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Security, Trust Are Among Top Concerns for Growing Mobile Workforce

August 26, 2011
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Michelle Boggs is one of many small-business owners running a nearly virtual workforce. As president, CEO and co-founder of Alexandria, Virginia-based marketing consulting firm McKinley Marketing Partners Inc., Boggs manages her 20 full-time employees and 80 consultants at the office, their homes, the airport and anywhere else they need to be besides in the office. She does so by using what she calls a “foolproof,” secure network, which is run by a third-party information technology firm.

“Security is critical for us because all of our data lives on our servers,” she said. “We have a proprietary database, which has all of our customer data, consultant data and a tool by which we manage all of our recruiting stages and our project requirements. It can be accessed from anywhere in the world.”

Boggs’ employees are part of the 20 million to 30 million people working from home at least one day a week. That estimate comes from the Carlsbad, California-based Telework Research Network, which recently released its comprehensive report, The State of Telework in the U.S.

Although telework is becoming commonplace in the corporate world—including in small and medium-size businesses—there are obstacles to conquer. These include management mistrust, worker isolation, data security, and concerns about career impact, said Kate Lister, principal researcher and lead consultant at the Telework Research Network.

“Most companies still don’t get the importance of computer security,” Lister said. “They don’t have the programs and protocols in place for a mobile workforce. For example, there are still a lot of people working at coffee shops on open networks.”

Not only should companies ramp up their security for telewokers, but also they should create an overall formal telework policy, as well as individual telework policies, she said. (Some of these types of policy templates can be downloaded for free from the Telework Research Network website.)

“Having a telework policy establishes a level of expectations and makes it clear that you both understand the rules and policy,” she said, adding that these policies may vary from one department to the next.

For a company to have a successful telework plan, managers and employees need to be trained on the do’s and don’ts, Lister said.

“From a management point of view, there has to be a huge cultural shift. Managers just don’t trust their employees because they feel they can’t manage someone they can’t see,” she said. “It’s important to have a formal policy showing who’s eligible for telecommuting and what the rules are.”

As small and medium-size businesses grapple with how to create a successful remote-work program, a lack of Internet and network security knowledge is creating headaches, says Josh Waldo, director of marketing for Microsoft Corp.’s small and medium-size business division in Bellevue, Washington.

“What we do in our personal lives often translates into our work life. If you’re in a social network and you’re using these other tools on the Internet to collaborate with your friends, then you might also start collaborating with colleagues about sensitive information,” Waldo said.

Security concerns over telework are due in part to the explosion of social media. In fact, 43 percent of information technology workers recently surveyed nationwide by market research firm Ipsos said they use social networking tools to work with colleagues. Yet, less than one-third (29 percent) of small and medium-size business information workers reported that their companies provide access to internal social networking tools that might prevent the use of external applications, such as Facebook and Twitter.

The study, sponsored by Microsoft, involved 1,285 small and medium-size business information workers across the United States with a particular focus on 15 greater metro areas, including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York.

Teleworkers should be held accountable for their online behavior, said Darin Andersen, chief operating officer of San Diego-based Internet security company Eset. That means using best practices while working remotely, including creating strong passwords for their desktop and laptop computers, mobile phones and even Wi-Fi networks, Andersen said.

“You also want to make sure that if your kids are using your work laptop or iPads at home that they are not accessing peer-to-peer networks for downloading music,” Andersen added. “Those types of networks harbor viruses.”

One critical aspect of creating a secure remote workforce is providing training. Only 20 percent of companies actually train their employees for telework, said Lister of the Telework Research Network. Small and medium-size businesses must extend their workforce training to cover special remote working policies and security concerns, Andersen said.

“It’s about collaboration between the IT and HR and training departments and the employee who is working outside the office,” he said. “Social networks themselves are only as insecure as the people using them, so training becomes really critical.”

Boggs of McKinley Marketing Partners hasn’t taken all the expert advice to heart. She doesn’t feel the need to have a formal telework policy. “We’re a pretty flexible organization, whether my employees are here or working from home,” she said. “As long as they get their job done I’m not really worried.”

But Boggs’ confidence has to do with her faith in the security of her network. Her advice for small- to medium-size businesses moving more toward a mobile workforce is to ensure the company has a good IT provider, whether it’s in-house or a contractor.

Ultimately, she said telework is about better business results. “If somebody has an hour commute, aren’t they going to be more productive working from home?”

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