Flexible Working Needs Flexible IT

As the Olympics loom, many London businesses are gearing up to allow employees to work from home rather than force them to face inevitable transport overcrowding – TfL warn that some of the busiest tube stations would grind to a halt unless two thirds of regular users stayed at home instead – and assorted other sport-related annoyances.

A spike in the number of flexible workers, as those working from home are usually somewhat euphemistically termed, makes IT departments responsible for keeping the digital roof over workers’ heads.

Cautiously, some have already been testing their mettle. 2,500 people in O2’s Slough office, for example, recently took part in a home working dry run, staying in en masse to test network capacity. Whitehall departments did the same thing in August last year and February this year as part of ‘Operation Footfall’.

Even in the early stages, however, it appears that some solutions have been found wanting. According to a civil servant source, one assumes a disgruntled one, referenced by The Observer, for example, staff participating in the August experiment experienced ‘connection problems’ as a result of overloaded servers.

With the right precautions and, in particular, with the help of a supportive broadband provider, however, local networks should have no problem supporting home workers even on a large scale.

O2 are somewhat biased given that they’re looking to attract business broadband clients but they’re also probably somewhat more prepared than other SMEs for the challenges of homeworking so it’s easy to believe that their participants suffered few connection problems despite an 162% increase in VPN traffic, a 40% increase in use of instant messaging services and a 29% increase in VoIP.

As the way ISPs managed congestion during the World Cup shows, broadband providers are more than capable of accounting for surges in demand, although some do manage them better than others. Take any suggestion that a slow down is inevitable or, even more ill informed, that the games will ‘crash the internet’ with a very large pinch of salt.

Aside from the ISP they use, businesses can help their networks by strengthening existing points of access for users. O2, for example, rolled out Microsoft Lync for video and audio conferencing.

Finally, for managers and business owners it’s worth noting that the actual results of flexible working are generally encouraging: the vast majority of O2 staff (88%) said they were at least as productive as they would have been in the office, if not more productive.

O2’s survey found that flexible working was a morale boost for many, too – respondents said they enjoyed having the opportunity to spend more time with family (O2 don’t record the number who saw that as a downside) and, in just one day, employees saved a collective nine grand in bus, train and petrol money.

Julia Kukiewicz is editor of consumer information site Choose. The site offers market research and debate into the home media and mobile and personal finance industries, as well as covering rights issues for consumers. Follow Choose for more on twitter at @choosenet.

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