Look Ma...No Cubes!

Do you know the perfect person for your company's key job opening but they live in another state and can't pick up and move? In today's "virtual" companies that doesn't have to disqualify them. Technology is allowing the creation of a new breed of companies where talent and experience trump geography in hiring personnel. In this environment, it is critically important for IT to be on top of the various infrastructures that maximize the productivity of remote employees, while preserving the security of company data. In this month's column I'll discuss some of the key pieces of this puzzle.

Of course, the first order of business is to make sure your out of state colleague has a good Internet connection. DSL or cable is a start, but there are other options such as line-of-sight wireless that can provide even higher bandwidth. A few dozen dollars a month can make all the difference in improving the effectiveness of the tools we discuss below.

Next, we need to make sure they have secure access to the corporate network. If they are using a third-party Internet connection such as DSL or cable (as opposed to having a dedicated line into your company's network, such as a T1), you are going to need to set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPNs allow secure communication over unsecure networks. Setting them up initially can be somewhat arcane, but the investment in time is worth it to allow users easy access to sharing files, internal applications, and other resources. Once installed, the user need merely type in a password to connect. A wireless-enabled laptop and a VPN allows anyone in your company to have a productive desktop anywhere in the world.

With a quality connection and a VPN, e-mail should be taken care of. What we've found at our company, however, is that for rapid-fire communication when you can't just shout over the cubicle wall, Instant Messaging is increasingly the tool of choice. Unlike the phone, it allows your colleague to multi-task while engaging with you, and also makes it easy to send along text or links they need to see. Key teams working on a shared project late at night might all be in their homes, comparing notes over IM.

There are many public IM networks that even extend to cell phones -- but be warned, these networks are not inherently secure. If confidential information is going to be shared, it may make sense to invest in the "corporate" versions of these IM tools that allow secure messaging within your company.

Being able to sit in front of a computer looking at the same information is easy with today's meeting share tools. A typical meeting at my company has people from four different places on the phone, all viewing the same presentation on their own computers. For one-on-one sessions, it's not even necessary to use the meeting technologies (which can get expensive). Microsoft has remote access technologies built into Windows XP which work great for viewing another user's screen -- even remotely operating it -- on your own computer.

Finally, as detailed in last month's column a new breed of business applications can be used anytime, anywhere there is an internet connection. When you adopt web-based business applications like what we offer at NetSuite, your remote employees will have the same access to their critical business information that your on-premise employees do. Many of these tools provide group calendaring and other key company-wide functions that will be important as you spread across the country or the globe.

Security becomes even more critical when key business information is being exchanged over public networks. VPNs provide some of the protection. Secure IM may be important depending how IM is used. Web-based applications use Secure HTTP in the browser to protect against prying eyes. There are even more advanced technologies such as hardware devices that you can require users to adopt. But equally important to security technology is to have a security policy which is publicized to all employees, especially remote ones. Password policies, use of company data, protection of laptops from theft, etc, are some of the issues you should address in this document.

Building the infrastructure to enable the "virtual company" is another way IT can make a powerful contribution to a company's successful growth. And as a side benefit...on a hot summer day, you can work at home while working on your tan.