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Get Tooled Up: Staying Connected: Technologies Supporting Remote Workers

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Having considered organisational issues in her previous article, Marieke Guy takes a look at the many technologies that support remote working, from broadband to Web 2.0 social networking tools.

My previous article A Desk Too Far?: The Case for Remote Working [1] explored the cultural background to remote working, reasons why people might choose to work from home and some of the challenges that face them and their host organisations. This article will consider both the technology that facilitates remote working and the tools that can support remote workers by enabling them to carry out the tasks that they need to do.

What Do Home Workers Want?

The ideal solution for most employees who work remotely is for the set-up at home to replicate the set-up in the office. This, if possible, means good quality equipment, timely office supplies and successful communications mechanisms. The computer should operate as if it were connected directly to the organisation's wide area network and allow the same access to files that on-site employees have. Workers should feel that they are completely connected to management and colleagues, and should not be hindered by their physical location.

In practice there is some compromise when working off-site, be it from home or from another location. However the degree to which this compromise operates is decreasing and new technologies, notably those connected to the Web 2.0 phenomena, can make remote or virtual working a successful experience.

In obtaining the 'ideal solution' remote workers will need to participate in a number of activities:

  • Connecting – to one's organisation and the Internet
  • Communicating – with colleagues, teams and peers
  • Collaborating – with colleagues, teams and peers
  • Being supported – by IT services

This article will consider which technologies are useful and/or appropriate in achieving these goals.

Connecting

There are two key technologies that have led to the increased take-up in remote working. The first of these is broadband Internet access.

Broadband

Broadband is a fast data transmission service. It uses a much larger bandwidth (transmission capacity of a connection or the amount of data that can fit through it) than traditional dial-up access using a modem. What bandwidth units constitutes broadband or full-speed broadband is still a matter for debate but at this moment broadband is approximately 40 times faster than dial-up.

There are currently a number of broadband technologies available:

  • Digital Subscriber Line - This is available in most homes. Copper loop technologies that provide digital data transmission over the copper wires of a local telephone network (often BT in the UK). Internet Service Providers in the UK include AOL [2], BT Broadband [3] etc. To get connected you will need to buy a high-speed modem which some ISPs will provide free.
  • Cable – This uses buried fibre-optic cables and is currently available to about half the homes in the UK. Most cable connections are run by Virgin Media [4], formerly ntl:Telewest.
  • Mobile – Mobile phone providers will let you access 3G mobile Internet connections anywhere you go. However, this can be very costly.
  • Satellite - Useful for people who cannot obtain access in any other way.

A detailed explanation of these technologies is given in the Wikipedia definition [5].

Deciding on the best broadband supplier for your area can be difficult, but broadband finders such as broadband.co.uk/ [6], broadband finder [7] will allow users to search for broadband providers using their own specifications. Many will assess what type of usage allowance you will need (light, medium or heavy) based on your Internet usage activity and the speed of access you require [8]. Limits range from 1Gb a month to 30Gb or unlimited use. Some institutions may have policies in place to help their staff with selection of broadband suppliers.

Virtual Private Network

The second key technology in enabling remote working is VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) is defined by Wikipedia to be "a computer network in which some of the links between nodes are carried by open connections or virtual circuits in some larger network (e.g., the Internet) instead of by physical wires. One common application is secure communications through the public Internet, but a VPN need not have explicit security features, such as authentication or content encryption." [9]

At the University of Bath, a Microsoft VPN server is operated using Point to Point Tunnelling Protocol (PPTP) to encrypt data to and from the campus network. The connection is secure. All traffic including username and password is sent across an encrypted secure channel [10]. As Bath University Computing Service support states:

"Your connection becomes part of the campus network. You will obtain an IP address in the University of Bath address range. For the duration of the connection your PC is effectively connected directly to the campus network. This offers all the advantages of being physically present. You can mount drives and printers and access resources that would normally be blocked by the firewall."

Having a view of your institution's network that replicates that of on-site workers is essential in allowing a remote worker to operate effectively alongside colleagues.

Most institutions will have comprehensive documentation on how to install VPN or may have support staff whose job it is to do this. A useful VPN Case study is provided by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets [11]. Alongside these two key technologies there are some new trends that have changed the way we can work at home.

Wireless

The transition from large monitors to the smaller liquid crystal and plasma display screens has brought about the reduction in size and cost of laptops. The portability of devices has meant that there represents a significant increase in the uptake of wireless communication. Wireless (in its shortened form) is the movement of information without the use of electrical wires. This obviously has had an impact on where people are able to work. We are moving into an age of distributed working. In the previous article the relatively new ability to work from various locations including the local coffee shop was touched on. Workers can now theoretically work anywhere there is an accessible wifi network. In the future a better technology infrastructure will mean that workers will no longer need to be near wifi hotspots and will be able to carry out work on the train, at the bus stop or in the school car park. Naturally there are support issues related to this practice but the full significance of wireless technologies is not yet fully realised. It is worth noting that currently many wireless networks (outside the home) will not allow VPN connections for travelling workers.

However while laptops remain one of the most embedded devices in distributed business practices, the recent rise of smart phones and handheld devices that integrate personal information management and mobile phone capabilities [12] mean that this is starting to change. The advent of these smaller devices can only mean that wireless communication will continue to grow and will become a more embedded part of our working culture.

Communication Technologies

In my previous article on remote working [1] it was concluded that the 'key to success lies in making sure that remote workers feel included and supported.' Good communication technologies are likely to be a vital part of this goal. Communication technologies, in the context of this article, are seen to be any tools that allow users to send messages, files, data, or documents among themselves and other people. Their primary aim is to facilitate the sharing of information.

Various types of communication technologies have been available for years but Web 2.0 has made such software and the ideas behind this type of software much more accessible. Web 2.0 technologies go for a 'Martini' type of approach – any time, any place, anywhere – and as such are the perfect tool for those on the move or working remotely because they do not require a particular set-up. They are particularly successful in encouraging and supporting communication and any remote worker or virtual team will benefit from their use.

Metcalfe's Law [13] states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system. In recent years this law has sparked much discussion when applied to current Web 2.0 dynamics like social networking. The exact statistics aside, it does seem to make sense that the more people use a system the more value can be gained from it. However, for individual users, the key issue is whether both they and the person they want to contact use the same system.

E-mail

E-mail is now an accepted part of the office toolset, yet recent times have seen a backlash against email, questioning its usefulness, with lines such as "email is where information goes to die". In a recent blog posting, Derek Morrison stated that 'In 2008 I'm convinced that email is an easy to use, easily abused, and increasingly dysfunctional, approach to communication; and at times a major impediment to reflection, knowledge acquisition and storage' [14]. Avoidance of e-mail is unlikely to be possible or appropriate, but understanding and knowing about appropriate use and social norms are important in its use as an effective tool. Some areas for consideration include what tone should be used, who gets copied in on e-mail messages, how blind copies should be used, etc. Thoughtful use of e-mail messages can significantly influence how people within a group feel. For example, direct e-mails may have a much better effect than those directed to a large group. Appropriate use of e-mail is a skill that can benefit any employee, working remotely or not; but that skill may be more important for workers based outside the office because they may rely even more on email in the absence of face-to-face contact. E-mail distribution lists may also be beneficial in making remote workers feel included.

Maznevski and Chudoba in their research on richness of technology found that the more complex the message, the richer the medium required [15]. Quite often we need to make the media richer to allow feedback or allow communication between multiple parties. Choosing the right technology to express a clear message quickly and sensitively is an important skill. Sometimes e-mail just is not the right tool.

Telephony

A good telephone system is essential for a remote worker and for some a fax and a separate work line may also be necessary. Workers who regularly participate in long calls may benefit from a headset fitted with a microphone which allows them to take part hands-free. Some remote workers may find themselves participating in conference or group calls (a phone call for more than two parties). If the employer works across a large geographical area, possibly with international partners, it may well make sense to subscribe to a teleconferencing service. Allowing remote workers to book lines can enable meetings to happen that might not otherwise take place as quickly, or at all. Assessing the cost of these calls against the alternative (travel costs, travel time and carbon footprint) investment in such a service makes practical sense.

Voice over Internet Protocol

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is another tool whose take-up has recently gained real momentum. VoIP itself is a protocol that allows the transmission of voice through the Internet but it is usually used to refer to the actual act of speaking over the Internet. It can work in a number of different ways: computer to computer, computer to phone, Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) to SIP, phone to phone. It can easily be set up using a headset and, if required, a Web cam.

VoIP has a number of advantages over standard telephone use. It works very well for conference calls, call forwarding, automatic re-dial, caller ID and other cost features for which traditional telecommunication companies normally charge extra. It can easily be integrated with other services available over the Internet, including video and data file exchange and can significantly reduce call spend as well as possibly eliminating the need for a second phone line at a worker's home. Phone connections have also been found to be highly secure. More appropriately in the business world, some VoIP technologies can also allow companies to monitor call spend through a dedicated online control panel. Some of the better-known VoIP providers include Skype [16], VOIP [17] Vontage [18].

At the moment the main issue with VoIP is uptake. As Amber Thomas from JISC puts it:

"Skype is great. You just need a headset and maybe a webcam, but you need colleagues to have them too. I had a Skype cam chat to someone on a project in Scotland from 11am-3pm (apart from 30 mins for lunch!), and it worked great. Far better than voice only, because you communicate more with silences and you can show you're thinking/considering things. At JISC my team is distributed, and the different sites had different policies about Skype. In the end we made a team decision to try it, and the policy was softening anyway, so we'll give it a go. We hope it will cut down on emails between us and enable more informal work chat for less office-based people like me."

Undoubtedly this problem will vanish in the next few years.

On the flip side, some users have had problems with Skype, finding the connection quality to be variable and ultimately dependent on the current amount of network traffic. This inconsistency has meant that some IT services have found it both difficult to support and problematic to define a default set of minimal equipment required to give staff an acceptable user experience.

As Eddie Young from UKOLN IT Support explains, "When you are responsible for an IT network you have to make it as good, reliable and fast as possible for the majority of the people who will use it. Some applications (such as wireless and Skype and peer-to-peer software) can hog bandwidth. That means that other users suffer from slower, less reliable connections as a result of someone using them. So you have a choice. You deny bandwidth hoggers, or you make your network faster... Ultimately banning something like this is not going to help you out, you have to learn to accommodate it because it won't go away and this policy will only annoy people and keeps your IT department stuck in the past."

In 2005 Info-Tech Research Group released a report entitled Five Reasons To Ban Skype [19] that listed security concerns as the main criterion. In response several blogs came up with their own 5 reasons not to ban Skype but many institutions and businesses have still taken the decision to outlaw its use.

Virtual Meetings

Video conferencing, data conferencing, videoteleconferencing, visual collaboration, having virtual meetings (call it what you will) is also becoming a significantly more important part of our working life. These systems allow two or more locations to interact via two-way video and audio transmissions simultaneously. Special purpose rooms will usually contain a large video projector interlinked with numerous PCs. Such an activity can take place between just two people (see VoIP) or between many people. Moreover, the level of interactivity can vary significantly, depending on the tools available.

A list of the type of systems available can be found on Wikipedia [20]. There are a number of commercial systems available, some of the more significant for the information sector include the Access Grid [21] (an ensemble of resources aimed at education institutions) and the Virtual Room Videoconferencing System (VRVS). There has also been increased use of free video chat services like tokbox [22]. Articles have already been published within Ariadne on Access Grid [23] and VRVS [24].

Success when choosing to use such systems can be assured by a number of considerations that go hand-in-hand with the technology. Organisers should make sure that participants have a sense of who is 'present' and who is talking. Prior to the meeting the group should agree on a way to ensure that when people have something to say they have a chance to be heard. Use of support tools may also help: for example, sharing a common whiteboard that participants can modify, allowing access to slides, etc.

Indeed, many of the suggestions in an article entitled Video Conferencing in Higher Education, written way back in 1995 by Dr. Lynne Coventry, still hold true [25].

As well as participating in virtual meetings, remote workers may also be interested in remote attendance at conferences. This is now increasingly possible with the use of technologies like video streaming, with moves towards greater access to resources, and the recent trend to open up conferences to interested parties unable to attend. The Institutional Web Management Workshop has had increasing success offering these sorts of services. In 2006 it saw the first live video streaming of plenary talks. The process of streaming the event was covered in Ariadne [26] and sixteen users were reported to have tuned in to watch talks. At this year's event over 100 viewers were logged. The videostreaming was accompanied by live blogging, which provided an opportunity for remote participants (and local participants who were making use of the wifi network) to discuss the plenary talks. It is hoped that in the future the remote delegates to the event will be able to contribute in other ways.

For event organisers, allowing remote participants is a positive step and an important way to raise an event's profile. In a post on his blog, Lorcan Dempsey referred to the new fashion of 'amplified conferences', whereby the outputs (such as plenary talks) can be amplified through use of a variety of network tools and collateral communications [27].

Online Chat

Online chatting is the use of a virtual discussion platform for one-to-one chat or group-based chat to facilitate and manage real-time/synchronous text messages. It can be the online equivalent of leaning over to someone and offering a quick comment or piece of advice, or just an easy way to have a chat.

There are several chatting services available such as AIM [28], Skype, Internet Relay Chat (IRC)[29], Windows Live Messenger [30] and Jabber [31]. This type of quick communication is of great importance to the remote worker who may feel isolated and miss the friendly conversation that goes on in the office. Office employees are all aware of the concept of a 'water-cooler moment'. In the past it used to refer to the friendly banter trained on last night's television programmes (though there are claims that digital television viewing has resulted in such chat drying up [32]). However it could also apply to any quick conversations you might have about work. Having a mechanism to permit such thoughts to be vocalised is of considerable importance. One might use it as a way of 'stirring up ideas' or as a means of sorting the 'wheat from the chaff' when it comes to work suggestions.

File Transfer

The transference of large files between staff is a serious problem for people working remotely, primarily due to broadband's slow upload speeds. Large quantities of image or video files could take a significant amount of time to upload to an organisation's network. Many organisations will have mechanisms in place to allow this activity to take place, quite possibly through VPN. It is important that people can use services that are secure and take measures to protect the content of the file if it is even the slightest bit sensitive in nature. Some externally hosted services include Dropbox [33], Rapidshare [34], megaupload [35], Yousendit [36], Depositfiles [37] and Leapfile [38]

Blogs

Blogs can play a very important part in keeping people connected. One could argue that blogs serve two purposes: firstly as a publishing mechanism, i.e. telling us what an individual or group are up to or thinking about, and secondly as tool that allows the blog author/s to participate in a conversation with the rest of the Web.

Microblogging services like Twitter [39], Jaiku [40], Rakawa [41] or the 'status update' facility on Facebook, that allows users to send and read other users' updates can also be a significant working practice. Twitter itself is still a niche communication tool but the Twitter community rave about its benefits for networking.

Collaboration Technologies

While communication technologies allow people to share information, collaboration technologies allow people to use this information and work together on tasks.

Wikis

Remote working means less time physically in an office collaborating with people; so the need for effective application sharing is imperative. Wikis are a great opportunity for collaborative working primarily due to features such as version and revision control. This means that users can access a shared document or application from their respective computers simultaneously in real time. The result is an egalitarian approach to content creation that is invaluable when working with a virtual team. Collective intelligence is something that is really necessary when working remotely. Such 'bouncing ideas around' just does not happen when you are at home on your own; shared spaces can really help. Today there is a host of Wiki software available to use: Mediawiki [42], Twiki [143, Confluence [44], SeedWiki [45].

Shared Applications

Shared applications like Google docs [46] allow the creation of online word processing and spreadsheet documents (possibly as part of a Google Apps suite). There are also many time management software systems such as electronic calendars that schedule events and automatically notify and remind group members of dates and times. Moves are on the increase to make more applications available remotely. One example of this might be an application like Windows XP remote desktop where a copy of Windows is delivered over the Internet. Remote access allows users to work quickly and easily anywhere there is an Internet connection, although such desktops are not usually shared between colleagues.

Discussion boards, also known as Internet forums or message boards, offer a virtual discussion platform to facilitate and manage online text messages.

Project Management

With the rise of remote working there has been a boom relatively recently in online project management systems. These are systems that let you schedule, track, and chart the steps in a project as it is being completed. One might compare them to workflow systems; both allow the collaborative management of tasks and documents within a knowledge-based business process. One Web 2.0 example of them is IdidWork [47] which enables users to log completed tasks and then share the information with their manager. Although such a hands-on approach might not be appreciated by all, it can be useful as a 'shared list' approach, and might be a useful tool on days when focus/motivation is a problem.

There are a some other tools that could loosely fall into the collaboration category. From Electronic meeting systems (EMS), to shared calendars (such as Google Calendar), bookmarking tools such as Delicious [48] and Connotea [49].

Many collaborative tools are now available but the biggest hurdle in implementing them remains convincing people to use them.

Social Networking

So while the Web 2.0 themes of communication and collaboration work well for people working remotely, some might (at first glance) see social networking as a major distraction which seriously endangers a remote worker's focus. Although this may be the case for some, social networking tools have much to offer the remote worker and can be the very core of a successful remote-working strategy. Social networking technologies allow users to organise social relations through groups, their main aim being to build a community. Many a remote worker may feel that it is the loss of a physical community that leads to the feelings of isolation discussed in my previous article.

Not only can social networking help workers feel part of a team (albeit a virtual one), they can also offer an accessible collective intelligence. This can be a very real opportunity for those people working at a geographic distance from other colleagues. Social Networking sites such as Facebook [50], orkut [51], xing [52], linkedin [53], netlog [54], hi5 [55] allow users to interface other social networks.

One example of this is an application like Facebook which allows users to join various groups, to sign up for events and to load up various applications. Other social networking sites allow users to share multimedia such as videos (Youtube [56]), podcasts (Podomatic [57]) and photos (Flickr [58]) or resources such as bookmarks (Delicious [46]) and slides (Slideshare [59]).

Social networks are not only an important way to obtain support through crowd sourcing, they allow users to 'harness collective intelligence' and get feedback on ideas and thoughts. Note that with some social networking applications the lines between work and play can become blurred and users may find that keeping their 'work' social network separate from their 'friends and family' social network could be difficult, which can be a limitation.

Technical Support

In an article for IT support staff, Esther Schindler identified four different ways in which a remote worker can operate [60]:

  1. At a fixed location at the employee's home
  2. At different offices
  3. At a client site
  4. As a true nomad or 'road warrior'.

Each of these different set-ups poses additional challenges for IT services, which may mean that they are not always well equipped to deal with the sorts of problems that may arise. Most remote workers may increasingly find that they sort out their own technical problems.

Advocates for remote working have argued that IT services will need to develop a clear and comprehensive remote support strategy defining the different levels of IT support [61]. However there are a few technologies already available and being used that may help maintain a good support relationship.

Systems support teams are making increasing use of tracking systems. These systems track requests and log the data in some form of database. Such a system creates an even playing field and means that remote workers are not always at the back of the support queue (because they are not located on-site close to systems support and cannot 'poke their head round the corner and ask when their upgrade will happen'). Some tracking systems also allow support staff to log the implementation of software upgrades and stay aware of the status of machines when it comes to security etc.

Another technology aid that may prove invaluable for the remote worker and IT support team alike is remote assistance. Using Windows XP professional and other newer operating systems, it is possible to request assistance from other XP users. Remote assistance allows control to be granted to a remote user. This can be used to allow access to systems support colleagues to fix any problems. The process can be completed in tandem using detailed instructions, the PC and over the phone.

Security Technologies

As mentioned in the previous article on remote working, home and mobile networks are unlikely to be as secure as office networks. The SonicWALL survey (May 2007) found that security was considered a very low priority, with 88% admitting that passwords were stored in 'easy access' locations and 56% of teleworkers used their local hard drive to store sensitive data. Only 12% used encrypted files to store and manage their login data [62].

Recent times have seen security breaches where inadequate controls have led to the leakage of sensitive data through the theft of laptop computers or the inappropriate transport of data storage devices. In November 2007 a government body lost two computer discs holding the personal details of all families in the UK with a child under 16, and in August 2008 the loss was also reported of a memory stick containing the sensitive personal data of thousands of persistent offenders.

Brian Higton, chairman of the Telework Association recommends that organisations 'have in place a Remote Working Policy that defines the measures that should be used to protect against the range of risks that could be encountered'. However, Higton says that 'in his experience, the incidence of data loss from remote working personnel working on-line was not noticeably higher than for staff working in centralised locations. It could be argued that in some ways, a distributed workforce is less vulnerable to hackers as remote workers tend to be less visible than their office-based counterparts.' [61].

Security has become a big issue for organisations and supporting remote worker access represents a number of security implications. Some corporate organisations require a strong two-factor authentication, which ensures the identity of the mobile user connecting to the network or using the laptop/mobile device, as a basic requirement. There is also a need for quality anti-virus and anti-spyware software. Though effective security can be easily maintained through a VPN, these issues need to be considered. Worries about sensitive data and concerns about viruses mean that remote workers need to be proactive when dealing with security.

Case Study 1: E-learning at Bath

At the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2008, held at the University of Aberdeen over 22-24 July, a workshop session was given on managing virtual teams using Web 2.0 technologies [63]. The main facilitator of the workshop which was entitled 'Embracing Web 2.0 Technologies to Grease the Wheels of Team Cohesion' was Andy Ramsden, Head of e-Learning at the University of Bath.

He based the session on his experiences with the University of Bath e-learning team. Andy had seen a pattern emerging over time: members of the e-learning team were increasingly working out of the office on a range of different projects and staff development initiatives. Alongside this there were signs that the Hub-Spoke Model would develop and eventually more people would be recruited to the team who worked at a local level in faculties and departments. These employees would be located and partly managed in other departments. This emerging model of fewer face-to-face meetings and greater diversity within the wider team had created considerable challenges, although it also offered some potential benefits.

The workshop considered a number of these challenges including: how individuals keep informed about what people are up to; how to stop people becoming isolated; and how to stop 'information silos' forming. It also looked at how to harness creatively the diverse talents within a team. The workshop demonstrated how the use of social bookmarking, individual blogs, wikis and communication tools such as Twitter and Skype has changed the way that the team interacts. The resources from the workshop are available on Slideshare [64].

Case Study 2: JISC-PoWR

The aim of the JISC-sponsored Preservation of Web Resources Project (JISC PoWR) [65] was to create a handbook and run a series of workshops which would help to gain a better understanding of the challenges institutions face in preserving Web content. The project team consisted of staff from UKOLN, based at the University of Bath, and staff from the University of London Computing Centre. An independent consultant from opencontentlawyer, based in Reading, was also employed on certain items of work. Although one of the UKOLN team members is based on-site at the University of Bath, the other is a remote worker, so the end result was a fairly highly distributed team.

It was a relatively short-term project, funded from April to September 2008. This meant that to be productive, the team would need to establish communication mechanisms fairly quickly to support the project. After a kick-off meeting in April a number of different systems were put into place. The team opted to use a JISC Involve Wordpress blog for dissemination and discussion on topics relating to Web resource preservation. Within the blog there was a password-controlled team area which linked to a number of chosen communication and collaboration devices: Google groups [66] for email discussion; the Google groups repository area for storage of resources and links; Google Calendar for recording important dates; Delicious to bookmark useful documents (using the tag jisc-powr), Twiki Wiki to write the handbook and Jabber/Pidgin for chat [67]. Pidgin was chosen in preference to Skype because the University of London has disallowed use of Skype due to bandwidth issues.

As well as the team tools used, a number of other Web 2.0 tools were used for dissemination including Slideshare for distribution of Powerpoint slides, Internet Archive for distribution of MP3 audio files [68], Google Docs as an online form to record delegate information and Wetpaint Wiki [69] to collate the feedback from the workshop breakout sessions. Alongside this, organisation of the workshops was supported by Twitter tweets, phone texts and mobile phone calls. All the communication and collaboration tools were embraced and used fruitfully throughout the project with the exception of Pidgin, which presented a few usability issues for the UKOLN staff. The project was a very successful venture and achieved a great deal in its short life span.

Putting It All Together

Case studies are starting to appear detailing the portfolio of applications people use when working remotely or in a virtual team. Examples include Natalie Laderas-Kilkenny who provides a case study [70] of the tools her collaborative virtual team uses (primarily Adobe Connect [71], Skype, Wiki Spaces [72] and Google Docs) and Dr. Helen Barrett's ePortfolio [73], where she recreates her presentation portfolio with 33 different online services, software and strategies.

Which tools suit us most is as individual as our taste in food. You may find that you 'just don't get Twitter' or 'can't get on with Delicious'. The rise of Web 2.0 has meant that there is a whole wealth of software out there for 'virtual teams' to use and most of it is free. One travelling user recently explained to me that he mostly used dedicated desktop and mobile applications rather than browser-based Web applications, and that he could not see this changing any time soon. Again, whatever works for you, works.

Which communication tools are most appropriate will be a case of trial and error. However one should bear in mind that a tool's value is vastly enhanced if the people with whom you need to communicate are using it too. Sometimes this may mean embracing a tool that at first you 'can't see the point of'. It could be possible that one day you suddenly understand why it is such a popular tool, then again you might not...

Conclusions

My previous article on remote working [1] concluded that communication was key. The technologies that need to support remote working must make workers feel supported and connected. Furthermore they must also be straightforward to use and make tasks easier to do or they cease to be useful. 'Lack of enabling technologies' in the work environment has been cited as one of the reasons why some people are reluctant to become remote workers [74]. In reality, enabling technologies are very much out there. However, at the moment the choice is somewhat overwhelming and perhaps even daunting, and there can tend to be a lack of support from some IT services teams when making appropriate decisions. On the other hand, we must remember that IT services are also in something of a predicament themselves: do they need to support all these technologies? If so, who is going to organise and train them to meet such diverse requirements?

While it seems that if you want to work remotely you may have problems obtaining the necessary support internally, you may find that it is no longer your work colleagues or systems team that support you but a whole new group of 'virtual' people.

Choosing which tool to use still remains a case of matching the tool to the goal. Whatever the choice, we need to avoid biting off more than we can chew. In the last issue of Ariadne, Sarah Houghton-Jan, Digital Futures Manager for San José Public Library (and the Librarian in Black) published an excellent guide to coping with information overload [75]. Sarah explains that:

'Information flowing in from the multitude of devices, organisations, and technologies distracts, pressures, and stresses us. And yet we continue to produce information for ourselves and for others. Every time we send out information, information returns to us, usually two-fold. We deal with both interruptive and non-interruptive information every day. When constantly interrupted with that information, we never have those periods of time when you can think, plan and ponder. As a result, our ability to push our lives and our institutions forward has been greatly compromised.'

Many of Sarah's tips are commonsense, yet we are all guilty of ignoring them. Taking a step back is sometimes the most appropriate action.

Much research on virtual teams has given the 90/10 rule, i.e. that to work effectively they should comprise 90% people, 10% technology [76]. As a remote worker you will be expected to use technology effectively, but in order to make it work the most important tool set you can have is self-sufficiency, self-belief and the ability to motivate yourself. Maybe it's time for that morning coffee!

In my previous article on this topic which concentrated on the organisational and human aspects of remote working, I emphasised the need for communication in order to operate effectively. As intimated above, the technology can only be part of an effective solution. Consequently - as Amber Thomas has remarked,'Something I've been meaning to do is set regular office days where I go into Bristol and London, then let colleagues know in advance so we can book chats!'- making that contact is not just a technology-led thing, it is really up to remote workers.

Back in 2005 Office of the Future 2020 [77] identified six key skills professionals will need to be able to work from anywhere. Those skills were:

  • Analysis: Analysing information and exercising good judgment
  • Collaboration: Establishing rapport and facilitating team building
  • Technical aptitude: Selecting the best technical tools and using them effectively
  • Intuition: Identifying and adapting to the needs and work styles of others
  • Ongoing education: Engaging in continual learning
  • Negotiation: Participating in business discussions that produce positive results

Technical aptitude is only one ability in a broad spectrum necessary for an effective remote worker. When working remotely you lack the day-to-day stimulus or 'prodding' that being surrounded by real colleagues and a physical workplace provides. You will need to take a pro-active approach to work. To close with a double cliché: as a remote worker you really need to 'be on the ball' and 'make it count'.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Amber Thomas, JISC, Andy Ramsden, University of Bath and both UKOLN's own remote workers and Software and Systems team.

Editor's note:
Marieke Guy has been with UKOLN since May 2000 and has worked remotely since April 2008. She currently lives 15 miles from UKOLN's offices and made the decision to work from home for family and environmental reasons. Since taking this decision, she says she has learnt a lot about herself, communication technologies and how cold her spare bedroom is!

Marieke has also begun her own blog on remote working entitled "Ramblings of a Remote Worker" in which she hopes to cover cultural issues, organisational attitudes and useful technologies related to remote working. See http://remoteworker.wordpress.com/

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Author Details

Marieke Guy
Research Officer
UKOLN
University of Bath

Email: m.guy@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/ukoln/staff/m.guy/

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Date published: 
30 October 2008

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How to cite this article

Marieke Guy. "Get Tooled Up: Staying Connected: Technologies Supporting Remote Workers". October 2008, Ariadne Issue 57 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue57/guy/


article | by Dr. Radut