Remote access

A
local authority’s experience in providing secure remote access to a group of
home-based workers has proved that employers can maintain computer system
security, offer flexible working conditions, keep costs down and improve
productivity – all at the same time.

The
North Wiltshire District Council found itself facing a major HR issue early in
2003: how to retain and recruit benefits assessors – a situation only amplified
by a national shortage of these specialists. In addition, the council needed to
comply with national legislation that gives parents the right to request
flexible work.

Dave
Lovelock, the council’s ICT strategy and e-government officer, said: "We
had trouble getting people back from maternity leave, and we had people who
were saying: ‘I want to work three days a week but I really want to work from
home’. It’s just one of those issues that came to a head."

Being
able to ensure system security off-site was crucial because of the highly
personal nature of the data benefits assessors work with. But Lovelock also
needed to ensure that the systems used off-site were user-friendly, considering
that at least one benefits assessor who planned to work from home lived 40
miles away from the district council offices in Chippenham.

"We
couldn’t be jumping in the car to go out to support systems – it had to be an
idiot-proof solution," Lovelock says. "And the more complicated you
make it for the user, the more likely it is to go wrong."

With
consulting help from IT security specialists Nviron
and a Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Network (SSL VPN) solution from Netilla Networks, the council kept its capital investment
at between £10,000 and £12,000 to make homeworking a
reality for benefits assessors. The council was able to give the homeworkers standard PCs for use and provide ‘single-level
security’ (a user ID and password). The "clever bit" of the set-up,
as Lovelock puts it, is in the software.

Lovelock
compares the way the council’s remote system works to television. Information
appears on the homeworker’s PC screen, and they use a
mouse to operate it. However, the worker has no means of saving the information
on to the home system, which means that if the system was ever broken into,
none of the data would be present to find.

"I
know it sounds like magic, but it isn’t actually," says Lovelock.
"It’s well-established, off-the-shelf technology."

One
benefit has been increased productivity among the council’s benefits assessors,
including one employee who has increased her productivity by 20 per cent,
Lovelock says.

Users
need just 30 minutes of hands-on training and are allowed to experiment with
the software for half a day in the office before using it from home.

HR’s role has been to develop and implement the council’s
policies surrounding homeworking and co-ordinate
health and safety inspections of the homeworking
environments. One requirement of homeworkers is that
they must work at the council offices once a week, Lovelock says.

"It’s
worked really well," Lovelock says. "And this fits in with our way of
working, which is to be able to work from anywhere."

By
DeeDee Doke

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