Problems with large scale telecommuting
April 1, 2009 12:53 PM   Subscribe

What are some obvious problems you would forsee in large scale telecomputing/telecommuting?

Essentially, I'm looking to brainstorm on a few big technical problems that would occur if a city decided to move most of it's resources into telecommuters to solve traffic issues, etc. What would be the foremost problems that would have to be addressed to make this possible?
posted by Raichle to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That traffic doesn't necessarily abate and becomes multi-directional instead of having major rush-hour flows. People may still need to have meetings, will still go to the store, etc. So you'd need across-the-board upgrades as opposed to upgrading commuting corridor upgrades.

Also, semi-obviously, you'd need wide-spread high-speed internet access.
posted by GuyZero at 1:13 PM on April 1, 2009

"That traffic doesn't necessarily abate and becomes multi-directional instead of having major rush-hour flows"

Are you referring to street traffic here? Would that really be an issue?

Any other mainly technical concerns like security, etc?
posted by Raichle at 1:21 PM on April 1, 2009

you'd need wide-spread high-speed internet access.

And it would need to be as close to 100% reliable as possible.
posted by toomuchpete at 1:22 PM on April 1, 2009

What would prevent the telecommuters from moving to a different city once they had a location-independent job?

Also, I'm not sure that city itself could convince businesses to move people over to telecommuting (how it could move resources into telecommuing). They could encourage certain types of businesses/industries that have more telecommuters.. or give tax breaks to those that don't commute... or subsidize internet/home access for telecommuters not sure what else.
posted by ejaned8 at 1:28 PM on April 1, 2009

Information security/trade secrets/proprietary business practices are a dealbreaker. Remember, kids, this is all happening in front of everyone on the InnarTubes, and it's only slightly less so using a VPN.
posted by _Skull_ at 1:40 PM on April 1, 2009

you'd need wide-spread high-speed internet access.

And it would need to be as close to 100% reliable as possible.

And government subsidized.

You'd also effectively destroy any kind of support industries that serve workers in "downtown" commercial locations (restaurants / delis / drugstores / bars).
posted by mkultra at 1:41 PM on April 1, 2009

Yeah but I'm focusing more on the "technical issues" of this. So, providing secure high-speed internet is one issue. I need some more that are technical in nature. Thanks for all your responses though.
posted by Raichle at 1:46 PM on April 1, 2009

Employer-wise it becomes difficult to ensure that a worker is actually at work, working, without some serious client snooping software. There's also office supplies, hardware and software support.

Employee-wise you get into issues of 'never being away from work', tax-related issues (home office), office supplies, lonliness.
posted by unixrat at 1:51 PM on April 1, 2009

Here's some brainstorming. Just stuff I'm pulling out of my ass.

The electric grid is going to be stressed in new ways. I'm guessing most office buildings probably have more efficient AC systems than most homes and apartments, so moving office workers into the home could result in higher electricity usage. So you'd need some kind of home-efficiency incentives to minimize this problem. Also, if you have most of your offices clustered in a single downtown district, your electric utility will get the most bang for its buck if it focuses on ensuring that district is always lit up; if you decentralize, your utility cannot optimize for any district, and everyone will be even more intolerant of outages at home. So you'd probably want to transition to be more fine-grained in your generation and distribution.

If you're re-orienting an existing city, you're going to have massively mis-distributed infrastructure. Your road network is designed to funnel people into places they're no longer going, and many of your buildings are either going to be redundant or need extensive revamping. So you're going to need to create a more fine-grained, decentralized road network (same as electric). You'll need to figure out if it's worth it to revamp old office towers to be residences and how much of the population will be willing to live in them (as opposed to moving out to the suburbs, etc).

People are still going to need places to gather, for work or socializing. This is largely a business/cultural issue, but as the Lord Mayor of this hypothetical city, you'd need to anticipate and accommodate that within the context of all the other changes.
posted by adamrice at 2:04 PM on April 1, 2009

A couple of the hurdles we've encountered supporting remote users: deployment of new applications across often spotty links and remote control access for troubleshooting through all sorts of routers and firewalls.

Oh and installation of drivers for a hundred different printers, unless you a)provide everyone with a standard printer or b) give everyone admin rights to their workstations*.

* I won't even go into the nightmares that will cause.
posted by JaredSeth at 2:07 PM on April 1, 2009

People will need to meet in person fairly regularly (having telecommuted for 18 months, I assure you that this won't change) so there will have to be well-equipped meeting rooms/temporary offices/conference areas available for much steadier use than currently.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:10 PM on April 1, 2009

I worked for a large bank that was planning a similar contingency during the avian flu scare. They were putting in place a telecommuting contingency that would allow them to keep up critical and daily operations as best as possible. I wasn't part of the planning team but was privy to discussions around certain topics.

First you have to consider how people telecommute. Will it be via VPN, via Citrix, or can they do day to day business from their desktop/notebook without needing to use internal networks? Scaling something like Citrix costs you CPU and not just bandwidth. Pipes are definitely an issue, especially if you also have mission critical or commercial traffic on your existing pipes, you don't want to compromise that. You might have to come of with a hierarchy of priority/presedence amongst users... system being overloaded? kick off the janitors. On a similar tip, what will the users be using, their personal computers, city purchased notebooks? Who makes sure they have computers, who pays for it or is reimbursed? Will their internet connection be subsidized? Fully? Partially?

Next, think about support and roll-out. Is this something you are rolling out in a phased manner, all at once, only in critical situations (e.g. avian flu, local disaster, etc.)... what will your means be of supporting the end users... telephone? RDP? Will there be infrastructure to connect to a client computer remotely? (SSH, RDP or similar?).

Of course you're already thinking cost, you might as well also think about productivity. I think we were hoping for 40% productivity after first week, but that's in a disaster situation, if this is a fulltime setup then you can probably increase productivity significantly, but like others mentioned, and from my own personal experience, if clear goals are not made (and checked!)a regular basis for individuals, quite often they can easily slide into a lax attitude towards work.

Even if your setup is for regular work, and not in the event of an emergency, you need to plan for emergencies. What happens where there are massive outages? Power? Internet? Remember how CNN wouldn't load during 9/11? How is it going to impact you when an earth quake hits San Francisco? What are you going to do? Figure out what sort of impact disasters of all level will have on your infrastructure and productivity and plan contingencies for them as is economically viable.
posted by furtive at 2:28 PM on April 1, 2009

I've telecommuted at various times using dial-up (ugh), DSL (better), and FIOS (yay). The biggest technical hurdle is the VPN which had me dealing with connectivity issues like:

- IT support busy with other issues or can't fix it quickly
- VPN SSL certificate expired and can't get new one issued quickly
- RSA SecurID expired and had to wait for new one
- spotty access to company resources (can get console access to servers, but can't access network drives)
- installing a second VPN (for client access) conflicted with company VPN
- home network IP conflicted with company network (we both used the same subnet)
- customized VPN fails to install

When I'm having connectivity issues, I head into the office if I can't get project work done with the resources on my laptop.

Laptops also raise data security concerns should the laptop get lost or stolen. Some employees have their disks encrypted and others store sensitive data on secure servers in the company's data center. IT admin also sets up the laptop security policy to always download the latest OS security patches and antivirus updates.

Web conferencing tools are Ok, but I wouldn't rely on them for important meetings. One I was on recently hung during the middle of our presentation and required two browser restarts to get the display going again.

On the emergency issues furtive mentions, if there's a localized power or network outage, an employee might head over to a library or coffee shop if it's closer than the office. You want to consider policies for whether employees may use their company laptops on public networks, or provide them access to telework centers as a backup, or require them to come into the office.
posted by hoppytoad at 4:55 PM on April 1, 2009

Heh - it's been 3 years for me and so far can disagree with what everyone up-thread has said.

Generally, few issues - but knowing how to manage your work/life balance can be tricky.

Technically - the internet is always down when you need it most. Could be 2am on a weekend night or the middle of the day on a Tuesday. It is the law.

Correlary to the internet being down when needed most is that whichever alternate access method you think-up on-they-fly (library, coffee shop, tethered mobile-phone) will fail to allow you to connect via VPN... IT IS THE LAW...

Another law - you cellphone will somehow cease to function once it enters your home office. The moment you leave that office, it will magically work once more. If you choose to leave your mobile in a location where it gets signal, it will invariably ring for just long enough for you to run up the stairs and then stop. People who call you in that fashion will typically not leave a voicemail message. The last cellphone-related issue is that you will leave it somewhere in the house, the battery will drain and you will take days to locate it.

Next inevitable item; no matter how good you think the initial remote worker expense allowances are, there are many things your company will senselessly refuse to cover... The chairs are always better at the office (I have yet to find a company who will send/allow me to have an Aeron at home...)...

Your biggest problem will be your significant other/children/room-mates & neighbours - their understanding of "working from home" means that you are available immediately for whatever silly task they desire - killing spiders is especially important.
posted by jkaczor at 8:51 PM on April 1, 2009

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