Best Practices For Supporting Home Users

The home user is now just as much a part of the network as the accounting department, thanks to the emergence of broadband Internet services and VPNs, and businesses looking

June 10, 2003

10 Min Read
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1. Get Buy-In From Upper Management

If corporate management doesn't accept telecommuting as an extension of the corporate operations and network, a home-user program won't fly. Managers, from the CEO to the IT manager, need to understand the advantages and challenges of working with remote users and must be willing to support them. That means putting aside any concerns about home users being unsupervised. In fact, users who work at home typically have high morale and are productive. Much of that has to do with the flexibility of working at home--there's no commute time and you can go to the gym, post office and bank during business hours, making up work time later.

But telecommuting is not for everyone. Home users have to be self-motivated and able to handle distractions at home, and have some technical abilities to solve small problems with their computers and telephone equipment.

Most organizations don't officially start a home user program; it just evolves. That's what happened at Network Computing's parent company, CMP Media. In the early 1990s, some employees were allowed to work from home on a limited basis--a few days a week, for instance. Over time, the home-user population increased dramatically, and in the IT industry boom of the mid- to late 1990s, more employees were permitted to work from home full time. There were more than 300 at-home users at that time, then about 10 percent of the company.

So CMP created a new IT support team, called Home Support, for managing home users on a day-to-day basis. Centralizing support for this group gave the remote-access environment more credibility within the company, and we were able to monitor the users' laptops, desktops and remote access, and address their support problems more quickly. One of our main tools is our call-tracking system, a custom Lotus Notes database that lets us track all support calls. Helpdesk technicians input details on the problem, comments and resolution information, so that data can be recycled for future calls. CMP also runs a technology-support discussion database for sharing ideas among the support team. This program came about because CMP's management made it a priority. Without management buy-in, it doesn't make sense to let your employees work from home.

2. Offer High-Speed Connectivity

Broadband, broadband, broadband: The greater speed you can provide your home users, the better. That means a VPN, as well as remote-control software for the times you need to take control of the user equipment.

There are several options for remote access. For a full-time home user, our first choice is any high-speed service--cable modem, DSL or bidirectional satellite--all of which serve as a conduit to our VPN servers.

Cable is the most widely available high-speed Internet option, the easiest to set up and, in our experience, the most reliable. Cable-modem services typically offer 1-Mbps Internet access. But because cable service is based on shared media, throughput depends on the amount of traffic on that segment of the network. As for equipment, all you need is a cable modem that moves the signal off the coax wire to the Ethernet and a computer with an Ethernet jack. We typically provide cable-modem users with a small SOHO firewall router for security.

DSL is a close second in terms of popularity, and it provides 128 Kbps to 12 Mbps downstream and 128 Kbps to 1 Mbps upstream, depending on the service and the user's location. A minimum of 256 Kbps downstream is best.DSL also requires a computer with Ethernet, and some DSL providers require authentication, too. Most DSL providers include in their service the necessary software for PPP over Ethernet authentication. Your remote user should be able to handle this part of the installation, but if not, you'll have to pay the service provider to do it. The catch with DSL service is that it's not easy to get up and running. It might take six weeks to iron out the equipment and service bugs.

Satellite is the most expensive high-speed access option for home users, at $90 to $120 per month, not including dish and router hardware. Also, satellite Internet access isn't very reliable. It often suffers from variations in propagation delay and is sensitive to weather conditions.

For home users who don't have high-speed service available, we offer a standardized international ISP dial-up connection. From that they initiate a VPN session for network access. We also offer an in-house dial-up server and toll-free service, which costs the company about $6 an hour. Once home users are connected, they can access corporate network resources and the IT Home Support group can access the users' computers using Netopia's Timbuktu Pro remote-control software. IT can use Timbuktu to help fix a printer or configure e-mail, for instance.

3. Train Your Remote Users

They don't have to know how to configure their own VPN connection, but home users must have some baseline knowledge of computers. Therefore, you need a user-training program that covers corporate IT policies, computer basics and applications. We provide training for users at their nearest CMP branch office, or we use outsourced training services.Training home users saves you support time in the long run, and it saves the company money if the user can handle a problem on his or her own or can better explain it to the helpdesk. A recent home-office hire who somehow evaded the company's required training session showed us how important training is. When it came time to load his laptop, he couldn't open the lid, even with the help of a team of IT technicians on the phone. We had to send a local third-party technician to set up his laptop and printer--at $100 an hour. Needless to say, home-user hires now must pick up their machines in person with our training program.

4. Standardize on Hardware and Software

Home users should have the same hardware and software

used by your on-site workers, simplifying things for the support staff. At CMP, the home-support team manages software and hardware for all home users, including upgrades and installations.

We also have on-site service contracts with our major hardware vendors for hardware repairs, and our support team handles the software problems. If a laptop motherboard fails, we can call Dell or IBM and have their reps go on-site and swap the board. We also keep spares that we can set up and ship to users as replacements. Shipping equipment back and forth isn't efficient, but it works. The key is to track your hardware assets closely.When it comes time to upgrade, we merely back up the user's data and move it to the new system, with its "standard" image of our typical corporate apps--Notes, Microsoft Office, Timbuktu, various system settings, configured e-mail and remote access. We then pack up the system and ship it back to the user.

5. Build a Strong, Specialized Staff

Being able to answer a phone is one thing, but fully supporting remote users is another. You have to be a bit of a detective, with plenty of patience to determine the source of, say, an access problem.

When you hire an IT home-user support person, make sure he or she is technically proficient in your hardware and software environment. He or she also must have strong customer-service skills because the home user and IT relationship is close-knit. His or her experience in phone support is also important.

6. Keep Your Support Group TalkingInformation-sharing is crucial among home-support staff, with frequent meetings to review major problems, and a call log to document support inquiries and actions. A knowledge database with details on problems and solutions lets support staff resolve user problems efficiently.

CMP's IT Home Support team is stationed in one office area so technicians can exchange information easily. We also use e-mail and discussion databases to troubleshoot helpdesk inquiries. Keeping close tabs on our home users helps us spot trends that can lead to bigger problems, such as hardware failures and problems with new applications.

7. Minimize Costs

We've found that it costs about 30 percent more to support a home user than a user at headquarters. That's because of the remote-access, telecommunications, shipping and hardware costs associated with supporting home users.

But there are ways to cut costs, and standardizing on the home-office equipment and installing combination printer/fax/copier/scanner devices helps. The HP multifunction device we chose for home users cut the number of home-office devices we support by one-fourth. We also moved our ISDN users to the cheaper cable or DSL services because, in some cases, ISDN with "700" service was costing $5,000 a month. And we moved full-time home users from the $6-per-hour toll-free access to the VPN, saving the company thousands of dollars.8. Enact and Enforce Strong Security

A good remote-access security strategy comes with a clear, defined policy. That means setting and enforcing best practices such as secure passwords of at least six characters, with a mix of numbers and letters. You also need to change passwords about every 60 days and make sure your policy says users must keep their passwords secret.

The most vulnerable points in your network should use encryption. In a VPN, that means enabling IPsec (IP security) in your VPN routers and access devices. We supply our home users with a Linksys firewall router that has an internal four-port switch, which protects them from basic hack and security attacks.

9. Set Support Boundaries

Your home-support staff should support only company-issued equipment, not the user's home PC or other equipment. Draw clear boundaries by including a declaration of support in your IT policy, and make sure home users understand you don't support their Xbox, wireless network or anything not supplied by the organization.10. Adapt and Go With the Flow

An IT organization needs to be flexible and able to change as the industry dictates. Identify inefficiencies and gaps, and fill those gaps with the appropriate technology so you can save the company money and make employees more efficient.

Creating a home-support program is one way IT can adapt to change. Another is to standardize once a new technology takes root in the organization, like on a single handheld device. We chose the Palm VIIx, for instance, and we support only corporate-purchased Palm VIIxs, not personal ones. We're now in the early stages of testing all major wireless technologies and plan to set a standard for CMP's wireless by year's end.

Matthew Tartaro is the senior East Coast branch support coordinator for CMP Media. Write to him at [email protected].

Post a comment or question on this story.How to Set up a Home User1. Compile data on the new remote user, his or her location, manager and charge code. Once HR notifies you of a new home user--a new hire or an existing employee who will begin to work from home--gather data on him or her for your records.

2. Contact the user to assess his or her technology requirements. Our corporate policy is that a home user gets a PC or laptop, multifunction printer/fax/copier and two lines, usually one phone line and one high-speed data line. Anything extra must be approved and then paid for by the user's group.

3. Configure and test the user's PC or laptop with remote access. Set up and test the user's client machine, as well as his or her remote-access connection.

4. Provide the user with your IT policy. Have home users sign an IT policy document, which should lay out the corporate policy on equipment usage, support and security.

5. Distribute or ship the equipment. Have the user pick up the equipment at the nearest branch office or ship it to him or her.

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