Cisco launched its Cisco Virtual Office this morning, touting a package of hardware and services aimed at the growing number of companies that allow their employees to work remotely. The set-up includes the new Cisco 881w Series Internet Services Router and an IP phone for each employee, as well as back-end equipment for headquarters, all of which are designed to enforce company IT security policies at home.
The technology is tapping into what has become a fast-growing market. In August, a WorldAtWork survey noted that spiking gas prices have helped fuel employee interest in working from home. And companies have worked to keep up with their demands: 42 percent of U.S. companies offer telecommuting programs, up from 30 percent last year. (Maybe that’s why the latest stats from the Federal Highway Administration show that June was the eighth month in a row in which Americans drove less — 4.7 percent less than in June 2007, or 12.2 billion fewer miles.)
While we applaud the energy savings from teleworking (commuting makes up as much as 98 percent of an employee’s carbon footprint, according to Sun Microsystems), there are some downsides to the telework trend for employers. Earlier this year, Cisco released results from a study that found remote workers are increasingly cavalier about security issues, as the lines between home and work uses of technology have become more blurred. (Gartner released similar caveats in October 2006.)
Fred Kost, Cisco’s director of security solutions, points out that many employees who are trying out telecommuting for the first time are developing workarounds that amount to bad habits: taking private corporate data out of the office on mobile devices, or coming up with inventive ways to access data remotely that can leave their office computers, networks and confidential information open to viruses — or prying eyes.
The Cisco Virtual Office tries to avoid security lapses by having the employees’ router “call home” to the office and download the company’s pre-configured security settings. Employees can then dive into work without their employer worrying about the potenially “polluted” home environment, says Kost. The router lets employees separate personal Internet use from their work devices thanks to “split tunnelling”; for other devices or family members on the same Internet connection, the router won’t protect against malware on MySpace or police what kind of online video anyone’s watching.
Companies can purchase the Cisco Virtual Office system for about $700 per employee — that’s averaged out over 200 to 300 users, according to a Cisco spokesperson, and Kost says a system’s lifespan is likely three to five years. While that might sound like a pricey investment in a remote workforce, consider this: Companies estimate that they need between 100 and 150 square feet of space per full-time, in-office employee. At an average annual per-square-foot cost of just above $22 in Phoenix, about $30 in Seattle, and $97 in Midtown Manhattan (the highest in the nation), real estate costs per employee can run between $3,300 and $14,550 a year. If the technology helps companies cut back on their real estate footprints, it could be a financial blessing for them.