Should your IT staff telework?

Companies are split on whether it’s a good idea to let IT employees work from home.

Being available to troubleshoot tech problems remotely, at all hours of the night and on weekends, goes with the territory for IT pros. But working from home during business hours? Not so much. There are signs, however, that attitudes could be changing.

CIOs polled late last year by Robert Half Technology indicate telecommuting by IT staff members is gaining ground in some companies. Asked if their IT workforce is telecommuting at a higher rate than five years ago, 21 per cent said they have more telecommuters now, 23 per cent said it's the same proportion, and only 3 per cent said fewer IT employees are telecommuting. Just over half (51 per cent) of the 1,400 respondents said they don't offer telecommuting to IT staff.

The impetus for IT workers to work from home is likely no different from what's driving any other profession to consider telework: Sky-high gas prices, traffic congestion, a desire to be environmentally friendly, business continuity, commercial real estate savings, and the appeal of flexible work arrangements, to name a few of the drivers.

"There are plenty of good reasons to telework, but right now I think that the big mover is gasoline prices," says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition, an organization in Washington, D.C., that promotes telework through education and legislative efforts.

In addition, remote-access technologies have matured a lot over the last several years, making it possible to troubleshoot IT problems in the middle of the night without scrambling to the data center.

"As recently as five years ago, your beeper would go off, you'd have to wake up, leave home, hike it to the office and do something. That doesn't really happen anymore," says Jasmine Noel, a partner at Ptak, Noel & Associates. With today's browser-based systems management tools, "you can get most, if not all, of same functionality that you would get if you were physically in the office," Noel says.

Logging on from home

IT workers can use technologies like Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), Secure Shell (SSH) and terminal servers to interact with servers and desktops. Out-of-band equipment and secure remote-access appliances let them access hardware-level controls when the network is down, says Andi Mann, research director at Enterprise Management Associates.

Those same tools could facilitate working from home full-time, if companies are open to the idea.

"Certainly some companies will push back on this remote access, because they don't have the technology or procedures in place, because managers are unable to adapt, or maybe their staffs are not right for telecommuting," Mann says. "But I am seeing progressive IT organizations -- including some of the largest finance corporations in the world -- already managing their server environments remotely. Their system administrators are set up with multiple consoles, VPN and remote access protocols in a home office on the other side of the country."

One strategic driver is the ability to recruit IT talent from all parts of the world. "This is a very real opportunity for enterprises to attract the very best talent, provide high value administration and reduce costs," Mann says.

Eric Bruner works full-time for Sallie Mae from his home. But he didn't always telecommute. Bruner first worked in one of Sallie Mae's corporate offices for eight years before making the switch to teleworking.

Having some initial in-person experience with co-workers is helpful, particularly in the IT field, says Bruner, who is director of marketing operations (and former senior manager of systems development) at the US-based financial services provider.

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