Although home working can make perfect sense from the business manager's point of view, it lays a minefield for the IT support department. A world where one's kit is scattered around the country is mightily different from one where the equipment all lives within the corporate office – and in a remote setup, there are more components (modems, phone lines and the like) to go wrong than in the office installation.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to ease the pain of supporting your remote users.

Choose your connection
The most common problem, by far, for remote users is: "I can't connect to the office". Dial-up connections can be a pain to diagnose, mainly because there's so much that can go wrong – modem drivers, the modem itself, the dial-up settings, and the VPN client if you're using one. Step one, then, is to remove the connectivity from the user's PC and put it in a separate box – this makes the whole connectivity thing a bit more concrete and less susceptible to users breaking things. If you've decided to give your users broadband connectivity, this will be one of the many ADSL routers (NetGear and D-Link both do excellent ranges) but even if you're using dial-up connections, you can get stand-alone boxes such as 3Com's 3C888 that connect an Ethernet network to a 56Kbit/s dial-up connection.

Fault diagnosis in this sort of setup is much easier than it would be with Windows-based dial-up. Ethernet problems are generally simpler to figure out than dial-up ones, and by putting the complicated bits in a stand-alone box you're leaving yourself the option of simply shipping the user a pre-configured replacement should the unit die completely.

If you're using ADSL for your remote users, consider having a static IP address. Assuming the problem isn't with the connection itself, this will let you connect from the office to the user's home system to have a poke about. Even if you're using modem connectivity, this option may still be available – the 3C888 we mentioned above permits dial-in connections as well as dial-out.

Preconfigure everything
As we hinted in the previous section, the more stuff you can preconfigure, the easier it'll be to support it. If you give each home user a box that they simply plug into their phone/ADSL line and connect to their PC with an Ethernet cord, you can be sure that there won't be mistyped phone numbers, wrong usernames, duff passwords and the like. And when something breaks, you just get your spare out of the cupboard, insert the user's particular settings, and ship it to the user.

Remote control
If the user is having problems with his or her PC, the ability to remote control it could well be handy. If you're using Windows XP Pro, remote control capabilities come as part of the OS; for older Windows flavours, you have a number of options such as VNC or PCAnywhere.

CD sets
When users are disappearing from the office to work at home, they face another potential problem – namely that they may not be able to download and install bugfixes for their applications (notably Office) without having the CD available to insert into the drive. At the very least you should ensure that they have the Windows installation files on their hard disks or on a CD, and you can consider giving them media sets for key applications if you want them to be able to patch known bugs from afar.

AV systems
The final thing to do is install an anti-virus package on each remote machine, and set its scheduler to download new virus definitions at least once a day (more if you're paranoid). Make sure it's set to check floppies and CDs as they're inserted. Then lock the thing down so that the user can't change any settings.

Summary
The trick to supporting remote users is to consider what you lose when your users scamper away to work in their homes. The main problem is that you're no longer able to simply wander over to their desk and look into the problem – instead you usually have to diagnose a problem over the phone, with a non-expert reading out error messages and performing tasks that you do automatically but which are alien to them. So by simplifying the way everything works, and putting the complex stuff in self-contained boxes that the users don't interact with, you'll eliminate much of the difficulty of diagnosing problems remotely. And by making some inexpensive buying decisions, you can give yourself a fighting chance of being able to take control of their equipment from afar and fix it for them.