BYO3: The tools of telework expand with the mobile workforce
It’s Telework Week, so maybe many of you are reading this from your home office. According to the Mobile Work Exchange, over 110,000 people who don’t normally telecommute pledged to do so this week. And 90 percent of them are federal employees, with 80 percent of the new telecommuters based in the Washington, D.C. metro area.
With a big snowstorm barreling down on the region as of this writing, having more than 100,000 people off the roads and safely doing their jobs at home is just icing on the cake this year.
The high number of federal employees participating in Telework Week doesn’t surprise Tom Simmons, area vice president of public sector for Citrix Systems. It’s his job to help get the technology for successful telecommuting into the hands of the federal workforce. He’s seen a rise in government telework ever since the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 became law. And he’s seen how an increasingly mobile workforce has influenced the tools of teleworking.
“The prototypical setup for most government agencies is to issue the employee a government laptop, load it up with all the specific apps that the employee needs, and then support them as needed,” Simmons said. But as mobile computing grows, the options for teleworking also are expanding.
Simmons, for example, demonstrates Citrix Receiver, a program the GCN reviewed last August. The best feature of Receiver is that it enables all telecommuting employees to access their work files and government documents regardless of what platform they want to use. They can open up Microsoft Word files on an Apple iPad, a smart phone, a notebook or desktop, and the program looks and acts exactly the same on each one. Even on the back end, there is no difference to an administrator managing many teleworkers using multiple platforms.
And Simmons said he’s seen a substantial increase in the number of government agencies looking to move their employees to smart phones and tablets instead of just notebooks. “There’s been a lot of talk about BYOD [bring your own device] in government, but what we are seeing now is BYO3,” because employees have more than one or two devices, he said. “Most people at least have a smart phone.”
Simmons admits that security for government telecommuters is an important issue — in fact, it’s the paramount issue for a lot of agencies he works with.
Virtual private network connections are a key step, secured with Secure Sockets Layer encryption, so that any hacker who is able to break into the stream gets nothing but unintelligible data. But wireless access points, especially those being used by the Defense Department, also need to be secured with something more than just a user name and password. For that, most agencies use Common Access Cards and PIN numbers, Simmons said.
This makes for a secure solution, although bolting a reader onto the side of a phone or buying an expensive reader/case, which can run around $350, isn’t always practical. He said he hopes that manufacturers in the future will make devices with other ways to help authenticate secure network access, perhaps with internal chips or biometrics. But he stressed that government telecommuting is secure today, if a touch unwieldy in some circumstances.
Simmons said that the overwhelming majority of agencies he works with report a big increase in productivity when employees telecommute, with workers freed of the distractions of the office and armed with better tools than they likely have at their desks.
“When you couple that with the ability to always stay connected, most people find that they end up working more, and are happier at the same time,” he added. “And it lets employees get evaluated based on what they actually produce, not just the old way of looking at time and attendance.”