Minimizing Downtime for Mobile Workers

We've all been there. You're out of the office. You have an important meeting in an hour, and you need to make a few last-minute changes to a file. You turn on your computer, click on the program and then on the file, and up pops that dreaded "corrupted file/irretrievable data" message. A quick call to your IT department doesn't find anyone who can help you right now.

Before you panic or are tempted to toss your computer out the nearest window, you can now turn to a surprising variety of easy-to-use, relatively inexpensive solutions. For as the mobile workforce continues to grow, so do the options for easing computer travails.

On the Road Again
As frustrating as computer glitches are for workers at the office, they're even more challenging for telecommuters and road warriors. GartnerGroup, an IT services and research firm based in stamford, Conn., estimates that 40 percent of all white-collar workers worldwide--about 60 million people--work in a location other than an office.

"Today, one out of every four computers sold is a laptop; so 25 percent of the workforce is using mobile computing at some point," says Mark Margevicius, senior analyst for end-user computing service at Gartner.

The number of remote professionals continues to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 35 percent, reports Connected, a Massachusetts-based manufacturer of IP-based, PC disaster-recovery solutions. "With the introduction of the laptop to corporate America, today every worker has the ability to become a mobile worker," says Glenn Gaudet, director of product marketing for Connected.

The importance of developing disaster-recovery solutions for PCs is paramount, not only because of the skyrocketing numbers of mobile workers but also because of the way companies do business today.

"studies show that 60 to 80 percent of a corporation's data resides on PCs," says Gaudet. "So a large number of businesses are susceptible to common PC disasters such as failure, theft and virus infection. I've seen numbers from the GartnerGroup that state 15 percent of an organization's laptops will fail in a given year and another 10 percent will be stolen. This means that something devastating will happen to 25 percent of a company's mobile computers in any given year."

Some companies now make their employees purchase their own laptops, thinking that they will pay more attention to the computer's location if they've spent their own money. And companies increasingly are using the most sophisticated anti-virus and firewall products available. But too few companies take the time to ensure that mobile workers can be productive, which is a costly mistake.

"This year, companies will spend $10.2 billion in disaster recovery--which doesn't even include the cost of lost worker productivity--and an additional $32.3 billion on IT outsourcing. What they really need is a PC disaster-recovery solution that individuals away from the office can use," says Gaudet.

Make a Plan
With so much riding on technology, contingency plans are critical. However, "sixty percent of companies do not have any type of PC disaster-recovery plan," reports Gaudet. "Of the remaining 40 percent, most of these companies' plans consist primarily of requiring users to back up their files to the server. But in reality, no one does it."

What should companies do to develop a good plan?

Train employees thoroughly. "Too often, technology is just thrown at [mobile workers]; so they're doomed for failure," says Margevicius. Smart companies will spend as much time--if not more--educating their mobile workers about the most effective ways to use their computers and applications as they do training on-site staff.

Buy the right technology for each worker. Companies can save a lot of money and downtime by giving employees only those tools they really want, need and will use. The IT implementors should ask each employee what they do, then provide job-appropriate computing power.

Develop, implement and put into writing policies defining acceptable uses of the technology. An employees who installs their own software can cause an inadvertently a meltdown. Put into writing--then make employees aware of--what constitutes proper and improper use of laptops, cell phones and other devices.

staff your IT support center appropriately. Mobile workers often have computer trouble outside of the normal 9-to-5 work hours.

Have a specialist who is dedicated solely to disaster planning.

Plan for mobile computing in all of the company's strategic initiatives. Bandwidth, accessibility, data storage capabilities and other considerations often aren't factored into planned projects.

Make backups a priority. Schedule regular and automatic system capture of data that is sent to a server in case the hard drive fails. Make sure the provider has its own contingency plan and multiple platforms.

Purchase equipment designed for mobile applications. Too often, the same laptops purchased for workers at home are the same models given to workers who are constantly on the road--whether in airplanes, trucks or other environments where heat, humidity, cold temperatures or vibrations can affect equipment performance.

Use the right network. Intelligent enterprise networks are now combining voice, data and storage network functions to create a more synchronous database that can be accessed by everyone throughout a company so that operations flow more smoothly.

Put solutions directly into mobile workers' hands. In addition to memory cards that can restore a system, other product offerings let workers single-handedly heal their computers. Connected offers an automated, client/server repair and recovery solution that lets users return to the last previously working version of a file, or restore the entire system after a hard drive crash, simply by clicking one to three buttons. Users can select the "rollback date" they'd like to restore the file/system to, and the IT department never has to get a call. Connected's Connected Online Backup solution costs $197 per year, per PC. Genuity offers software that diagnoses laptop problems and takes control of the machine remotely, guiding users through fixes.

Put the plan into practice. "It's great to have a plan, but if you don't exercise it regularly, that's as bad as having no plan," says iMedeon's Waterman. "Your plan may have worked once when you tested it originally, but does it still work today? If you've upgraded your system, have you checked to see that your plan still works?"

Make Web planning a part of the overall plan. Look at the sabotage that can affect systems via the Web and build extensive firewalls. Financial institutions and government agencies are good role models in this area.

Web-based systems also can enhance workers' self-reliance: "Web-based solutions can 'push' software updates to users when they log on, allowing companies to easily standardize their systems and databases," says Waterman. "Web-based solutions also let users create their own profile and preferences, then the system remembers these preferences and retains the customization even when a system is upgraded, ensuring workers continue to be comfortable and productive."

The Productive Home Office
According to a 1998 study by the GartnerGroup, the costs of ownership for laptop computers can exceed those of desktops by 20 to 53 percent annually, but much of the difference is in the costs of providing support to mobile workers. Some of the individual solutions described earlier can cut these costs--as could proper training of laptop users.

GartnerGroup's Margevicius also says companies should consider their return on investment (ROI). "The payback on the costs invested in mobile workers is short: 8 to 15 months. Mobile workers tend to put in longer hours and be more productive than people who work in an office setting." A recent GartnerGroup study found that telecommuting improves worker productivity by 10 to 40 percent.

Austin, Texas-headquartered TManage cites additional benefits: Telecommuting programs can increase company retention rates by as much as 22 percent.

Companies can save an average of $40,000 in hiring and training costs by retaining their employees.

A TManage study showed that telecommuters were generally happier with their jobs than their non-telecommuting counterparts, even though they reported working longer hours. Since the average commute is 30 minutes one-way, full-time telecommuters saved more than six 40-hour weeks in travel time alone. TManage says telecommuters also save money--about $6,700 a year--in reduced costs for gasoline, car maintenance, meals out and dry-cleaning bills.

Increased employee satisfaction and improved employee retention rates can translate into major savings for employers in today's extremely tight labor market. And the more that companies do to ensure workers can work in places other than the office and without technology tie-ups, the better business will be. The goal, after all, in the words of Qualcomm's Sulpizio, "is to extend your office to mobile workers."

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