Last week I received a email from someone over in Canada asking for some remote working advice. (Just to say it’s great to hear from you out there, it makes it feel less like talking to your children – they have an incredible knack of closing their ears!)
Anyway the email went along the lines of:
I’m a technical writer based in Canada. I’ve approached my company about the possibility of working for them remotely in Scotland for six months, and I’ve been asked to put together a proposal to counter any concerns and show my colleagues how this arrangement might work.
One of the issues is good connectivity to my company’s network. Currently we are using OpenVPN for remote access; while a secure connection, OpenVPN tends to disconnect for workers within Canada and the United States. It’s possible the connectivity would be even worse, or perhaps even impossible to work with in the UK. Do you know of any software that provides good connectivity overseas for remote workers?
I was also wondering about management systems for remote workers. My company is one that does not micromanage, so a different management style would be required. Are you supervised and managed differently from onsite employees? If so, how?
Thanks so much for taking the time to consider my question!
So in an effort to share what I’ve found out and solicit some ideas from all you remote workers out there here’s my reply.
At Bath University we use Microsoft VPN server and there are very rarely any issues. I’ve heard pretty good things about OpenVPN and didn’t realise there were problems with it in Canada and the US. There is a lot of remote office software floating about but I’m not too sure of their worth.
After posting to Web-support@Jiscmail.ac.uk I’ve had the folowing replies:
reply 1: We use OpenVPN here, albeit on a very limited scale and with mostly local people. I haven’t really had any experience of anyone doing this for long periods from any distance. I have used it for hours at a time from Scotland without experiencing any problems and also used it on the train with mixed results, probably more to do with the train’s uplink failing that anything else. Of course, it might not be OpenVPN that is unreliable but the overall end-to-end network ...
reply 2: Oxford uses the Cisco VPN system and has done for a number of years . We have colleagues working across the planet, including North America, who access our services and in my opinion it’s pretty solid… Probably not the cheapest VPN system around, and I hesitate to use the term, but it really could almost be described as bombproof. I’ve certainly never heard of it timing out! Take a look at: http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/network/vpn/.
reply 3: That throws up a very big “why?” question. Why does OpenVPN disconnect? At a basic level, it will disconnect and re-establish (if configured to do so) if the connectivity is interrupted – line drops, congestion, dynamic IP address changes and so on. The biggest reason I’ve seen for VPN applications dropping connections is a fundamental misunderstanding that, for example, if you have a 4 Mbps broadband service and you’re running OpenVPN over it to do some interactive stuff with a remote end, plus VoIP, and you then start doing a massive Vista patch download (which is outside the VPN) then the two will compete for resources.
If the upstream bandwidth gets saturated – normally between 128Kbps and 512Kbps for most domestic service in the UK – then traffic starts to get dropped and retried. It’s possible to configure OpenVPN to act more robustly under congested conditions, but there’s a trade-off between how long it takes to drop and reconnect and how long your apps can withstand a “hung” network. For the record I used to use OpenVPN almost permanently to provide inter-site private services in a previous job for a web host/ISP, and it worked perfectly unless we got massive congestion. I guess the advice is to have a good understanding of what you’re doing through the VPN, and outside it – and don’t let the two get in each other’s way.
From these replies it sounds like OpenVPN is not going to be the problem…
On the matter of management I can probably be a little more helpful. UKOLN (where I work) has as many different management styles but here it tends to be fairly hands-off management. I think it’s partly to do with the fact we are based in a university and the staff are respected and expected to get on with their work without constant check ups. I think less controlling methods of management work better in remote working.
I have a good working relationship with my team leader. We have regular phone and Skype chats, and tend to send brief questions and comments via Skype chat. We both also record our main outputs during the day using Yammer (work version of Twitter) – so know what’s been achieved. Because I am lucky enough to live near the office we have regular face-to-face chats when I’m in the office – though this could be done using Skype and a webcam. We also tend to go to the same events fairly regularly so catch up at those too. I think the key is regular informal catch-ups so nothing is left too long. You could schedule something for every Monday morning say?
There’s quite a few good articles on management about including these:
- Effectively Managing Remote Workers
- Remote working ‘will be the death of the middle manager’
- 10 ways to help you manage and motivate your remote workers
I hope this helps.
I’ve written a few articles about remote working that might help too:
- Staying Connected: Technologies Supporting Remote Workers
- A Desk Too Far?: The Case for Remote Working
I hope I’ve helped our Canadian neighbour. Anyone got anything to add?