who set up a modem in his office so that he could directly dial into his office computer from his personal machine at home to avoid the "hassle" of dealing with all of our security measures. Now consider the risk to that office machine (and subsequently our entire infrastructure) if his home machine is compromised and we can't verify that he bothers running AV at home, bothers keeping Windows and other patches up to date, etc.

Don't misunderstand -- I think that remote access and teleworking capabilities are very important and I wouldn't argue for us to get rid of them. But people should not assume that implementing them effectively is easy. It takes time to design an appropriate remote access architecture, it takes money to set it up securely, and one needs to accept the fact that there will be a steady-state increase in service management costs, support costs, and security risks.

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@Simon

An interesting post about teleworking in real life. Your company sounds very liberal. I've some awareness of the rules that financial advisers operate under in the UK and they tend to be tightly locked down company owned laptops. It's their *sole* machine (no PC running in the office to VPN onto) and *any* attempted installs of new software are forbidden (and will be noticed by the IT team).

I'm interested in the differences between companies for which IT is (sort of) their *core* business and ones where it is a service to the business and how they see home working.

It would seem that some kind of security lecture to new remote uses would be a good idea. Perhaps with some demonstrations of how connecting insecurely does not just affect the company, but also *their* own information.

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homewrokers are not all lazy!!!

My better half works from home (three years now) and her company supply her laptop, docking station, screen kyb/mouse, phone and MFlaser printer/copier/fax. They pay for the broadband, all calls regardless, supply all software, all consumables she needs to buy, even reimbursed for desks we bought. We have a separate room as an office. A VPN is used for company network access and Cisco IP Communicator.

She works normal hours, doesn't sit watching TV all day (we don't have one anyway) and finds the lack of commute a big advantage. She is home when she needs to be and monthly visits to the office in Reading (we are near Glasgow)

Drawbacks;

Can sometimes work longer hours when busy, doesn't get out much during the week (saves a fortune :) )

Other than that, she is happier working at home than in some dull office with crap tea and coffee.

As for IT support, well I am here (worked in IT for over 20 years) and anything I can't fix is generally because I don't have admin rights to internal systems, so a phone call fixes those ones.

Remote support is done simply by remote desktop in Windows. Software updates are packaged and distributed as needed.

All in all she has a very positive experience of home working.

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Unhappy

The hidden staff problem with homeworking

Having the *self* discipline to get the work done in a reasonable fashion. Getting into that "I'm at work now" mindset was tough for me. We're all on the bell curve for this at some point.

I believe most people could do it, but *some* will succumb to day time TV.

It's just a fact of life.

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