Remote Possibilities

Companies are more interested than ever in the concept of a far-flung workforce.

A Model of Mobility

NetCom CFO Bob Waldron says, “It’s not a huge amount, but you’re always looking for places to save.” In fact, NetCom, which sells network switches and related services to telecom carriers and Internet service providers, has built its entire business model around the idea of telecommuting. Two-thirds of the company’s 225 employees work remotely. “Without the ability to telecommute,” says Gilbertson, “our business would be limited to companies based within a few hours’ drive of our three office locations.”

Most companies aren’t so dependent on remote workers, which can make it challenging for CFOs to determine whether the investment in mobile technologies will pay off. Bolt says Atlantic Envelope is spending $50,000 in its first year on BlackBerries for its sales force, half for the devices and half for the related software. That’s a relatively small sum spent on one specific device. Companies interested in equipping their remote workers with a full array of tools could easily spend tens of millions of dollars, and possibly more. “The expectation now is that you’re as connected remotely as you would be in the office,” says Ed Brill, Boston-based senior manager of enterprise messaging for IBM’s Lotus Software division. That means that a mobile technology shopping list could include not only cell phones, BlackBerries, and laptops — that is, the devices an employee totes around — but all manner of corporate-systems retooling to make Web sites, databases, meeting rooms, and other facilities accessible from a variety of devices while remaining secure.

Security is a big concern, but it’s just one piece of a larger management challenge. “Managing virtual teams, making people accountable, and establishing clear deliverables are major challenges to telecommuting,” according to Nagaraja Srivatsan, senior vice president of the project solutions group at Silverline Technologies Limited, a software and integration services firm based in Piscataway, New Jersey, and Mumbai, India. He should know: his firm creates wireless applications and other software systems for clients by tapping a network of employees based at three locations in India, as well as Europe, North America, and other locations in Asia.

The need to bring new skill sets to bear isn’t lost on CFOs. Fortunately, technology can help. At NetCom, for example, Bob Waldron is looking forward to a new system created by Gilbertson and his technology staff that will allow him to check on the status of every project at the end of each day. “Today,” says Gilbertson, “we have a paper-based process in which each assignment results in a sign-off by the client. But with every remote worker tied into headquarters through our virtual private network, and using Microsoft Project, employees can enter all the pertinent data and we can view the status of every project daily.”

Joe Radigan writes regularly for eCFO.

Putting a Price on Telecommuting

Despite the flexibility and other advantages mobile technology offers, finance chiefs are likely to approach it with some hard questions about ROI. And, as is so often the case with technology, that can prove difficult. For Kerry Reedy, vice president for sales and marketing at Atlantic Envelope Co., in Atlanta, mobile computing has become part and parcel of daily business, every bit as indispensable as telephones and fax machines. “We’ve just got to believe this is the right thing to do,” says Reedy. “I honestly don’t believe the move to wireless can be based on ROI.”

Reedy compares the money spent on mobile technologies with other infrastructure software costs, such as ERP. “This technology lays the track for the last half mile,” he notes. “Why have all this other technology if you can’t get the information to those who need it?” Keith Bolt, vice president and CFO of Atlantic Envelope, agrees, saying that improved customer-service levels justify the cost. —JR

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