The wide range of factors driving today’s remote or home working revolution are well documented. Many people are seeking a much better work/life balance, more time with their families, and less commuting-related stress, and indeed, since 2003, parents with young children have a right under UK employment law to have their employers ‘seriously consider’ requests for home working opportunities. Moreover, the concept that each person has a ‘carbon footprint’ is gaining currency, and more and more people are seeking to minimise their environmental impact by reducing work-related travel.
It’s not just staff who are gaining, though. Studies consistently show that employers also benefit from allowing their staff to work from home some or all of the time, as staff productivity increases, abstenteeism is reduced, and rent and associated central office costs are lowered. Allowing such remote working can enable organisations to hang on to valuable employees and employ other skilled staff who would not otherwise be available to them.
Wider society benefits from the remote working trend as well, with reduced traffic congestion, and therefore lower urban air pollution and fuel consumption. Remote working also provides marginalised groups, such as women with young children, people with special needs and people living in remote areas, with increased employment opportunities.
These benefits to staff, employers and society have driven a dramatic increase in remote working over the last few years. It is estimated that more than 10 million people in the UK now work at least part of their week from home, with in excess of 2 million working exclusively from home. And around 70% of UK employers now offer some kind of remote working to their staff.
Underpinning this revolution are a range of new technologies that make the home or remote office as efficient and connected a place to work as the main office.
Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, that ‘working from home’ usually meant escaping a busy workplace to find a bit of peace and quiet. By getting away from the office for a few hours, leaving behind the persistent interruptions of phones ringing or emails demanding attention, one could finally get around to finishing that funding application or management report or other work needing a bit of time and uninterrupted attention to complete.
‘Working from home’ in this sense hasn’t gone away, of course, but increasingly those working from home or remote offices are demanding access to the same ‘interruptions’ as those making the journey to the workplace. Remote workers need their place of work to give them the same network, phone and email access that office-based workers have. And increasingly, the technology to deliver this is both available and affordable, even to small budget-conscious not-for-profit organisations.
In this article, we discuss how these technologies – broadband internet, virtual private networks, voice over IP telephony, videoconferencing and the paperless office – can easily enable any organisation to set up and maintain its own ‘virtual office’ network, seamlessly connecting the main office with any number of home or remote branch offices.
The first of the technologies enabling remote working – high-speed internet access – is perhaps the most obvious one, as it is what all the systems depend on. While it is technically possible to use a dial-up or ISDN internet link for remote network links or internet phone calls, it is so slow as to be practically unusable for any extended length of time.
The widespread availability of affordable broadband internet today brings into the reach of small organisations and home workers what used to require very expensive dedicated communications links such as leased lines. Almost every BT phone exchange in the UK is now ADSL-enabled, bringing broadband into reach of all but the most remote locations, and these are fairly well served today by satellite or other wireless internet services.
It is important to note, however, that there is a world of difference between the broadband needed for casual home use and that required by a home or branch office within a ‘virtual office’ setup. These days it is easy to be lured by ‘free’ broadband offers from internet service providers (ISPs), but these all come with a price, usually restricted speeds or applications, or monthly download limits. In fact, so many ISPs have begun to impose limits on their broadband services, that we at Avec Solutions had to resort to starting our own broadband service (www.avecsolutions.net) so that our clients could have guaranteed access to uncapped and unlimited internet access.
For virtual office applications, it is also important to take stock of upload, as well as download, speeds. Normally, broadband access is only quoted in terms of download speeds, but an inter-office network connection, whether for file transfer, email access or internet phone call – will only be as fast as the two slower upload speeds. Even 8Mbps ADSL connections sometimes come with only 256Kbps upload bandwidth – so it pays to shop around and enquire beyond ISPs’ glitzy marketing campaign claims.
For those who need to guarantee a higher level of connectivity, it is probably worth investing in SDSL (symmetric DSL), which provides the same download and upload bandwidth, as opposed to the ‘asymmetric’ (or unequal) DSL of ordinary ADSL. A 512Kbps SDSL connection at each end, particularly with its lower contention or sharing ratios, will deliver consistently better virtual office capacity than very high-speed ADSL connections with only 256Kbps upload bandwidth.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)
Broadband is certainly the enabler, but the virtual office network really begins with virtual private networking (VPN). VPN is the technology that allows remote computers to connect to a central office over the internet using a secure, encrypted ‘tunnel’. Once connected, the remote computers function in the same way as they would if they were in the same building as the network server – accessing any network files, email and groupware systems, and so forth – though marginally slower.
There is a lot of mystique surrounding the setup of VPN connections and you will find a lot of computer hardware manufacturers and service companies offering expensive VPN solutions. Yet all that an organisation needs to offer VPN connectivity is already built into their network server – Microsoft Windows Server 2000 or 2003, for instance, offers a relatively robust and secure software VPN option that costs no more than a couple of hours of ICT support time to set up on both the server and the network client PCs or laptops.
This kind of software VPN is ideal for part-time use or for connecting roaming network users. For full-time remote or home office use, a hardware VPN solution is preferable because it is designed for permanent connectivity and allows more than one device to use the VPN – more than one PC, for instance, or internet phones. Hardware VPN comes built into specialised VPN equipment which can be expensive or, increasingly, into normal broadband routers such as the Draytek Vigor series which can cost less than £150 each. The hardware needs to be installed both at the main office and at any remote offices and, while all such VPN equipment manufacturers adhere to common VPN standards, it is safest to stick to the same manufacturer when setting up a hardware VPN network.
It is important to take seriously, though not panic about, network security when implementing VPN access to your organisation’s network. Even the least expensive hardware and software VPN solutions use more than enough security and encryption to deter all but the most determined attacks. Unless you are guarding the formula to Coca-Cola or have some other reason to suspect someone may be trying to break into your network, it is not worth investing in any specialised security equipment or software. What is crucial, however, is to ensure that staff take security seriously, using a proper (that is, difficult to guess) password and not leaving a machine logged into the central network where others may have access to it. An organisation in which all staff use the same network password (which just happens to be ‘password’) is inviting trouble.
Voice over IP (VoIP) Telephony
By providing access to network files, email and groupware, VPN has for a few years now been the engine for getting work done outside the main office, but what has recently made all the difference for creating the virtual office network is voice over IP (VoIP) or internet telephony.
Working from a remote location and just using a separate fixed line (the home phone, for instance) or a mobile phone is of course a workable option, but it is hardly a professional solution for someone permanently based at a remote office. It is also very expensive over the long term.
Having a VoIP phone and connecting to the phone system (PBX) at the main office creates a phone extension that is as integrated to the office phone system as an extension on a desk in the main office. In this way, intra-office calls (that is, calls to any other extension, no matter where it is physically located) are free of charge and calls can be made to and received from external agencies in the same way as they would within the main office.
Implementing VoIP for remote workers can be done in a couple of different ways. The most comprehensive solution is to replace the main office PBX with a computer-based VoIP system, putting all staff wherever they are based onto VoIP phones. The initial investment in such a system can be substantial as VoIP handsets are as expensive as their traditional counterparts, though the overall cost can be mitigated by using an open source VoIP software solution like the much-acclaimed Asterisk system.
The cost of implementing such a VoIP system is also offest by the advantages it can bring. Even the smallest of organisations could offer such features as unlimited voicemail boxes, auto-attendants with different menu levels and functions, advanced call routing, and so on. The phone system can also be integrated with other applications such as a customer database or groupware like Microsoft Outlook, offering users screen alerts and information for incoming calls or one-click dialling. These are the kinds of features that have always separated ‘blue chip’ operations from small organisations.
For smaller organisations, rather than investing in an onsite VoIP server, a ‘hosted’ solution may be more appropriate. In this scenario, the PBX actually resides with the VoIP provider and the VoIP service is paid for on a subscription basis. Many of the same advanced voicemail, auto-attendant and call routing features are available. Avec Solutions, for instance, offers a hosted VoIP service for £10 a month per phone number, with each number including two simultaneous phone calls and up to 10 internal extensions. VoIP-to-VoIP phone calls are free, including to other VoIP providers, and calls to normal phones are charged at low rates starting at 1p per minute. Such a hosted solution would also be appropriate if a main office wanted to retain its traditional PBX, but simply add connectivity from the main office to outlying offices.
Once VoIP telephony is implemented in an organisation’s virtual office network, videoconferencing essentially becomes just one of the advanced VoIP applications that can be used. Some VoIP handsets come with video screens and cameras already built into them, but it is more common and less expensive to implement a videoconferencing solution using a VoIP ‘softphone’ (that is, software-based phone running on a PC or laptop) along with a video camera or webcam.
The addition of a video stream to the audio stream of a normal VoIP phone call presents no great technological or usage difficulties, but it can severely tax the available internet bandwidth. If a normal phone conversation uses around 75Kbps to 100Kbps of your broadband connection, then count on two or three times that amount for a decent videoconference, so it is worthwhile investing in the underpinning broadband connection if video is to be used on a regular basis.
More than a voice call is able to, videoconferencing can link remote workers to the main office in a way that makes working from home or a small branch office less isolating. And the cost savings can be substantial, as travelling for meetings can be eliminated and VoIP-to-VoIP video calls are free of charge.
Because VoIP is simply a computer software application, it can also be combined with other software applications in addition to videoconferencing. During the VoIP video meeting, an electronic whiteboard can be displayed on participants’ computers and files such as text documents or spreadsheets can easily be shared among meeting participants and even edited together online, which means the virtual meeting can actually be more productive and ‘hands on’ than bringing participants together around the organisation’s boardroom table.
The concept of the ‘paperless office’ is not actually a technology itself, but a name that can be applied to a series of technologies that enable organisations to reduce their use of and reliance on paper-based documents and files. Included under this rubric are things such as keeping a centralised, hierarchical storage of electronic documents, switching from paper files to electronic storage of scanned documents (stored perhaps as digitally signed PDFs), and implenting electronic versions of office forms (such as holiday requests or staff expense forms).
It is worth mentioning here because, while VPN and VoIP solutions can facilitate virtually every aspect of working away from the main office, they can be brought to a halt by an office culture that relies heavily on paper. It’s all well and good having unfettered access to the network server, but if vital information is stored in a filing cabinet rather than electronically, then no VPN system, regardless of how expensive or sophisticated it is, will be able to access it.
Successfully implementing a virtual office network therefore involves not just the remote staff themselves (as well as the organisation’s ICT support company or department), but everyone, from the receptionist who opens the post and scans it in to email it to the remote worker, to the senior manager who keeps her meeting notes online and accepts digital signatures on documents requiring approval, and so forth.
Implementing the Virtual Office
Saving money, reducing environmental damage and keeping staff happy and productive – all are strong arguments for letting staff work from home. Of course, not every staff member wants to or can practically do their job from their home, but now that the technologies enabling the extension of network and telecommunications access from a main office to remote offices are both readily available and affordable, most organisations will find it well worth their while to investigate the creation of a virtual office network for all the benefits it can bring.