Alvin Toffler was right. The literati’s most famous futurist nailed it back in 1980 with the publication of The Third Wave, the best-selling book that at the time made the bold prediction that we’d all one day gravitate towards what he called “the electronic cottage”. Toffler’s vision of a home-centered workforce enabled by a word that would take 20 more years to work its way into our daily lexicon – telecommuting -- read like science fiction at the time. Now, it is as ubiquitous as microwave ovens and minivans.

What Toffler wasn’t able to explain at the time was how it would all work from a technological standpoint between boss and employee. Twenty-seven years later, with three quarters of small to midsize businesses managing at least one employee or more remotely according to the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), those details are still being worked out.

For example, a recent CompTIA report found that 80 percent of organizations now allow data access to the company network by mobile workers. However, only 32 percent have some sort of security training for those employees. By far, security is one of the greatest concerns facing small to mid-sized businesses that on average have at least 10 percent of its staff working from somewhere else, the study found.

But, that's not the only challenge. There’s also IT support, issues of who supplies the equipment and connection, and which technologies are best-suited to accommodate both the employee and employer.

Outsourcing IT support

“If you’re going to formally allow it, you have to be able to support it,” says Mark Tauschek, a senior research analyst from Ontario, Canada-based InfoTech. Most small to midsize businesses tend to have a very small or even no full-time IT staff. At the same time, employees working remotely also tend to work at odd hours especially if they’re logging in from other time zones. This means it's absolutely essential to provide 24/7 tech support even though its virtually impossible for most smaller companies to provide it. The solution: outsourcing tech support.

  • Advantages: There are many tech support vendors available. Depending on the size of the company and the complexity of its needs, pricing is very competitive and is usually packaged offering different levels of support. It can be as simple as a 24-hour call center functioning as a round the clock help desk. It can scale up to a remote access support vendor that not only supports users, but that lone IT staffer in-house who needs help remotely changing access levels, settings, and configurations.
  • Disadvantages: There are many tech support vendors out there. However, like anything else, you get what you pay for. So buyer beware: bad support is no support. Also with outsourcing, there is always a loss of control and less understanding of the employee’s needs and the priorities of the business. Bottom line: the IT staffer is going to do a better job, provided he or she exists in the first place and is on the clock when problems occur.

Also in the case of a remote office, chances are any company big enough to have a remote office is also big enough to have a decent size IT staff. At that point, maybe the company can provide its own tech support. At the very least, send someone out to make a routine house call at least a couple of times a year.

Let the employee supply the connection

In most cases, work from home employees supply the gear and the connection and just log in. Chances are they have it all set up anyway for their own after hours personal use. ”It’s not like 10 years ago, when there wasn’t the kind of high bandwidth connection available at the consumer level. Back then, employers had to supply the T1 lines to ensure executives had the access speed to get their work down,” says Todd Carter, author of the Wireless-All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies. Those days are gone, so why reinvent the wheel?

  • Advantages: Let the staffer’s Internet service provider of choice service the connection. Work it out in advance to either come up with a fair split of the bill deciding what’s appropriate to expense back to the company. Another option for a willing employee is to just take the write-off of an un-reimbursed business expense and call it a day.
  • Disadvantages: The biggies are loss of control and security risks. If the employee is providing their own gear and connection to dial-in, the company has no say in what technologies are being used and may not be happy with how well they integrate with the company network. Even with a secure VPN, allowing someone to dial-in with their own connection and their own gear is a security risk opening the door to viruses, worms and other “weapons of mass disruption” that can wreck havoc. Business owners may save a few bucks from letting the employee pick up the tab, but pay more heavily in the end by not keeping it clean separating work gear from home gear.

Best technology: SSL VPN

It’s a given that the connection between a home office or remote office and the company network has to be secure. And there are many options to choose from these days. The simplest and increasingly popular choice is a Shared Socket Layer (SSL) Virtual Private Network (VPN).

  • Advantages: It’s relatively inexpensive, web-based (and therefore a user can login from anywhere with a login and password for security), and it's encrypted to boot
  • Disadvantages: An SSL VPN is only as good as the vendor selling the service. They also tend to be one size fits all. An SSL VPN may not be the best choice for a business with industry specific security needs and other kinds of specializations (like the financial industry or health care). For some organizations, other types of in-house VPNs maintained by the IT staff or a wide area network (WAN) may be the best way to go.

Deciding factors and conclusion

It really boils down to the size of the company and its capacity to handle IT support for remote staff. Cheap outsourcing solutions, employee-provided connections and gear, and a Web-based SSL VPN are likely the most sensible options for the at-home worker.

In-house support, perhaps combined with a help desk vendor, along with a WAN connection from the main office may be the most responsible choice for a remote office with multiple employees.

SIDEBAR: Remote Access Solutions

There are a whole host of companies online offering remote access services. Most are modestly priced with some costing as little as $10 a month. Functionality is generally tiered with stripped down versions for the user who just wants to do simple things like shift around documents or use certain applications from a distance to more sophisticated features for IT professionals who need to take control remotely of a computer and troubleshoot problems or change configurations. 

Here are a few companies to check out:

GoToMyPC  is an increasingly popular online start-up company that offers remote access to any PC. Services are tiered for single users up to corporate accounts that can accommodate up to 50 users. This is a handy solution for road warriors who need to access their work computer remotely, as well as IT professionals who need to take remote control of an offsite employee’s computer for maintenance or to fix a problem.

Dell Computers  If the business uses Dell computers or is contemplating making the investment, then look no further for a remote access vendor. It’s just one more service Dell now bundles into the sale (for a price, of course). Instead of frustrating calls with tech support describing the problem and then being walked through the solution by a faceless techie over the phone, Dell support can simply take control of the PC and fix the problem keystroke by keystroke on their own.

LogMeIn Similar to GoToMyPC, LogMeIn not only offers remote access tech support, but remote automatic backups and instantly configured VPNs connecting multiple PCs.