Alone together

Collaboration tools, online processes can help re-create the office experience

As the number of teleworkers grows, feds are taking advantage of some videoconferencing and network technologies to help make the commute from the bed to the laptop PC in the den a little easier.

The Food and Drug Administration, for example, implemented a Cisco Systems collaboration suite for 10,000 researchers and scientists. They can access a secure virtual private network using a Cisco suite that includes unified messaging and voice over IP.

Cisco representatives say collaborative technology can keep important work relationships viable in a telecommuting environment. Telework will expand through tools such as Cisco's TelePresence, which uses high-definition video technology, said Bruce Klein, vice president at Cisco Federal.

'You'll feel like you're sitting in the same room with someone, even though he's in Hong Kong,' said Chris Shenefiel, industry solution manager at Cisco's worldwide federal government division. The oft-cited wish of managers to be able to see their teleworking employees is now possible, albeit at a considerable price.

Telework and continuity of operations really do go hand-in-hand, said Greg McDermott, director of federal initiatives at Marathon Technologies. Telework and COOP policies are 'not just for when the Big One comes, but we also need to be ready for simple displacing events.'

'Government has done a great job of protecting essential systems from a major disaster such as Hurricane Katrina,' said Steve Keilen, Marathon's marketing director. 'But no one has cracked the code on the things that really cause outages on a day-to-day basis. And these things need to be considered in a COOP plan.'

Marathon's everRun software is used in federal applications that require a high-availability architecture and 100 percent redundancy, such as aviation systems.

EverRun synchronizes two standard Windows servers. The software creates a single Windows environment that operates like a stand-alone server. 'If there's a disk drive that fails or reaches over-capacity, the system will continue to operate with no disruption of service,' Keilen said.

EverRun also is part of a congressional threat alert system. Congressional leaders have buttons under their desk that they can push if they feel threatened, McDermott said.

To enable more telework, some agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Homeland Security Department, are adopting a 90/10 work paradigm, said Nigel Ballard, government marketing manager at Intel. Ninety percent of employees receive laptops, 10 percent get desktops.

The days when an agency had backup systems in a locked room off-site are over, Ballard said. Nobody ever checks on the room, 'the batteries go flat and nobody remembers the passwords.' Better to have a highly mobile workforce equipped with laptops that contain robust security features.

Teleworkers should be able to have the same experience they have at the office, whether they are working from home, a hotel room or a satellite center, said Tom Simmons, federal area vice president at Citrix Systems.

General Services Administration employees access their network using Citrix Presentation Server every workday, Simmons said. If an event triggers the agency's COOP plan, and users have to connect from home, there's no spike in license demand.
Users can get to their data from anywhere they have access to a remote connection. 'All I need is a keyboard, a monitor and a dial-up connection, and I can log in to any application,' Simmons said.

Government has little choice but to embrace telework, Simmons said. The generation coming into the federal workforce posted their college papers online and checked class schedules and assignments on Web sites. 'Their whole world is an on-demand thing,' he said. 'They access the Internet at Starbucks and on the beach.'

Bobby Caudill, group manger for global government solutions at Adobe, thinks part of government's lack of mobility is its addiction to paper.

Caudill uses the example of a travel request. 'That's been done in paper and pencil for years.' But by extending that document online and eliminating the paper, the whole geography of the process changes. No need to traipse back to the office to get a supervisor's signature. 'Once you've eliminated paper, you've made your environment friendly to teleworkers.'

Removed from the umbilical cord of the help desk, some teleworkers fear they will encounter computer problems that they won't be able to handle.

Adobe's Connect Web communication tool is one solution to this, Caudill said. Connect lets a help-desk employee take over someone's desktop remotely. Face-to-face meetings over Connect reduce the sense of isolation some employees might feel.
Videoconferencing and online collaboration tools are the keys to pulling government through a COOP event, Caudill said. 'In the case of a pandemic flu, the last thing you want to do is bring everybody together.'

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