For road warriors and workers in remote locations, being able to connect with the home office has been made simpler with the advent of new technologies. Remote access today allows for often seamless integration with a business' IT and allows for the sharing of information between employees or collaboration – even when they're located hundreds or thousands of miles apart.

But what can an IT manager do when a remote or traveling worker has computer or other IT problems?

It isn’t cost effective to send a computer back to the home office to be repaired. And while the IT department can attempt to diagnose technology troubles from afar, or over the phone, this isn't always as easy as it sounds. Anyone who has ever called tech support for their desktop knows this can be a long and trying experience. A better option is to let the IT department see the problems that you're seeing. That's why remote support has become essential for the mobile small and mid-size business workforce.

Mobility and problems on the rise

IDC forecasts that the mobile worker population in the U.S. will reach 113.5 million by 2008, up from 98.5 million only three years ago. Worldwide, there are expected to be 878 million mobile and remote workers by the end of the decade, according to IDC. Until a few years ago, remote or traveling workers often provided their own mobile devices and the only remote-access technology available was dial-up. But these days, even small and mid-size companies provide advanced technologies for remote and traveling employees, who now often have broadband Internet access, mobile email, and wireless technologies.

As a result, the ability to provide remote IT support for these workers has become more complex. A report on "The Remote Revolution: Mobile Workforce Support" by the Business Process Management Forum, a technology consortium, found that 86 percent of more than 400 business executives and managers interviewed reported increasing support demands on IT.

“These remote workers expect the same access to applications and internal resources as local employees,” says Allison Kohn of Citrix Systems, maker of GoTo Assist, a Web-based diagnostic service that provides remote support. “The remote workforce, while once a trend, is now the new reality IT service professionals must face."

Fortunately, there are a host of new technologies that can help businesses diagnose and resolve remote computer and other IT problems and respond to these increasing needs. Microsoft Windows operating system -- both XP and the newer version, Vista -- offers Remote Assistance and Remote Desktop features for free to users. In addition, there are other solutions, including automating workforce support, contracting with third-parties, and providing diagnostics over the Web.

Remote support: free or for a fee

For cash-strapped small or mid-size businesses, taking advantage of free remote services is a good option. Microsoft now provides free diagnostic support. “Remote Assistance allows a user in trouble to send a request or an invitation to a remote helper via email so he/she can connect to their computer to diagnose or fix a problem," says Kun Feng Chun,  IT specialist for Connors Communications, a New York public relations and marketing firm, who has used the Microsoft service. "Once you are connected, the helper will have full access to the remote user's desktop where he/she can perform their tasks. While the helper is connected to the remote user's computer, the user can watch on their screen everything the helper is doing.”

Chun says his firm has also used Microsoft's other service, Remote Desktop, which is intended more for system administrators. The service lets users connect to the company’s server to troubleshoot a problem. But it's not a panacea, he says. “It’s a little more involved if the remote user has a firewall on their end.”

Windows Vista will further make remote support less challenging for small business. Matt Healey, IDC senior research analyst for the software and hardware support program, says that new features -- which are faster, use less bandwidth, and are scriptable -- will offer even more options to small and mid-size businesses that need to provide support over long distances. “This isn’t a one size fits all market," Healy cautions. "Some larger businesses… will need more robust tools, and the dedicated support from vendors will offer more solutions and features. But Vista will certainly help accelerate this market.”

For a fee, a growing number of businesses are turning to Web-hosted remote support for employees. Services such as GoToAssist can be up and running in just a few days and provide a business with diagnostics, remote rebooting ability, and other support tools. The way it works is that a business signs up for seat license, ranging from $115 to $300 per seat per month, depending upon the total number of seats purchased. End users can go directly to the GoToAssist support portal and type in a request. The support request is then queued up for the next IT representative. The GoToAssist program is downloaded into the troubled device and the problems are diagnosed and resolved.

Whether a small business can rely on the free Microsoft support or requires a paid service depends on the needs of the business, says Gary Chen, senior analyst at the Yankee Group, of Boston. “Whatever you’re using for remote support, you still require a person to fix the computer when there is a problem. This can be done internally if you have an IT guy,” says Chen. But he adds that for many small and mid-size businesses this isn’t always an option and they need to consider hiring a consultant off-site. “If you don’t have a superman IT person on staff, you can outsource the technology support to a consultant or firm.”