When a financing company recently relocated from Melbourne to Sydney, it left many of the management staff behind. To the company these people represented decades of industry know-how and training, but to the employees the idea of the move represented uprooting from family and friends. However, thanks to remote access, the company was able to keep its managers without uprooting them from their homes.
According to Chris Warrad, deputy managing director of broadband solutions provider Nextep, the answer was simple. The staff that remained behind were provided with access to the company intranet via secured links, so they were still able to work in the same roles.
"Most companies have taken the first step of Internet connectivity; they have Web sites providing information to their clients," Warrad said. "The key now is to provide companies with access to the next stage of opportunities the Internet has to offer, many of which are associated with remote access and flexibility in work patterns."
When the corporate world first got a whiff of the possibilities of the Internet, remote access seemed to offer a wealth of lifestyle opportunities. Suddenly we were contemplating working in relaxed surroundings and spending quality time with the family.
There can be no doubt that as remote access technologies have evolved, new patterns of work have evolved as well. Yet according to many in the industry, managerial staff have yet to catch up with the opportunities offered by remote access connections.
John Roberts, research area director of business transformation for analyst Gartner, is well aware of the specialist management structure required for a remote workforce to become a reality. As the head of a team of researchers spread across the Asia-Pacific region, Roberts has had to develop work and management practices that account for distance between team members.
"There is certainly a cultural barrier within many organisations, there is a sense that management does not want to lose control of its workforce," Roberts said.
Alex Nemeth, managing director of remote access integrator Zento, spends a lot of his time implementing high technology solutions for companies whose management has yet to catch up with the opportunities these solutions can provide.
He believes there are two major impediments to an increase in remote access use and implementation in Australia. The first is security. The company intranet has to be protected against the potential risk the remote connection adds. This, for the most part, has been covered by VPNs (virtual private networks).
"About 95 per cent of our remote access solutions are VPN-oriented," Nemeth said. "You need to establish a connection to the intranet, which is always a danger. So as an integrator we need to provide protection at the remote end, perimeter protection, security for the data in transit and authentication security so the remote worker has the same access as he has at work."
According to Nemeth, remote access integrators do not only need to become experts on security, they also need to be aware of work practices that remote access facilitates.
"You are essentially extending and changing the working hours for the company in such a way that it requires a different working structure," Nemeth said.
Nemeth believes there is a role for
the channel in terms of developing management and privacy policies for their customers.
On the other hand, Roberts sees the channels of communication as the start of a complex process that will integrate new work practices and management structures into business.
"Remote access really lends itself to knowledge work, provided the right communication channels are in place," Roberts conceded. "But the real challenge is in developing and sustaining a common sense of purpose and a team spirit."
According to Roberts, his team needs to meet face-to-face at least once every three months. This is in order to establish a sense of team spirit, a necessity which he believes largely precludes a mid-size business from effectively taking advantage of a remote access workforce.
"Clearly some of these smaller companies won't have the resources to fly their sales reps to a quarterly meeting," Roberts said.
However, mid-level integrators should take heart and look into some of the latest multimedia options. They are finally coming into the price range of precisely those companies that don't have the extra cash to send their remote workers globe-trotting.
"Traditionally video-based solutions have been very expensive and hard to access", admitted Ben Minsky, product manager for multimedia products vendor Zylotech. "But these days the changes to the price of very high quality solutions is at a rate that opens up the market to mid-tier companies."
Minsky suggests that the new wave of video conferencing solutions enables mid-size companies increased access to high-quality visual and audio contact between remote workers.
"Your customers can link up with the guys from interstate and run a weekly debriefing if you like," Minsky said. "For many companies it is the closest they will get to the real thing."
However, video connections do not only narrow the gap between people, they also provide opportunities for importers, or manufacturers with factories located on foreign shores, to access real-time images of the products as they move down the production line.
"We have one customer who is using a high broadband video hookup for his Sydney and Melbourne operations, as well as his manufacturing plant overseas," Minsky said.
Dennis McCamley, managing director of shoe manufacturer Shoes, sees the solution as both a financial and a lifestyle gain.
"In the past I had to travel from Sydney to Melbourne on a weekly basis. This was not only costly but also tiring, and put pressure on my family", McCamley said.
According to Minsky, the key for integrators to get access to such mid-level companies, is to provide a pricepoint whereby the technology quickly pays for itself.
Similarly Zento's Nemeth is also eyeing off opportunities in the mid-market. Alert to the specialist requirements of medium-size businesses, Zento is providing brokered remote access.
"We set up the infrastructure and run the whole thing via our data centre",Nemeth said. "This way mid-level companies have access to a highly secure connection without having to maintain IT expertise internally."
However, as remote access moves into the mid-market, integrators may be faced with still more challenges in respect to management practices.
Gartner's Roberts believes opportunities exist for resellers to provide management consultancy in order to ramp up sales in this sector.
"A remotely managed workforce really needs to be results-based", Roberts said. "It really works best with people who are proactive and have the interpersonal skills required to take their own initiatives."
Identifying how and where remote access solutions can be applied will ultimately be the key to integrators gaining a foothold in emerging remote access markets.
"You have to be able to provide the right mix of solutions for each company", Nextep's Warrad said. "We need to be aware of both our client's requirements and of the opportunities new products provide."