Fueling a new trend: Interest in telecommuting on the rise due to higher gasoline costs

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When she accepted a job three months ago at Greenwood-based Tilson HR Inc., Kristen Shingleton received not only the usual array of employee benefits but also the assurance that she could work from home two days a week.

While the concept of telecommuting still may seem a bit radical to many companies, it could become as common as vacation time and 401(k) plans if gas prices continue to climb.

“It’s saving me about $200 a month,” said Shingleton, a senior human resources consultant who commutes from Noblesville in her Honda CR-V.

Tilson, a professional employer organization, provided her a laptop and the tools she needed to access the company network from her home computer and complete everyday tasks as if she were at her office desk in Greenwood.

The company is limiting the perk to its HR consulting division, but ultimately may offer it to other employees. Advances in technology are making the transition to telecommuting much smoother than it would have been just a decade ago.

Today, all a company needs is what’s known as a virtual private network, or any number of Web-based applications, to accommodate requests to work from home.

To be sure, technology has blurred the distinction considerably between home and office, said Tim Altom, a local independent technology consultant who writes a column for IBJ.

“It used to be that if you were logging in from the outside world, you had to jump through a bunch of crazy hoops,” he said. “And it might, might be able to send your data back.”

That is not the case anymore.

A VPN is a private network that grew from the popularity of the Internet and uses the Web to connect remote sites or users together. Instead of using a ded- icated leased line, a VPN uses “virtual” connections routed through the Internet from the company’s private network to the remote site, or employee.

First came intranets, which are password-protected sites used only by company employees. But many employers now are creating their own VPN to accommodate the needs of remote employees and distant offices. What makes VPNs attractive is that you can run older applications that are not Webbased, such as Microsoft Word and PC applications, on the networks.

“It’s becoming the de facto way of doing things, because there are still so many applications that are not developed and designed around the Internet,” said Ed Leer, a technology consultant who operates Profficee Inc. in Carmel.

Because the applications are not Webbased, however, security risks exist. Office networks that were built before the advent of the Internet operated solely in-house, making security breaches and break-ins irrelevant, unless the damage was done from the inside.

In contrast, protections already are built into Web applications. Almost all new applications that have become available within the past five years have Web interfaces that act as a browser. In the case of Tilson, a system from Microsoft is used that includes remote workplace capabilities, which allow users to log on via a Web site.

Employees can receive e-mail and connect to their computer desktops as if they are at the office.

“The application that used to insist on its own format, sitting on its server at the big company, now has learned to play nicely with its external friends,” Altom said.

Tilson, for example, has had remote capabilities for about four years, said John Bush, the company’s IT business integration manager, giving employees “ultimate flexibility.”

Instant messaging, Web cams and sites such as www.GoToMeeting.com, which gives companies the capability to conduct online meetings and presentations, make the argument for telecommuting even more compelling.

Culture shock

As the market for these types of tools increases, more vendors are popping up to get their piece of the pie. In turn, prices are dropping, making it much more justifiable for a company to take the plunge.

Typically, the biggest challenge isn’t cost, but getting a company to change its culture, Leer said. Some business managers simply aren’t ready to let employees work out of the office.

Other concerns include systems support. Before the Internet, companies had to figure out how to build a network. But with that already in existence, the process has been simplified to knowing how to run an application over the network and supporting the application.

It’s useless to purchase the applications and get the system set up if no one knows how to fix the problems, he said.

On top of that, not everyone is wired to work remotely, Tilson President Brent Tilson said. While he said the benefit can be useful to lure top talent, he cautioned that some employees are better suited for the office environment.

Yet, the transition toward working remotely has been evolving the past 15 years and has been boosted lately by spiking fuel costs.

“It’s such a big effort for a company to change the way they do things,” Leer said. “And now with the fuel prices being so high, there’s a catalyst, from a business standpoint, to do this.”

Indeed, as gas prices continue to rise, more employers are offering additional benefits, such as telecommuting and flexible schedules, to help offset costs, according to a survey from the Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management.

The most common tactic, adopted by 42 percent of companies surveyed, was to raise the mileage reimbursement to the IRS maximum. But 26 percent began offering a flexible work schedule and 18 percent the option of telecommuting.

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