Whether it's e-mail access from the job site or use of project management Web sites from home, many A/E/C firms around the country are working furiously to help employees work more efficiently and effectively while out of the office. Keeping employees connected, however, is not only about high-tech equipment and services. It's also about a firm's attitude and its business infrastructure. What follows are several technologies, services and programs that A/E/C firms can utilize to better connect employees.
The most commonly used communication tools in the office are telephones with voice mail, e-mail and fax machines. Why not unify all of these devices into one interface? Applications that allow them to be accessed via either the telephone or the e-mail inbox are available from several telecommunications vendors. Compatible with standard messaging systems such as Microsoft Outlook/Exchange and Lotus Notes, these programs can greatly enhance employees' access to essential communications.
Using a telephone, employees can listen to voice mail, have e-mails read back to them and forward faxes to a nearby fax machine. Users can also access voice mail, e-mail and fax messages using a personal computer, whether in the office or dialing in from a remote location. For even greater connectivity, some unified messaging systems incorporate the use of pagers, Web-enabled cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).
Outlook/Exchange includes Outlook Web Access, which enables users to access e-mail messages from anywhere in the world through an Internet connection and a standard Web browser. Lotus offers a similar product called iNotes Web Access.
Until a couple of years ago, the only remote access connection vehicle was an analog modem, available with speeds up to 56 kilobits per second (kps). To utilize modems for remote access, a modem bank with the same number of modems as that of remote users must be set up on the company server. In other words, if a company has five remote users, the server bank requires five modems. Furthermore, a dedicated phone line is needed for each user. The infrastructure can grow quite large as the number of offsite users grows. Another drawback to modem-based remote access is the long distance phone charges incurred for traveling employees who dial in via a computer. Some of these limitations, however, can be avoided by using Virtual Private Networking (VPN).
VPN allows users to log onto a private company network through the Internet. Users simply connect to the Internet using any method - whether it be an analog modem, digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable broadband - and then connect to the private network through a 'tunneling' protocol. The technology requires only a dedicated high-speed Internet connection at the office.
DSL and cable broadband Internet connections are now available in many areas of the country for a relatively low cost: $35 to $50 per month in the Atlanta area, for instance. The average home service is 'asynchronous,' which means that the download speed is much faster than the upload speed. Typical connections are able to download information at 700 kps to 1.5 megabits per second (mbps), and upload files at approximately 200 to 300 kps.
While A/E/C firms have the ability to provide remote access to company network resources, special attention should be given to the license agreements that come with each software package. In some instances, the agreement allows the company to install a copy of a software program in both the office computer as well as a laptop computer. In other cases, software can be installed only on a single computer.
Another type of licensing policy to consider is a 'concurrent' license, which allows a company to purchase the rights to a software program for a certain number of users at one time, independent of the number of computers on which it is installed. Because of its flexibility, this is one of the most advantageous licenses for a business. It can be especially useful with CAD software packages, which typically have a high price per license. Both Bentley and Autodesk offer these types of concurrent licenses, along with special software to help maintain license compliance. For instance, Bentley has a license server that allows users to 'check out' a license for a specified amount of time, so remote users can literally take the software with them or dial in and check it out. If the user doesn't check the license back in before the expiration time, the license reverts to the server and the user must check out another copy. This way, compliance with Bentley's rules is ensured.
In order to successfully integrate technology into day-to-day production, it's important that A/E/C firms have buy-in from all employees. For instance, Lord Aeck & Sargent (LAS) created a 'computer loan' program to help employees purchase laptops or home computers. The policy encourages employees to purchase a computer with an interest-free loan for up to $2,000, which must be repaid within 24 months. In exchange, LAS gets users that are more adept and efficient with computer software and hardware.
While there are many more technologies, services and programs A/E/C firms can utilize to better connect their employees, the products and services mentioned here can potentially provide the biggest bang for the buck.
Douglas Glasgow is information technology advancement director and a registered architect with Atlanta-based architect Lord, Aeck & Sargent. He welcomes comments via e-mail at