Do you know what you're spending on IT resources to support teleworkers? If not, you're not alone.

Teleworking programmes at public and private sector organisations typically are informal, which makes it tough to put a price on associated expenses and benefits. To help clear the confusion, the US General Services Administration (GSA) commissioned a study of teleworking technology costs at 20 federal agencies. Booz Allen Hamilton surveyed 8000 teleworkers and managers, along with telework programme co-ordinators, agency CIOs and IT staff.

The study, which the GSA presented last month at the Telework Exchange's town hall meeting in Washington DC, describes in detail the current teleworking technology environment at federal agencies and estimates the costs of expanding teleworking programmes to support 25 to 50 percent of the US federal workforce. The study also quantifies potential benefits to help federal agencies justify the IT investments they need to make to support more expansive teleworking programmes.

Not surprisingly, the report found ad hoc deployment of IT resources to teleworkers is the norm in federal agencies. While agencies are required by Congress to expand their teleworking programmes, few have the IT infrastructure in place — or in the works — to support widespread teleworking deployments.

Below the radar
A key step in expanding agency teleworking programmes is to iron out associated IT costs. Yet most agencies have no idea what they're spending on teleworking-related IT resources.

"There are IT budgets, but the cost of teleworking is lost within the larger picture," says Theresa Noll, a senior teleworking programme analyst at the GSA. "We would like to be able to see the teleworking costs broken out more clearly."

The budget is fuzzy because individual offices tend to incur incremental teleworking costs, which fall below the radar of agency IT budgets. Few agencies have strategies in place to fund teleworking IT at an agency-wide or even department level, Noll says. "It's as if the teleworking programmes sit off to the side and use ‘catch as catch can' what's available at the agency. It is not yet integrated into the normal business practice."

To help fill in the blanks, GSA and Booz Allen Hamilton devised a cost model based on the types of technologies agencies said they have in place and the market cost of those IT products and services.

Expenses fall into three categories: home office components such as laptops, broadband routers and mobile devices; services such as voice and data connectivity, help desk support and technical training; and enterprise resources such as remote access servers, VPNs and terminal emulation systems.

In terms of current conditions, the study reveals a huge disparity in spending. The agency with the most bare-bones teleworking programme is spending $310 per user in teleworking-related IT, while the agency with the largest outlay is spending $5420 per user. (The study does not identify agencies by name.) Among all 20 agencies, the average per-user cost is $1920.

Only three of the agencies surveyed currently provide the full range of critical IT components for teleworking, while the remaining 17 provide partial support, the study reveals.

In many instances, teleworkers today are making do with outdated equipment and services. Some settle for a reduced level of access to agency applications, data and technical support — which can hinder teleworkers' ability to perform their job duties.

In addition, the study shows it's common for teleworkers to use their own gear and pay for their own Internet connections when they work away from the office. While these practices reduce agency costs in the short term, they open the door to other problems. Often, teleworker-provided equipment and connectivity doesn't conform to agency standards, which can create support and security difficulties, the study found.

"There's been good progress made in getting teleworking in place by having employees use their own equipment. But we're finding that updates for software, communications, and security and control are better managed when equipment is issued by the agency," Noll says.

Senior attention required
In addition to a lack of expense clarity, the study found that no federal departments have developed plans specifically to expand their teleworking infrastructure.

Some improvements have occurred naturally alongside other IT modernisation efforts. For example, agencies that have invested in remote access technologies have, incidentally, created an environment supportive of teleworking. But few enhancements are the result of planned teleworking infrastructure improvements.

Strategic planning
To help agencies think more strategically, GSA identified the equipment, services and infrastructure necessary for agencies to expand and support their teleworking programmes. The report specifies basic and ideal scenarios. For example, a basic home office set-up requires (among other things) a laptop, router and firewall, while an ideal scenario adds a Webcam and mobile device. Collaboration tools and VoIP resources are also part of an ideal teleworking set-up.

It's important for agencies to consider the big picture, Noll says. IT resources used to support teleworking typically have broad-reaching benefits. For example, implementing better support for teleworking can improve disaster recovery efforts.

"We know that they are efforts ongoing for continuity of operations; pandemic planning; the BRAC — base realignment and closures — within the Department of Defence; and routine agency technology refresh planning," Noll says. "In any of these areas we believe that incorporating teleworking would minimise costs."

Key is for agencies to start including teleworking technologies in their enterprise IT planning initiatives, Noll says. Department CIOs should be making investment decisions and IT infrastructure enhancement plans with regard for teleworking requirements, she says.

"Telework is coming. There's no turning back, and agencies need to prepare. If they are not integrating teleworking into their IT capital planning process, they will be behind the curve and left with trying to retrofit. That can be more expensive."