Working from Home – some technical (and practical) considerations

June 30, 1999

Richard Blasdale is a Managing Consultant with Grant Thorntonand has over ten years’ experience in advising legal firms on IT relatedmatters.

For many of us, ‘working from home’ used to be a way to escape thephone and get some serious thinking, drafting (or even gardening!) done. Now,technology enables us to work away from the office almost as if we are in theoffice. There are a number of variants:

  • Telecommuting – is doing your job, not from the office, but from home. You don’t have to struggle in to the office unless you really need to, say for an important meeting. Your computer will be attached to the office network from home, and your work number will ring on a phone installed at home.
  • Telecottaging – is a variant on telecommuting. You drive a few miles to a rented office space where you lease (on a time basis) a desk with all the trappings of a full office (coffee machine, photocopier, mail room, fax, etc).
  • Mobile office – is another variant and a favourite of management consultants. Most workers are usually equipped with a laptop PC with modem, fax and network cards, and, of course, a mobile phone. They can work effectively from either a hotel room, train, plane or client’s boardroom.

These may sound very attractive for some – but there are implications, bothtechnical and practical, that go along with this style of working. Reasons forconsidering this way of working could be to meet specific employee needs, toreduce office costs or travelling expenses or to improve staff efficiency – orindeed any combination of these, or any other of a number of valid reasons. Atthe same time the level of service provided to clients must be maintained –often without letting them know you are not in the office. What do you need toconsider?

Hardware: Desktop PC or Laptop?

You could move your desktop PC and printer from work to home or get a homePC. But if you do this, how are you going to share documents with yourco-workers?

The obvious way is to connect the PC to the office by modem and e-mail usingyour home telephone to dial-up your office. That in itself is fine, and isfeasible – the PC will need to be configured to use a modem, the base officewill need a Remote Access Service to accept dial-up connections, e-mail clientand server software will need to be configured, and all will need administeringwith passwords, security control, anti-hacking and virus controls, etc.

One possible problem when the home working employee visits the office is thatdocuments stored on the hard disk on the home PC are not available – unlessyou had already e-mailed them to a colleague, copied them to floppy disk or evenlugged the PC back to the office. Another problem is that your phone could beringing in the wrong place!

One way round the shared access problem is to use a laptop with in-builtmodem and network card. You can connect to the office network either from homeor in the office. This is the approach I have adopted for the last five years orso and normally it works well – unless I forget to pack the laptop powersupply! The time you get with laptop battery power is in my experienceunreliable and you are doing very well if you get more than two hours at a time.

Another problem I find with heavy usage of a laptop is the smaller screen andkeyboard – so I normally use external monitors and a full-size keyboard atboth home and office locations. You can also buy a docking station for thelaptop – the main advantage is the quicker set up of the system, since thereare fewer cables to connect.

The laptop solution is the most flexible option for those who alternate workbetween home, the office, hotels and clients – but is probably too expensivefor those who will work almost exclusively at home.


Your best options for printing at home are either a low volume laser or highquality desk-jet printer. The footprint size of the unit can also be animportant consideration if, like me, you have limited office furniture and spaceat home.

The choice of printer really depends on whether you just want to print out adocument for your own convenience or whether the document is being sent to aclient as a final document. Don’t forget the option of e-mailing the documentto a secretary in your office for printing and mailing out.

Fax Facilities

Despite the extensive use of e-mail by legal firms, fax is still an essentialcommunications medium. Faxing can be done from and to the laptop using a faxmodem card and appropriate software (such as WinFax) when away from the office.

One drawback of the fax packages is that you need to have the PC connected tothe phone line all the time if you want to receive an unexpected fax – notvery practical if you just have a single home phone line.

However for those frequently working from home, you should considerinstalling a small plain paper fax machine if you are likely to receive a lot ofshort faxes. Plain paper is best because the thermal paper tends to go brownover time and is more difficult to handle because it curls up. A plain paper faxalso allows you to share the same stationery used with your printer.


There are packages on the market (like Lotus Notes) that will allowreplication, ie a set of documents, e-mails or diary, etc are stored both on thecentral file server and at home on your local machine. If a document is changed,either at home or in the office, replication will synchronise the two machineswith the latest updates.

This is an excellent facility because you can go to the office, find a sparePC, log in and see the same material (such as your e-mail in-box and diary) asyou would see at home. If you have this facility, you don’t have to worryabout backing up the home PC – when the office server is backed up all changeswill be saved.

The disadvantage of this approach is that dial-up times to replicate filescan be frustratingly lengthy after a day of heavy changes to documents. Mypersonal preference is to replicate certain files only when next in the office– using the much faster office network.

You would expect the homeworker to be given all the software that he or shewould normally have access to in the office, whether locally loaded on the PC oraccessible by dial-up. However there is likely to be additional software (eg PCfax) used by the home or mobile worker that he or she hasn’t used before inthe office. Don’t forget the need for training in how to use this software –otherwise hours could be wasted in support calls trying to get the product towork.

E-mail is going to be one of the most used pieces of software at home. Ifthere is an office e-mail system you will want to dial in to this to transferyour documents prepared at home to the recipient in your office. Law firmsprefer this approach to the alternative method of sending via an InternetService Provider. It also allows you to use any distribution lists already setup on the internal mail.


Whilst an ordinary telephone line will suffice for both voice and data youcannot use the line for both simultaneously. You could have a number of lines:

  • one for private home use only
  • one for office calls (diverted from the office phone)
  • one for the fax machine
  • one for the computer – either a normal (analogue) line or an ISDN (digital) line.

Facilities on your phone such as call waiting can be very useful – it beepsyou when a second caller is waiting on the line, but if you use the line fordial-up with a modem, the beeping interrupts the modem and can cause it todisconnect.

Another approach is to use a product such as BT’s Home Highway – thisgives you a neat outlet panel with digital lines for computer connection(effectively an ISDN connection) and voice lines all bundled together into thepanel. This approach avoids having to split out phone bills to recharge back tothe company or client.

But perhaps a simpler approach is to divert all office calls to your mobilephone – this normally goes wherever you go and also gives you a messagingservice if you switch it off. This tends to be the preferred solution forworkers that have to travel frequently and never know where they are going to bemore than a day or two ahead.

Supporting Procedures & Policies

Procedures and policies need to be drawn up for telecommuting work.

A ‘whereabouts’ policy – all staff not in the office should callin to say where they are going to be, and especially with homeworkers, when theyare ‘at work’ and when they are ‘at home’. This is so that control isretained of the actual hours worked and the most efficient use made of coreoverlap time with other staff. It may suit the employee to get up at 5:30 amstart work at 6:00 am, finish at 2:00 pm and go for a round of golf, but theclients may not be so pleased.

‘Hoteling’ – this is where a high proportion of staff telecommute,but if they all came in to the office on the same day, there would beinsufficient desks to accommodate them. The hoteling approach relies on staffbeing able to book a desk in the office in advance giving them a docking station(or PC), a phone and a meeting room if required. If your organisation hasseveral offices, a central number or online booking system could be set-up toallow staff to book a room convenient to them.

Use of personal equipment – this should be actively discouragedexcept in an emergency. As a rule, company work should be done on company assets– otherwise many health and safety, insurance and PI cover issues couldsurface. If you have a personal e-mail address with an Internet service providerand a company e-mail address, the company address should be used. Also ifcompany equipment is used at home you need to establish the insurance position– does the employee need to update his/her household policy?

Filing space – Don’t forget about paper storage. A filing cabinetcould be provided or paper received or generated at home could be sent back tothe office for filing/archiving and electronic versions sent back to the homeworker (e.g. scanned in at the office).

IT help desk – If you have many teleworkers, your IT help desk willneed to be prepared to meet very different support needs. They may need to sendengineers or urgent consumables/spares directly to the employee’s home. Theymay need to dial-in to the home PC to diagnose a fault. They may need tore-route e-mail or alert home users in advance of shutting down office servers.


We seem to have two broad categories of workers who are away from the officeand these determine the type of equipment and support that is needed.

Telecommuting – working from home, this is good for staff withmainly fixed tasks and who are not often required for office meetings.Tele-marketing staff are a good example. The best approach is likely to be afixed desktop computer connected by phone (or ISDN line for heavier usage) tothe office servers. A second line would be used for voice.

Mobile Telecommuting – A popular approach for mobile workers, such asconsultants and software salesmen, is to use a laptop computer with wordprocessing, spreadsheet, presentation software, e-mail, fax and dial-in accessto key application software – coupled with a replication facility. The laptopwould have a modem/network/fax card and possibly a docking station in the baseoffice. Mobile phones will increasingly be used for data connection with theoffice.

A small home office would ideally have a fax machine and an extra telephoneline to separate voice and data/fax traffic.

All telecommuters, whether home-based or mobile, require access to a robustand secure e-mail system.

A Vital Footnote

Home working is not just a technology or procedural issue – there are humanissues as well. You can’t just move office-based jobs to home – the issueshave to be thought through carefully. The issues can be very different even forindividuals who do the same job. If the human issues are not considered, or notaddressed adequately, then productivity and morale could decrease rather thanincrease.

Working from home can be stressful, isolating and cause frequentmisunderstandings across a range of relationships. The normal social interactionwith colleagues and the formality of ‘dressing for work’ (and consequentlythe ‘switching off’ by changing out of a suit at the end of a long day) canbe lost. Perhaps on valuable days off, the wrong phone may ring, youinstinctively answer it and, bingo, you’re back at work!

It can also be difficult to avoid the interruptions or responsibilities ofhome life (eg taking endless phone messages for absent teenage daughters). Onthe other hand, there are also those who can’t tear themselves away from theirPC until late into the night – wanting to complete just one more section of areport.

Technology now empowers us to be able to work from almost anywhere: thequestion is do we have the discipline to take the best advantage of thetechnology and not let it rule us?