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HARDWARE

IT for the Pajama Generation

Building an IT environment to support a business environment that allows telecommuting involves standardizing on technology, setting perimeters, and taking steps to bolster security.
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Talk about the ultimate commute to the office. Roll out of bed, grab that cup of java, and saddle up to the computer to check e-mail.

There's no question that mobility has taken hold in today's work force. That's why laptop computers now outsell the traditional desktop, and your local Starbucks has folks glued to a computer screen with a Venti® latte serving as a caffeine drip.

I've seen from first-hand experience how my company has effectively expanded its potential talent pool through telecommuting. I don't think it's a stretch to say that our deployment of IT has been a strategic tool in both recruiting and retaining employees.

But building an IT environment that facilitates mobility brings new challenges.

Before going further, I'm not here to convince you to implement a telecommuting program. If you adhere to the old school mentality -- "If I can't see them, they're not working" -- there's no reason to read further.

As for the rest of you, it's best to understand that deploying IT to support mobility starts by standardizing your hardware. All laptops are not created equal. By sticking with one manufacturer, your learning curve stays manageable, and it's easier to deal with parts.

Take something as basic as the battery. You can't interchange batteries among machines from different manufacturers since every laptop maker has its own approach to power. By standardizing on one manufacturer, you can keep a couple extra batteries on hand that will work across the board.

The same goes for software. If you think supporting different versions of software within the same office causes problems, see what happens when this issue extends to the mobile world. It's not pretty. There's nothing worse than a manager in his PJs panicked because the report just e-mailed from home to the boss arrived garbled. If you've standardized on Microsoft Vista in your office, the same must hold true for your mobile workers.

Now, when outfitting the home office, you again need to establish the rules of the game. We outfit our employees with Fujitsu and Toshiba laptop computers that perform double duty in the home. These machines cost $1,200, which is about twice of what you'll pay for a desktop computer. It's been our experience that even employees who only work in the office appreciate the flexibility that comes with a laptop.

It's also worth buying the no-fault warranty for each laptop -- another $300 or so. One drop can break a display, which can essentially cost the same as replacing the entire unit.

For Internet access, we pay for 50 percent of the broadband charge -- around 50 bucks per month per employee -- typically DSL from one of the phone carriers.

I strongly suggest implementing your own security by setting up a firewall between the outside world and your mobile user. There are two flavors: software (Microsoft XP Service Pack 2 comes free) and hardware. We use the Linksys WRT546 routers, which cost about $85 each. Inevitably, the computer serving as a home office will be used by others in the family, which opens a wider door to viruses and other malicious actions.

Needless to say, you don't want to become Dr. Welby making house calls; hence the need for a remote troubleshooting tool. Citrix Online's GoToAssist and Symantec's pcAnywhere are two of the better known products in this area. These tools allow you to take control of the PC from the comfort of your own office. I'd say I've been able to solve problems a good 90 percent of the time this way. If the problem can't be troubleshot remotely, the user brings the machine into the office for repair and borrows a loaner for a day or two.

On the topic of support, the more self sufficient you can make your users, the less time you'll spend resolving problems. I always think back to a user who sent me an e-mail that his computer was down. I gently pointed out to him that if his computer were down, he could not have sent the e-mail in the first place.

I think it's important to recognize upfront that once the computer leaves the office, you have little control over the environment.

I got a call from a telecommuter that her laptop DVD player was jammed up with "something weird." It turned out that her two-year-old son had ambled by, saw the DVD door was open and decided to see if his toast with would fit. No, those blue lasers don't reflect well off of grape jelly.

Another employee brought in her home desktop computer that had stopped working. The culprit turned out to be a hairball. Enjoying the warmth of the computer, her cat kept swinging its tail in front of the cooling fan.

The point is, expect the unexpected.

It comes with the territory when your environment expands beyond the traditional office walls.

Linda Wilson is the IT director of http://www.hoffman.com The Hoffman Agency, a global public relations firm with 120 employees.
Last updated: Jan 1, 2008




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