Companies that subsidize PCs and Internet access for their employees face a growing - and often unexpected - demand for remote access to corporate e-mail and applications. This demand is prompting Delta Airlines Inc., Vivendi Universal SA and others to invest millions of dollars in their network infrastructures to let employees work from home.
During the past year, dozens of organizations, including Ford Motor Co., The New York Times Co. and the US Postal Service, have announced plans to provide their employees with discounted PCs, printers and Internet connections for home use. These so-called wired workforce programs were designed to create Internet-savvy employees - not to support telecommuting.
However, as soon as employees have received their home PCs, they have asked for all the functionality of their office systems, plus VPN connectivity. These requests are taking some corporate IT departments by surprise.
"Our goal was to jump-start the employee's ability to interact with this new technology . . . to get them ready for the New Economy," says Steve Paschen, director of Ford's ground-breaking Model E program, which was launched in February 2000. "What our employees expected was something different."
Paschen says Ford never envisioned a work-at-home program when it offered to subsidize PCs and Internet access for its 300,000 employees worldwide. So it was surprised when employees requested Microsoft Office on their new home PCs instead of Microsoft Works, which comes bundled with the systems. Ford's IT department also was inundated with employee requests to access corporate e-mail from home.
"We have a fairly robust methodology to access our network from home with security and authentication," Paschen says. "You need to work it out with [your manager] to get the proper secure ID and tokens to access our network. We haven't done anything to our network in terms of expansion, but we have volumes of people now wanting to access the network from home."
Ford is still deciding how it will provide remote access to the 150,000-plus employees who have ordered PCs through its Model E program. Meanwhile, the company has created a Web site for Model E participants that provides corporate news and information previously available only to office workers.
"The lines between work and home are blurring with the ability to connect from anywhere," he says. "Ford has to recognize that trend and figure out how to deal with it not just in the Model E program, but under the auspices of everything we do."
Ford isn't alone.
"This becomes a Web service that employees are going to use to interact with the company while they're at home," says Max Metral, CTO at PeoplePC, an ISP that specializes in employee connectivity programs such as Model E. "This isn't just about checking e-mail. Employees want to know where the company picnic is. They want to find out if their manager has a [home PC] so they can send an instant message."
PeoplePC plans to offer a turnkey VPN system to its corporate customers this summer. PeoplePC has signed up six multinational corporations and supports more than 300,000 employees in 10 countries.
Companies that launch wired workforce programs find upwards of 70 percent of eligible employees participate. Companies usually subsidize the costs and employees pay anywhere from $3 to $12 per month for a PC, printer and Internet access. After three years, the employee owns the system.
Most wired workforce programs offer a basic system along with upgrades and additional peripherals that employees can purchase for an extra fee. Increasingly, companies are offering an option that lets employees who already have home PCs enjoy free Internet service and access the corporate net.
At Delta, 11,000 employees have signed up for free Internet access, while another 36,000 employees opted for the complete PC package. All employees get a CD-ROM that provides the VPN, public-key infrastructure and Web browser software needed to securely access Delta's intranet and Microsoft Outlook Express e-mail systems. Delta's key software applications, including E-crew, which schedules flight attendants and pilots, can be accessed from home.
To accommodate its wired workforce program, Delta spent around $1 million on VPN servers and software from Nortel Networks. The company hired AT&T to monitor and manage its VPN service and to provide additional T-3 lines into its Atlanta headquarters.
"We had already implemented a VPN solution for corporate mobile users and sanctioned work-at-home users," explains Barry Lloyd, director of network engineering at Delta Technology, a subsidiary that develops systems for the airline. "We tripled our capacity on the VPN to support the wired workforce program. . . . With potentially 70,000 employees hitting those VPN boxes, we had to ramp up to handle the extra traffic."
Delta says its VPN is underutilized except during the one week each month when flight attendants and pilots use E-crew to bid on their schedules. Prior to the launch of the wired workforce program, E-crew could only be accessed via shared PCs located at airports.
By year-end Delta expects to see cost savings from the VPN, which is replacing a dial-up remote access system from Shiva in some locations. Instead of dialing long-distance calls to enter Delta's network in Atlanta, most employees can place a local call to AT&T's Internet service.
"When you look at the costs, you have to consider the long-term plans of where you want to go and how you want to interact with your employees," says Tara Werho, director of Delta's wired workforce program. "You may end up with savings in paper communications or in application development time or in remote access.''But Delta figures the biggest benefit of its program is going to be in improved productivity.
"The goal is not to get employees to work 24 hours per day," Werho says. "But people don't all work from 8 to 5. Some people want to answer their e-mail in the quiet of their homes, and we want to give them the flexibility to do that."