Remote working: A new approach to 9-5

Annabel Denham
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LAST November, Nick Clegg hit headlines when he made a speech on flexible working. His proposal may only have extended the right to request flexible working hours to all employees, but this phenomenon is here to stay. And it won’t exclusively be for the benefit of those with children.

Flexible working can be an appealing option for both employers and employees. From an employer perspective, it gives them a competitive edge when seeking to woo new staff, it can increase staff loyalty, and reduce levels of absenteeism. And employees want and expect their offices to have bring your own device (BYOD) capabilities, with the option of flexible working. But there are some significant challenges to be considered.

High demand for flexible working is putting pressure on IT departments to develop the necessary infrastructure to enable it. And, assuming demand will only go up, security will pose the biggest concern for companies. Cisco has identified two priorities emerging ahead of others – accessing data in real time and accessing data from multiple devices. Cloud computing – which is designed to work irrespective of location – has been listed as one of many new systems helping companies overcome their infrastructure shortages.

A recent BT report highlighted two key categories for concern about security: network intrusion and infection; and data theft and loss. Hacking and malicious codes – in the form of viruses, worms and trojans – is on the rise, so “robust security is essential”, it says. A few of the measures BT names as possible ways to mitigate these concerns include firewall management, intrusion detection, virus detection, spam prevention, disaster recovery, and remote device deactivation.

But security needs to be more sophisticated than just firewalls or intrusion detection. This is why a Yankee Group report has said that “security needs not only to know who and what is coming into the enterprise, but it must also take into account factors such as location and context”.

Security, at least, is less of a concern for remote meeting services. Many companies are now used to online conferencing tools such as Webex, Adobe Connect and GoToMeeting. These have become the “de facto standard for external meetings”, says Matt Price, general manager at Zendesk. Applications including Skype and FaceTime give employers affordable video conferencing, and new communication tools, such as Flowdock, provide good platforms for better collaborations within the workplace.

It is easy to sing the praises of file hosting systems like cloud computing. Dropbox, for example, is free, and it provides 2GB storage, enables employees to access files anywhere in the world, and keeps files on all computers up-to-date. However, it has encountered a number of serious security issues that may deter larger companies from using it. Last year, for example, usernames and passwords were stolen from other websites and used to sign into a small number of Dropbox accounts. And the technology company AVG found that, in 2011, £3.37m worth of damage was inflicted on UK small firms by cybercriminals, with expectations that the figure would rise significantly in 2012 and 2013.

Companies are also struggling to surmount difficulties including managing expenses and ensuring adherence to regulatory requirements. But there is pressure from the other direction. Cisco believes space is its most underutilised asset, because only half of their assigned workspaces are actually used in a typical day. This adds up to $1bn (£633m) per year in wasted expense. So the cost of flexible working infrastructure may be worth it.

Another key consideration is the inability to supervise employees as they work from home. How can you be sure they’re hard at work rather than watching daytime television? BT’s report may assuage such concerns. It points out that flexible working enables employees to be productive at all times – when commuting to work, when away from their desks at meetings, at the weekend. Staff are always connected, which means employers can keep a close eye on them. This may explain why 72 per cent of firms said, according to a 2012 Regus study, that higher productivity was a direct result of flexible working practices. The workplace is no longer always a cubicle or an office desk, and companies and their IT departments will need to adapt accordingly.