The Virtual Office Gets Real

Hold on to employees by letting them work remotely

By Larry Armstrong

Small businesses are acknowledged leaders in offering creative perks to attract and retain staff. And there's no perk more popular with employees than allowing them to work remotely.

It used to make sense to limit remote access to those staffers who traveled on business. Now cheaper, easy-to-use schemes for connecting to the office from home mean that, if you choose, you can painlessly offer remote access to almost any worker -- a compelling quality-of-life benefit.

There are essentially two ways to bring remote computing to the masses: remote-access services and virtual private networks (VPNS). They work very differently. Remote services such as GoToMyPC from Citrix and LogMeIn from 3am Labs let employees control their office computers remotely. They deliver a snapshot of the screen on your office PC to any Internet-connected computer and transmit your keystrokes and mouse movements back to it.

The aim of a VPN is far more ambitious: With it, the remote computer becomes just another PC on the office network. A VPN allows you to print on network printers or retrieve files from your office PC, even though you're not actually working on it.

I installed GoToMyPC on my office computer and used it to get into the computer from home. Because it doesn't require any software on the remote computer, I could even have connected from a computer in a library or Internet café. The view of my office PC was a bit fuzzy, and there was a tiny but noticeable lag between the time I typed in a character and when it showed up on the screen.

With GoToMyPC and similar services, you are, in fact, working on your office computer. That means you don't have to have copies of your office programs loaded on the remote computer. But your office PC must be turned on and connected to the Internet. Remote-access services for small businesses charge monthly fees of around $10 to $20 for every computer or user you want to hook up.

Until this year, I never would have recommended a VPN as a way for a small business to give employees remote access -- unless that business happened to have a network engineer on payroll. Virtual private networks started as a way to connect branch offices using the free Internet instead of leased phone lines, while still keeping data secure. Unfortunately, they've been notoriously tricky to set up, and expensive. But VPN routers that cost $1,000 five years ago go for under $200 today. More important, there are finally a few that do-it-yourselfers can manage.

As a test, I hooked up Buffalo Technology's Wireless Secure Remote Gateway to a PC at home. It took me 15 minutes to configure the Buffalo router and match that configuration in Windows XP on my laptop. Later that day I easily connected to my home computer via a broadband connection in a colleague's office. With VPN and Windows XP, you can even connect to a computer that's turned off. The connection process wakes it up.

The Buffalo VPN router allows up to 100 remote users. But your employees have to set up their home or laptop computers to work with it. And, since they're getting access to files, not programs, they'll need to have any programs they use in the office duplicated on their home computers. VPN comes with a nice bonus: If your company has Internet phone service, your work-at-home staffers can answer and make calls over their office phones. Just don't be surprised if they decide to forego the office altogether.

Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek magazine

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