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Unified communications critical to keeping telecommuters productive

By 2016, one quarter of U.S. adults will telecommute at least occasionally. Without the right tools, the enterprise may be headed to a communications nightmare.

As much as 25% of adults will be at least part-time telecommuters by 2016, driving the need for more collaborative technologies and unified communications, a recent study found.

Those companies that fail to invest in not only the right platforms but the right processes risk alienating employees and experiencing serious drops in efficiency.

The Forrester report "U.S. Telecommuting Forecast, 2009 to 2016" found that the sharpest rise will be in occasional (less than once a week) and regular (one to four times a week) telecommuters. The former group will grow from 7.2% of adults today to 12.4% by 2016; regular telecommuters will grow from 5.4% of adults to 8.6%.

"It's pretty clear that the drivers are big and systemic," said Ted Schadler, the report's author and a Forrester vice president. He said that broadband penetration has made telecommuting possible, and advances in the way people communicate are also contributing to the rise of telecommuting.

The adoption of instant messaging (IM) in corporations and advances in document collaboration both help to keep remote workers connected to office life and allow them to coordinate closely with physically distant teams, Schadler said.

It's no coincidence that instant messaging and document collaboration are areas that major vendors -- from Cisco and Microsoft to IBM and Google -- are actively investing in, even pioneering best practices internally.

"Social networks and rich employee profiles supplant the water cooler. Cisco and HP are two companies that are using social networks to bring their employees together," the report found. "HP Labs' experiment is even called 'WaterCooler' to define its purpose."

The HP project, as outlined in a blog post, tries to capture the informal corporate "zeitgeist," tracking and sharing what people are reading, working on, and talking about in an easy-to-use internal system that serves as a user-created reference desk even while connecting like-minded individuals who otherwise might not meet, digitally or in real life.

Nor does it hurt that telecommuters, who themselves often make the choice to work remotely, are willing to do legwork making sure they stay connected to the office.

"Remote workers, once they're working from home, will find a way," Schadler said. "They are highly motivated to solve their problems."

Not all smooth sailing

Despite the ready availability of a variety of tools, companies should expect some major growing pains from the rise in telecommuting, Schadler said. Companies will have to adopt new technology, and corporate cultures will need to change. Instant messaging, for example, is "addictive" to remote employees, who use it to quickly ping co-workers and build connections, he said. But office-bound employees rarely use the technology, according to Forrester's research, leaving the overall adoption of IM by computer-using employees at only 30%, compared with 90% for email.

"It's a key application, and I'm just baffled that it's stuck at the 30% level," Schadler said, citing its advantages over telephones for many uses, such as the ability to juggle multiple conversations or automatically make a record of the conversation.

And when it comes to collaborating with those outside the company, enterprises might as well be stuck in the Stone Age.

"If you want to do anything company-to-company, it's still email, phone or fax," Schadler said. "Video conferencing or IM is almost impossible to do [through official channels], but people are doing it anyway -- just not in an IT-sanctioned way."

For crafting unified communications strategy, Schadler suggested looking to these remote workers -- rather than major vendors' grand visions -- for inspiration.

"The user picks the channel that works best for [him]," he said, referring to the choice of IM, email, video, or another communication platform. Leaving those channels discrete -- rather than all connected through centralized presence servers that intelligently re-route instant messages to text or email or voice -- may be the most pragmatic solution, at least for the immediate future.

"I'm not saying it's a bad idea, or the [vendor] vision is not a good vision," Schadler said. "But ... it's going to be a messier reality than that."

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