Q: With gas prices approaching $4 a gallon, I would like to explore how I can allow some of my employees to work from home. I am somewhat aware of all of the various ways for remote users to access my company network, but I need help figuring out which method is best for me. Any suggestions? — Mark
A: Telecommuting or “teleworking” can save your employees money on gas and in many cases improve productivity and employee job satisfaction.
The key element is not technology, but rather your measure of productivity and your employee’s work ethic. Employees who need constant supervision are generally bad candidates for telecommuting unless you have a clear measure of productivity (they created X widgets today).
Most businesses have various methods of measuring productivity already in place, so make sure it’s possible to transfer those methods to your telecommuting employees.
Once you have evaluated those parameters, you next need to understand how many remote users will be accessing your network and if they will be doing so simultaneously.
The most common practice for a single telecommuter is to “remotely control” their computer at the office from home. This is most commonly done with a program that installs a “host” on the computer at the office and a “remote” on the computer at home.
There are a plethora of companies offering this type of software that range from a monthly fee to totally free. My favorite free program is LogMeIn (www.logmein.com) because it’s simple to install and use with any Web browser from any Internet-connected computer in the world. In other words, you don’t have to install special software on your remote computer to access the office computer. You simply log in to your account from any Web browser and gain access to your computer through the browser.
The things to be aware of with this approach are printing and security.
The free version does not allow you to print remotely (from the office computer to the printer at your home), but the Pro version does for $12.95 per month or $69.95 per year.
Anything that allows easy access to a computer through any browser is also less secure. If your employee is not careful about when and where they access the office computer, the username/password could easily be acquired by an outsider. If someone learns the username/password, they can just as easily access the computer from anywhere, which is the same as allowing them to sit down at that employee’s desk unsupervised.
If you have more than one user and want a more controlled approach, you can activate Terminal Services if you have a Windows-based server. This method requires someone (preferably certified) who understands all of the variables of setting up this technology.
Essentially, Terminal Server allows you to set up controlled remote sessions that appear as a window on the remote workstation. What the user is allowed to do is completely determined by how the sessions are set up. Each user can have different access levels, and you can better manage all of the remote users from a single point of entry.
For most small businesses with multiple telecommuters, this approach is one of the most cost-effective and least technical to maintain.
If you want the ultimate in flexibility, security and control, a VPN (virtual private network) is what the big companies use. But before you commit to this level of technology, be sure you understand all of the ongoing issues.
VPNs are more complicated and thus have more points of failure that require a technically savvy person to troubleshoot.
Large companies already have this expertise on staff, but most small businesses don’t. If you’re not careful, you can become beholden to whoever sets up your VPN and have to rely on them (and pay them) every time there is an issue.
The balancing act for this form of technology is ease of use and maintenance versus security. The easier it is to use and maintain, the less secure it is. The more secure it is, the more complicated it becomes to use and maintain.
Your best bet for Terminal Services and VPNs is to consult a professional who has “been there, done that” to help you avoid the learning curve that the do-it-yourself approach often brings.