Cisco and Doing Telecommuting Right

In order for a telecommuting program to work well, companies need to have the right management structure, company culture and hardware for employees.

For many, telecommuting is a life saver, but for some it can be a career killer. It often comes down to a mix of corporate tolerance for telecommuting, networking skills, how self-driven the employee is, home vs. work distractions, and finally how well the employee is equipped at home compared to at work.

Cisco has one of the strongest work-from-home programs in the market with over 20,000 employees participating. I think they showcase a best practice on how to enable telecommuting. It breaks down into three levels: Management responsibility/control, company culture and equipment load out.

There are some things I’d likely improve on what they are doing, but theirs is arguably the best telecommuting solution at this scale currently in market.

Management Responsibility

At the heart of this solution is management control. What I mean is the manager over the employee who is to telecommute has full responsibility for who can participate in the program and in both ensuring they are properly equipped and ensuring that this hardware is returned once the employee leaves or is terminated. Enabling and disabling the hardware is handled by IT and tied into the HR application to ensure that terminations don’t leave security exposures, but the manager closest to the employee is the person who controls the process.

The reason this is important is that telecommuting isn’t for every employee, job or manager. Some employees just can’t function from home. Some jobs require the employee to be present at work, and some managers can’t manage remote workers. This way, the person closest to the situation is the one responsible for ensuring the solution works, and having the manager over the employee make this decision is a best practice.

Granted, this policy should be wrapped with training and regular reviews to make sure management is able to make these decisions from a foundation of knowledge and that mistakes become learning experiences not security exposures.

Company Culture

Cisco is a company brought up around the idea that employees don’t have to be present, and generally, those that are remote aren’t penalized for it. This isn’t true of all companies. Some firms, particularly young firms, often devalue remote employees ,who then are left out of decisions, are passed over for promotions, or are first to be let go during a layoff.

To work, telecommuting has to be valued as a true employee/management option, and the remote employee evaluated must based on accomplishments irrespective of location. If location can’t be factored out or if the remote employees are at far higher risk, the telecommuting program is likely a failure and creating an uncaptured drag on the firm.

Companies like Cisco aggressively endeavor to engage their employees wherever they are, and often you can compare Cisco’s remote employees favorably to those of competitors forced to work in cubicles. Frequently, you’ll find telecommuting employees are not only cheaper, they are both happier (more content) and more productive than those in a cubicle farm.

Generally, I’ve noticed that this works best in highly distributed companies like Cisco because the majority of employees, whether they are in an office or not, are not co-located at the same facility. Remote, therefore, becomes the standard, and the differences between being at a remote office or a home are minimal.


Typically, the goal is to provide a full office at the remote site without a massive amount of support overhead. What Cisco provides, as part of their CVO bundle, is a manager-accessible website to order the hardware, which consists of a Cisco IZP phone/camera and the 881 router which has both trusted (VPN) and untrusted ports. This is shipped to the employee, who then typically plugs the router into their home network and becomes enabled nearly instantly. Their phone looks and behaves just like it would were it in the office, the built in VPN in the router connects their laptop to Cisco’s internal resources as if the employee were on site, and camera on the phone (or an optional external camera) connects the employee back into meetings wherever they may be.

The overall architecture has all of the Cisco 800 series routers connected into an Application Control Engine (ACE), which does load balancing and connects to Cisco’s Aggregation Services Routers, which in turn connect to Cisco’s corporate network. Network access control is part of the solution so that if anyone tries to plug in a non-authorized piece of hardware onto the secure side of the remote router, it will be pushed to the non-secure side of the solution, allowing it access to the web but not any internal Cisco resources.

Fast, easy, and relatively low cost are all major aspects of a well-done telecommuting program and all evident here.

The Complete Package

Wrapped with heavy multi-factor authentication and a Varonis-like access control structure, the Cisco telecommuting solution should actually exceed in performance and security what most companies provide to their employees on site. But the hardware is only a part of making this all work, the managers have to own the decision and be trained in how to properly make it, and the culture of the firm has to allow for remote employees to have the same organizational benefits of on-site employees. If all of these elements aren’t in place or this results in a significant new security exposure, the telecommuting effort is likely to fail.

I should point out that being able to telecommute is fast becoming a differentiator for high-profile potential employees, so if you don’t have this sorted, it is likely already having a big impact on acquiring and retaining top talent.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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