By Mike Herrington

There are a lot of companies that have been leveraging technology to allow their users to work from home. There are a lot of potential benefits — and some disastrous pitfalls — to consider before making the leap. Let’s examine some things to consider from a technology and organizational standpoint.

The good news is that the technology is solid and in place to make it feasible for a good portion of the workforce to work from home. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the common technologies companies are using to make remote connectivity possible:

VPN. Old and reliable, this tech has been around for years. It’s typically managed on your company’s firewall and creates a virtual private network that allows the user to connect to network resources from anywhere with an Internet connection as if they were in the office. Great for accessing files on the server and basic tasks of that sort. The weakness of VPN is using applications that have a database backend like QuickBooks.  What ends up happening is that the client running locally queries the database across the VPN and the passing of that data back and forth makes it terribly slow. VPN is good for file sharing but not good for database application use.

Terminal Server. This solution is also proven and has been around for a while. The idea of a terminal server is that you remotely connect to a server on the business network that is set up to receive such connections. You get your typical Windows desktop you’re used to using and have access to all of the applications. No data passes back and forth, but rather what you get is essentially screenshots of the activity happening on the server. Since data doesn’t have to pass back and forth over the Internet and queries for applications are local to the database, it solves the issues commonly experienced with lag over a VPN connection.  It’s great for file sharing as well as using all of your apps remotely. Some form of this solution is still used by many companies today. The more modern version is called “remote desktop gateway” and is a great tool for making network resources available through a browser.

SaaS Solutions. In recent years, there has been a pretty significant change in how software is designed. More and more applications are moving to a “software as a service” (SaaS) model. Apps are being designed to run in a browser from anywhere and the server hosting the data is maintained by the software company in a datacenter somewhere. This makes things very simple for users and gives them access to their applications and data anywhere they have Internet. This is a great solution for companies with a distributed workforce or that want simplicity in remote operation.

Cloud Storage. File sharing is also moving to the cloud in order to make data accessible from anywhere. Solutions like Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive and others crowd the marketplace. These can put all of your files at your fingertips and even make them available on any device. The big concerns with these solutions when they initially hit the market was security. The good news is that recent releases of almost all the major cloud storage platforms have given admins the security features and compliance they were looking for.

So, the tech is there. It’s finally solid and ready to go. Is letting people work from home a good move for your company?  There are definitely a few things to consider:

Examine your workload. If you’re an engineering company that does 3D design work, then cloud solutions like those above may never be a great fit for your needs. If, however, you’re an Internet marketing company that uses a handful of web-based applications for communication and storage, it may be a great fit.

Once you’ve determined if it is possible technically to have folks work from home, you must make some decisions on whether it’s the right call for your business from a cultural and financial standpoint. IBM is reported to be saving $100 million a year by allowing its employees to work from home. There can be huge financial benefits. It’s also possible that you’ll improve your employees work/life balance by allowing them to cut out the time they spend commuting. Happier employees mean less turnover and move productivity.

The other side of the argument is that folks who work from home all the time don’t really become integrated into your team.  Since they don’t have daily interaction, they lack that feeling of community and understanding of company culture. This can have some negative side effects.

There are also looming doubts about how productive your team will be if they’re at home and have no one watching them.  There are concerns about difficulty in communications. There are potential problems with managing remote employees and maintaining accountability.

It’s important to remember that working from home isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing decision. There are tons of organizations reporting benefits from allowing employees to work from home a day or two a week. The important thing is to find the right fit for your culture and workload.

The technology is there and many businesses are already taking advantage to drive down costs and make their teams more efficient. Consider your workload, culture and specific needs to see if a remote workforce could benefit your business.

Mike Herrington is the manager of business development at i.t.NOW.

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