With more and more people in the UK eschewing urban life for a pastoral alternative, Broadband technology is providing the means for workers to stay connected to corporate networks. And Wales is a prime example of telecommuting in action, says Michael Eaton

In 1975, UK TV audiences were first introduced to Tom Good and his wife Barbara. Kitted out in dungarees and galoshes, the pair has quit the rat race in pursuit of The Good Life, by transforming their Surbiton home into an urban farm. Not only a BBC hit, The Good Life may have also pre-empted a trend today's researchers are calling "greenshifting" as more than one in four United Kingdom urbanites move into the countryside to carve out their place in rural paradise.
Last year the Countryside Agency (CA) published its State of the Countryside Review 2004 and found that in the past four years alone, an additional 352,000 people have made the move from urban to rural.
The trend is due in some part to soaring property prices which are pushing suburb boundaries into the countryside, but it is also due to a genuine desire from not just families, but single people too, for a better quality of life -- green space offering room to move and clean air to breathe. Hot on the list of desired locations is Wales, which more and more people are fast realising, is a remarkably networked country -- in fact the Office of National Statistics found that, in 2003, 60,000 newcomers moved to Wales. 

Clocking into the virtual office

Adoption of a rural life doesn't have to mean a total abandonment of one's professional career, thanks to the advent of telecommuting, otherwise known as remote working. In short, this is the process by which employees maintain day-to-day business operations from their homes instead of a centralised office, using remote communication services to transmit and receive business communications, documents and data. By 2010, 10 million UK employees will be adopting telecommuting as a way to achieve the elusive work/life balance.
For employees it's the ultimate way to achieve that elusive work/life balance we all desire, with the added benefits of reduced commuting time, fuel expenses, auto depreciation, parking expenses and stress; cost savings on wardrobe and meals; proximity to family; autonomy and control over work conditions and schedules; and an improved quality of life.
Advances in communications technology mean that there is no longer any physical reason for many kinds of office work to be done in one location rather than another, and as such work is becoming something you do, rather than a place you go to. The present  trend  in moving away from expensive city centre offices and in adopting telecommuting is proving to be a major cost saving for businesses. Employers benefit from: enhanced productivity, lower labour costs, coverage for difficult shifts, enhanced employee retention, reduced absenteeism, reduced sick leave and healthcare costs, reduced relocation costs, improved motivation of employees. What many people don't realise is that they can achieve all of these things using a standard 512kbps broadband connection at home. It can provide fast, direct access to corporate networks and files equivalent to being in the office. Users can keep calling and faxing as normal while connected, and clients won't be driven-away by annoying engaged signals.

Welsh broadband in action

We partnered with research agency ORC International earlier this year to survey 5,500 Welsh residents on their broadband habits and opinions and found that overall broadband take-up in Welsh homes has reached 25 per cent, and that broadband take-up of speeds of 512kbps or higher have jumped from 11 per cent to 17 per cent in less than a year. These excellent results are thanks to rising awareness levels, which have reached a staggering 93 per cent, pushing Welsh broadband take-up above the UK average. Research has also shown that Cardiff is one of the most broadband connected cities in the UK.

A couple of  success stories

Reynoldston is a small village in Gower (outside of Swansea) and is widely known not only as the home of King Arthur's stone but also for its spectacular coastal views. For architectural consultant, David Clarke, Reynoldston was the ultimate retirement destination from his busy Oxford practice. However his retirement plans hinged on one factor -- the availability of broadband, so that he could continue work as a specialist architectural consultant. Just like hundreds of other people moving to Wales for the first time, David couldn't fathom that such a remote community could have access to broadband. But it does, thanks to the Reynoldston Community Wireless Network, a village initiative that provides a local wireless network to homes in the village.
In a similar way, Inet Experts' Andrea Jones is running her business on a satellite connection from the top of a mountain in Llanelli, proving that work/life balance is achievable. The business IT and training aspect of the company was set up specifically so Andrea could relocate back to rural Wales. She says without satellite "the business could not function" as dial-up doesn't provide the power to quickly manage large files, or to provide the professional polish expected from an IT company. Moreover, the "real time" aspect of broadband helps Andrea to show customers the work she is doing without them needing to visit her home.

Feeling insecure?

So what are the telecommuting issues that are keeping managers awake at night, and what steps can be taken to combat them?
When a computer is detached from the core network, antivirus software updates can lapse. Therefore users, particularly those using a home PC, need to be diligent and ensure their computer is adequately protected, otherwise they might find themselves in the awkward position of passing on any infections to their customers and co-workers. Users should set-up their system so that virus and hacker intrusion, detection and protection software is automatically updated each time the corporate network is accessed.
In addition, a NCC Group Survey recently found that one in six remote PCs didn't have adequate protection against hackers, who each day are conceiving more elaborate ways of accessing corporate networks through the "back door". For example, spyware can covertly gather data, including keystrokes and passwords, and delivers it straight into the competition's hands. Firewalls are another essential tool to telecommuters.
Finally, if we're being honest, we're often our own worst enemies. As a tip -- get a physical lock, and ensure access to the core network is routed through a virtual private network that requires a pin and a password.
To ensure that staff adhere to vital security protocols, some employers are including them in their remote working security policy and linking them to staff appraisals. Certainly food for thought...
   The Countryside Agency has said "the increase in rural population witnessed in recent decades shows no signs of abating as more and more people choose to move from urban to rural districts." There's no denying that it's time to exit the fast lane, pick up the pitchfork and plug in the laptop. Owning a few green acres in Wales is not just for farmers anymore, it's about people like you and I chasing the elusive work/life balance.        n                               

Michael Eaton is Director for the Welsh Assembly Government's Broadband Wales Programme
Details: broadband@wales.gsi.gov

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