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How to Implement Telecommuting in a Hurry

by Brian McConnell
05/02/2006

Editor's Note: In the interest of disseminating this information as widely as possible the author grants all reprint requests without the need to obtain any further permission as long as the URL of this original article is included. This article is a companion piece to For SARS Press 1, for Bird Flu Press 2... and Building Your Own Teleconference System with Asterisk and Gizmo.

This article outlines a series of simple measures that businesses can implement so they can close their offices and send their workers home to telecommute during the peak period of a pandemic. I'll give some practical and technical advice that businesses can use to continue somewhat normal operations, even if their buildings are closed and their workers are all working from remote sites. This advice won't be very useful for industrial operations where workers must be on site, but for many information- and service-oriented businesses, this is advice worth considering.

In the event of an influenza pandemic, or any contagious disease such as SARS, public health authorities will consider restricting movement and public assembly as a way of slowing the spread of a disease. Modern office buildings, with their open floor plans and often dense concentrations of people, are not places you want to be in this situation.

Businesses should be implementing plans to proactively close their buildings, send their workers home, and continue more or less normal operations, preferably before they are told to do so by the local government. A good preparedness plan involves both practical and technological preparation. I'll start with some practical advice.

Practical Advice

We can make some reasonable assumptions about how a moderate to severe influenza pandemic will impact business operations. A local outbreak will last four to six weeks, possibly a bit longer, although the period of maximum risk will be relatively brief. A large percentage of your workforce will either be sick or boycott the office for fear of becoming sick. Using the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic as a benchmark, roughly 2% of your workers will die (although the H5N1 strain currently circulating has killed more than 50% of the people infected, this figure is widely believed to be overstated due to sampling bias, and a much lower mortality rate would be expected since the flu would typically become less lethal over time). In brief, pandemic flu will be highly disruptive to your business and ability to continue normal operations for at least one to two months.

Think first about what essential services you need to provide during this period based on what business you are in, and how customer demand is going to change during a pandemic situation.

First, ask yourself what business functions can be disrupted for one or two months without wrecking your business. Not everything is equally critical, so you can probably let a lot of tasks pile up for a month or two without noticeably affecting service to customers. Yours and every other business will be focused on essential services. Make a distinction between tasks that require employees' immediate attention and tasks that can be put off one or several months later when you've had time to catch up.

Second, think about how this is going to affect demand for services. If you run a retail store, demand is probably going to approach zero for a while. If you run a home shopping service, plan on a surge. I am not telling you anything you don't already know, but spend some time seriously thinking about how this is likely to affect your aggregate demand, as well as how it might displace demand (for example, customers may avoid your stores but go en masse to your web site). This will help you figure out your staff plan.

Third, think about whether it might make sense to shut down completely for some period of time. If you run a bar or restaurant you may be forced to close, but if not, you may do so as a public service. In that case, plan ahead so you have funds to cover lost income, plans to furlough employees, and plan to get back up and running quickly after the threat has passed.

Lastly, if your business will be adversely affected by a drop in demand, form partnerships with businesses that will benefit from this. A retail bookstore, for example, could refer customers via an affiliate program to an online store and make some money in the process. Educate your customers and ask them to support these programs while you're unable to serve them.

Technical Advice

If you have an information- or service-oriented business you'll also need to think about how to continue operations, even if your employees are widely dispersed. Fortunately, it is much easier to telecommute today than it was even a few years ago. There are tools you can use to quickly enable most of your workers to telecommute. This advice is most potent when combined with some practical thinking about what your employees really need to do.

For example, let's say that you have several corporate accounts salespeople who take orders from key customers. They normally enter orders into an enterprise-wide accounting system that is only accessible from a few terminals (not an uncommon situation in large corporations). The elegant (and expensive) solution provides all of these employees with some sort of remote access solution that enables them to access the corporate accounting system from anywhere. It should be that easy, but it often isn't.

This is where I opt for a low-tech "duct tape" workaround. Set one person up so he can get into the accounting system. Set the salespeople up so their office phones are forwarded to their home phones. Have the salespeople take orders down on pen and paper and then phone the orders to someone who can enter them into the legacy system.

I mention this because IT departments in most corporations I have dealt with have become reliant on over-engineered solutions that are often more easily done with this ad-hoc type of approach. This is particularly true in a disaster recovery situation where you really don't know what you are going to be dealing with or what resources you will have to work with.

My general advice is to set your operation up so that your phones and email are forwarded to employees at home and to improvise ways for them to get at in-house information systems via whatever method works. This way your customers and vendors will be able to talk to your people. Even if things have ground to a standstill, they will be able to explain what is going on and hopefully figure out a workaround. Automatic systems, by comparison, are very brittle. They may perform brilliantly in normal situations, but they can't explain your supply chain problems to a customer who is trying to place an order.

The important bit of this advice is to bypass your normal systems and focus solely on routing customer calls and emails to employees where ever they are. Figure out how to deal with the fulfillment, accounting, and other functions later on. If all else fails, revert back to pen and paper. Paper isn't obsolete and it doesn't require a VPN connection to the accounting system.

Configuring Your Phone System to Allow Telecommuting

In most cases, configuring phone systems to allow telecommuting is as simple as enabling off-site call forwarding for your users (except for call center workers, which is a different subject entirely). Your phone system should allow each extension owner to forward his or her phone to a remote number. If this feature is turned off, enable it. Don't worry about long-distance charges. If you have to close your building and send everyone home, the phone bill is the least of your worries.

Now, is also an opportune time to renegotiate your outbound long-distance service for your office. If you have not done this for several years (most companies are lazy about this), chances are you are getting screwed by your phone company. You should not be paying more than a few cents per minute for domestic phone calls, as well as most international routes.

The one trick with most business phone systems is that is difficult or impossible to reset call forwarding settings remotely (usually to prevent long distance calling fraud). Here is a simple tip that will spare you and your employees much hassle if they must work offsite for extended periods of time. Simply instruct your employees to forward all of their calls to a phone that has flexible call forwarding settings that can, in turn, be re-forwarded to another phone if needed. Have your employees give your IT department these primary offsite numbers. Then, if you need to activate this plan, you can send someone around to manually reprogram everyone's phones. Low-tech, but it works even with ancient phone systems and it's a lot cheaper than buying whatever over-engineered software package your PBX vendor wants to sell you.

Replacing In-Person Meeting with Teleconferencing

This is a topic is discussed more in a companion article Building Your Own Teleconference System with Asterisk and Gizmo. Although that article was written primarily with schools and universities in mind, it is equally applicable to most businesses. You can use free software, Asterisk and Gizmo, combined with generic computer hardware to build a teleconferencing platform capable of handling any number of callers, often without requiring the use of conventional telephone service (which will be slow and difficult to provision in an emergency such as a pandemic).

Most businesses already have a teleconferencing service, such as WebEx or InterCall. However, I strongly recommend that businesses look into building their own Asterisk platform for larger conferences and use PC-based Internet telephony services, such as Skype for smaller conferences. Hosted teleconferencing services can be quite expensive, some charge nearly 30 cents/minute per caller which adds up very quickly. These providers may also have severe supply-side bottlenecks if millions of people start telecommuting en masse. By building your own system using equipment and facilities you control, you'll be autonomous, have more options, and incur a surprisingly minimal cost.

Configuring Your Call Center to Allow Telecommuting

This is where things get ugly, depending on how good or bad your company's phone system is. If you have the latest state-of-the-art equipment, enabling call center workers to telecommute should be as simple as setting a few options in a web form. However most companies don't have systems like this, and run their call centers in a centralized way with everyone under one roof, all hard-wired to a automated call distribution (ACD) system.

There is a good reason for this -- an ACD is designed to hand calls off to workers as quickly as possible and to do this it needs to know if you are at your desk, already on a call, etc. If the ACD blind transfers a call to your home phone, you might answer it or you might not. If you don't answer the ACD, it has just wasted 30 seconds trying to send a call that could have been answered immediately by somebody else.

The way around this is to create remote extensions, which is easier to do now with VoIP technology. The way you do this is by connecting an adapter to each call center worker's telephone extension. (It looks just like a regular telephone or headset to the company phone system, and is connected via a standard phone cord.) This adapter is, in turn, connected to your company's data network via an Ethernet cable. It is paired with another adapter, located at the employee's home office or remote site, and talks to it via the Internet. The employee connects a standard telephone or headset to the remote adapter.

When the employee takes his or her home phone off the cradle, the Internet adapter sends a message to its counterpart at the office to do the same. The office adapter mimics the electrical behavior of a phone that is off-hook, so the phone system does not attempt to send calls to it. Conversely, if the home worker's phone is on-hook, the office phone system will know this, and if it sends a call to the worker's extension, the office adapter will send a message to the remote adapter telling it to ring the phone connected to it. If the home worker answers, the two adapters route audio over the Internet connection between them. The office phone system is fooled into thinking the home worker picked up a phone at his desk. This is a simplified description of the process, and there are a lot of network security issues that are beyond the scope of this article.

This is a bit of a Rube Goldberg solution but it works well enough, and if you are using an older phone system this is probably your only option. A number of companies sell this type of gear, with different companies specializing on different types of ACDs and PBXs. Do a search on the terms "remote extension" or "foreign extension" and the name of your phone system, for a good starting point. The downside of this approach is that it will cost several hundred dollars per user (at a minimum) and each remote worker will need to have a reliable broadband connection. This system will take time and money to implement, so you should start working on plans to do it now. You will be able to use this system in non-emergency situations to allow your most productive call center workers to telecommute, a great incentive for people to work harder to earn this perk.

The key here is to be able to close your entire call center and continue more or less normal operations. You have to be able to do this because during a real pandemic, you'll either be forced to close your office, or you will lose so many employees through sickness or fear that you might as well be shut down. If you can deal with this situation proactively and move your operations offsite as a precautionary measure it will be much less disruptive, and will also help to maintain employee morale. Assuming even a high cost of $1,000 to $2,000 per employee to implement remote extension capability, the cost of not having that call center seat occupied for days or weeks at a time is probably greater than the cost of upgrading or jury-rigging the phone system.

Other Options for Small Businesses

Another option for smaller businesses is to implement a virtual ACD using either Asterisk or a hosted communication service such as Virtual PBX. In an emergency, be it a pandemic or a garden-variety disaster like a malfunctioning sprinkler system, just shunt all calls over to the backup system, which will route calls to people to home, via VoIP phones, etc.

Asterisk has a pretty decent built-in ACD feature, which you can use to route calls to people on an orderly basis. You can connect the Asterisk box either to your company PBX, or you can buy VoIP origination service from Voxbone, Junction Networks, or other providers. You'll give each of your employees a VoIP phone that they connect to their home network and broadband connection. The phone will register itself with the Asterisk box as if it were a local extension. The Asterisk box and company firewall needs to be configured so that phones can connect to it remotely, and you'll need to have a fast enough Internet connection out of your office to carry the voice calls (figure about 100kbps per voice call on average). That's one option for more technically-adept small businesses.

Another option is to rent a phone system from a hosted communication service provider such as Virtual PBX. These services give you a local or toll-free number and emulate all of the features found in a high-end PBX/ACD system. To receive calls, your employees only need to have an ordinary telephone. No broadband service or Internet phone is required. The only downside with these services is that they charge relatively steep per-minute charges. They are also generally small companies and may not be able to accommodate a large surge in demand, which is possible if businesses and schools across the country are forced to shut down or curtail operations for weeks at a time.

Summary

The basic advice I have to offer to businesses is pretty simple: think carefully about what services are essential and what you need to do to stay in business and meet demand for four to eight weeks at a time. Think about how to triage activities so less important tasks can be backlogged, allowing you to focus on the most important transactions and services. Also, think about how customer demand is likely to increase, decrease, or change in nature and how to set customer expectations appropriately.

If you are in an information- or service-oriented business, your call center will be an important point of contact with the outside world, so you need to think about how you can move most or all of your employees offsite without shutting this facility down. If you have a relatively new system, you should be able to do this relatively easily, although I am sure your equipment vendor will want to sell you a software upgrade. If you are stuck with an older, less flexible system, your options are more limited so you should start working out a plan and budget for implementing workarounds now. In a best-case scenario, implementing a system will take weeks or months, so don't expect to be able to do it on short notice.

Above all, be flexible. You may be faced with a situation where your entire facility is shut down and a large fraction of your employees are out sick or scared to come to work. You won't be able to predict the details of how things will pan out, so the important thing is to spend some time thinking about how to triage work, improvise ad-hoc ways to get the job done, and use technology where you can to support a distributed workforce.

The good news, as bad as the rest of the news may be, is that you have never had more options at hand; if you are clever about the way you use these tools you'll be able to handle whatever mother nature throws at you.

The following quote is from Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune:

The major air carriers are racing to survive. And it's not pretty. We kind of look like a bunch of three-legged horses on a muddy track. But there will still be a winner and a loser.

It will be easy to concentrate on everything that is going wrong if this scenario does happen, but it is important to focus on what you are doing right versus your competitors. You may be floundering and barely able to stay afloat, but so will everyone else. Remember that. The goal isn't to sail through a disaster of this magnitude unscathed. The goal is to stay in business and maintain some sense of normalcy for a few months until the crisis is over.

Brian McConnell is an inventor, author, and serial telecom entrepreneur. He has founded three telecom startups since moving to California. The most recent, Open Communication Systems, designs cutting-edge telecom applications based on open standards telephony technology.


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