Thursday, February 10, 2005

Enabling Telecommuters

As the computer becomes the primary tool of the workplace, more and more jobs become candidates for telecommuting. Telecommuters are employees of companies who only occasionally, if ever, set foot on company property. Instead of commuting by car, they telecommute by telephone and broadband links.

Software programmers, technical writers, sales reps and forms processors are the first category of employees and freelancers who come to mind with the idea of telework. But VoIP and virtual private networks now make it possible to enable a much larger group of tasks to be done off-site. How about switchboard operators? Yes. Accounting, purchasing, computer help desk support, publishing, design and support engineering, sales and marketing, and just about any type of data entry or report generation are candidate tasks. If someone uses a computer and/or telephone in their work rather than physically operating machinery or moving things around in the factory, they might do just as good a job from a nearby remote office or at home.

The basics tools of telecommuting are the computer and the telephone. For a sales representative calling on customers, that's probably a laptop and a cell phone. For a home office, a cable modem or DSL Internet broadband connection makes the most sense. If you are dealing with sensitive company data, you can protect it during transmission by encrypting your Internet connections with VPN software.

A regular telephone line with a speakerphone or an inexpensive headset will do for a telecommuter's basic voice communications. For not much additional money, you can integrate them with the office team by using a hosted PBX system. The home worker gets a business style VoIP telephone that plugs into the router that serves their PC from the broadband connection. Now they can join conferences, accept transferred calls and dial team members using only 3 digits. It's a company phone, so the company gets the phone records and a smaller-than-you-might-think monthly bill.

One step up is the VoIP Videophone. The new ones put many corporate videoconferencing systems to shame. You get color full motion video at both ends over a broadband connection, plus the ability to feed videos or presentation slides down the line.

For employees on the road, billable calling cards offer low rates and good record keeping. There are services that let you send faxes and receive faxes via email. Prepaid dial-up Internet gives you worldwide Internet access via toll free numbers for situations when broadband is not available.

When you think about it, outsourcing is little more than a grandiose version of telecommuting. Companies that are flexible enough to enable telecommuting have the advantage of a nearby labor pool that doesn't need much in the way of company facilities. They may also be highly motivated by the opportunity to better integrate their personal and professional lives.

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