Virtual Tech Powers Mobile Workers

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.