Virtual Tech Powers Mobile Workers

 
 
By Bob Violino  |  Posted 2011-07-28
 
 
 

It’s never been easier to work outside the confines of the corporate office. An assortment of technologies make it possible for nearly anyone to work in a “virtual office,” with anywhere, anytime access to the information and applications needed to get the job done.

These technologies include tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices; desktop virtualization; cloud computing; social networking; unified communications; and presence (video conferencing). With these tools, a growing number of employees are able to work remotely as if they were in the corporate office. However, though the virtual office trend offers a host of potential benefits, it also presents challenges for IT executives.

Demand for virtual office technology comes largely from parts of the organization that need to support home-based or other remote workers, says Ted Schadler, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass. “With smart investments in collaboration tools like instant messaging, desktop video conferencing, team sites and social technology, people can be more connected at home or while away from other team members,” he says.

Delivering Apps From the Cloud

Some companies are further along than others at exploiting the virtual office. Ramsell Holding, a health care management company in Oakland, Calif., uses a variety of technologies to enable employees to work remotely. One trend that’s making it more feasible for people to work virtually is the push to cloud services, says Tom Loker, the firm’s chief operating officer.

The company uses a combination of public cloud services from Microsoft and its own private cloud infrastructure to deliver application access to employees. By making applications easily available via the Web, Loker says, Ramsell enables users to gain access from desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones and other Internet-connected devices.

In effect, this lets people take their office with them wherever they go. “A member of our staff who’s traveling could take a laptop, PDA or iPad and log in through SharePoint and have access to all his documents and all [the necessary] applications,” Loker says. “It works exactly the same way as if he were in the office.”

Having access to cloud services also enables Ramsell to procure applications such as Microsoft Office without having to physically install licensed software on individual devices. In addition, the firm leverages unified communications, video conferencing and Web conferencing extensively. This enables some employees to work from home or remote offices.

For example, Loker says one employee works out of a home office in Denver and manages customer accounts in Texas, California and other states. He uses IP-based telephony and presence, so telecommunications costs are kept low, and the employee can use the same phone number regardless of where he is and which device he’s using.

The biggest benefits of these virtual office capabilities include cost savings, convenience, and improved productivity and efficiency. The cost savings come in large part from people not having to travel from remote locations to attend company meetings. “In the old days, I would have had to put engineers or customer support people on planes and fly them in on a regular basis,” Loker says. Today, they can meet virtually.

Enabling Off-Site Work

WhitePages, a Seattle-based company that provides online services for finding contact information for people and businesses, has also achieved savings from virtual office technology. “We have quite a few mobile and remote users,” who leverage iPhones, iPads, VPNs, software-as-a-service applications and other tools that enable off-site work, says Hernan Alvarez, senior director of IT and operations.

Many people at the company regularly access the corporate network from remote locations via mobile devices and secure connections to receive email and to work on documents, Alvarez says. WhitePages also uses Skype to enable face-to-face communications regardless of where workers are located. “People are free to work remotely if their work allows it,” he says. “They can work from home or a coffee shop. We’ve even had people use Skype to make calls from planes.”

Although the technologies allow workers to be more mobile and have helped WhitePages reduce travel costs, the biggest benefit, according to Alvarez, is the improved efficiency and productivity of employees.

At Palomar Pomerado Health (PHH), based in North San Diego County, Calif., the ability for doctors to access patient information remotely is literally a life saver. The health care provider built a mobile computing platform that enables its physicians to remotely access electronic medical records in real time, regardless of their location, according to Chief Innovation and Technology Officer Orlando Portale. This enables doctors to make timely decisions regarding the health of their patients even when they’re not at the hospital.

His team developed its mobile application, Medication Information, Anytime, Anywhere (MIAA), to run on Cisco’s Cius tablet. The app lets PHH doctors pull patient records from different facilities on demand, and enables multiple physicians to review a patient’s information and consult with one another using emails and video conferences.

“It’s a compelling value proposition,” Portale says. He added that PHH is piloting the Cisco technology for use at nursing stations and could potentially use it in patients’ rooms as well.

A Virtual Workforce

Technology has enabled some companies to run nearly their entire business in a virtual office environment. Take Alpine Access, a Denver-based customer support outsourcing service provider that has a virtual workforce of about 4,500 customer service professionals who work from their homes and take calls on behalf of the company’s clients across the country.

“We’re nearly 100 percent virtual as an organization,” says Rich Sadowski, vice president of solutions engineering at Alpine. “I never see anyone from the time they join us to the time they move on [from the company].”

Alpine recruits, hires and trains workers online, and then it sets them up with home offices that include PCs with high-speed, low-latency Internet access and phones. For company or team meetings or training sessions, Alpine leverages technology such as voice over IP (VOIP), video and audio conferencing, Web conferencing and instant messaging services.

“The work-at-home model provides excellent flexibility,” Sadowski says. For example, the company can employ qualified individuals even if they live in remote locations or have physical disabilities. If some employees are unable to work because bad weather knocks out power or connectivity, others can easily fill in, he says.

Although Alpine has enabled its customer care representatives to work from home since it was founded in 1998, technology developments over the past five years or so have made the model much less challenging, Sadowski says. Executives based in the Denver headquarters are “fully mobile” because of technologies such as laptop and tablet computers, cloud-based applications and wireless communications devices, he adds.

Another company that operates a mostly virtual business is Pomegranate, a digital branding agency and creative talent network with headquarters in New York and Los Angeles. Most of the company’s 200 employees worldwide work remotely, says CEO Grant Powell. They use real-time chat, VOIP telephony, video conferencing, and document and calendar sharing—which they access through Google’s Google Apps for Business suite—to collaborate on projects even though they’re in separate locations.

All the virtual systems the company uses have a mobile component. “Virtual technologies have enabled us to expand quickly into regional markets of the world,” Powell says. “This allows on-the-go collaboration, so I can run my entire business from my iPad, even if I am 30,000 feet in the air.”

Like other businesses leveraging virtual office technologies, Pomegranate has achieved cost savings. “The biggest expense is office space,” Powell points out. “If most of the company works from home, you can save a massive amount of money.”

Dealing With Challenges

Operating virtual offices does present some challenges. One of the biggest concerns for managers is security.

For health care companies such as Ramsell—which works with patient information—privacy and security are major priorities. “People can target you and try to attack your data, but I think it’s becoming harder for people to get your information,” Loker says. “Security today is much better than in the past.”

Security issues for work-at-home environments are somewhat similar to those in the main office, Alpine’s Sadowski says. His company uses a variety of endpoint security tools, such as firewalls, antivirus software and a proprietary software solution based on virtualization that enables call agents’ PCs to be secured from the main office.

WhitePages’ Alvarez says that managing the inventory of mobile devices is among the biggest challenges of operating a virtual environment. “We have a large number of devices out in the field,” he says. “We have to make sure when people move on from [the company] that we’re able to retrieve the equipment and repurpose it.”

For Pomegranate’s Powell, the hardest part of running a virtual business is keeping up with ever-changing technology. “We have a dedicated team that focuses on building out and integrating new collaboration and virtual business technologies nonstop,” he says. “It’s a never-ending battle, and as soon as you get lazy, your competitors will get ahead of you.”