Teleworking


A topic obviously near and dear to my heart.  It’s an article in CIO magazine, which by definition kind of means it will be superficial (it’s the same magazine that produced the lightweight “Apple as the enterprise desktop” I linked to some weeks ago).

To make it worse, they do the usual “post only two paragraphs per web page so you have to visit more pages and get more ads” trick which annoys me to no end, so here’s the list of things you should know:

  1. Telecommuting Saves Money. Truly.
  2. Telecommuters Really Can Be More Productive
  3. Telecommuting Doesn’t Work for Every Individual
  4. Trust Your People
  5. Hone Management Skills for Telecommuting
  6. Keep the Telecommuter in the Loop
  7. Tools and Technology Make a Big Difference

It also has an interesting sidebar that asks questions about who should pay for the tools the telecommuter users.  Doesn’t give any answers, but it does mention the things that need to be considered.

I have my opinions about #7, specifically on who should pay for a 30″ Apple monitor that would fill a very empty space on my desktop.  Plus the 8-core Mac Pro that would be attached to it, of course.

Here are a few more that the CIO needs to know about:

  • Telecommuting doesn’t work for every job.  While the article mentions that it doesn’t work for every individual, it neglects the fact that there are some jobs for which telecommuting isn’t appropriate.  If the employee needs to be physically present to power systems on or off, that’s an obvious misfit, but there are also many jobs where most of the work has to do with relating to people directly (for organization, coordination or influence), and which may be poor candidates.
  • Telecommuting has significant benefits for the organization and the employee, but has drawbacks for the employee in job and promotion opportunities.  As I’ve said many times in the past: it’s a tradeoff.  But the employer should not fall into the trap of considering telecommuting as a “reward” that somehow is nothing but the opportunity for the employer to goof off.
  • There’s more travel involved than you’d think.  When I started telecommuting, we did some calculations about how often I would have to travel back to the office locations, and I believe we said something along the lines of “once every six weeks or so”.  There’s been far more travel than that, and potential full-time telecommuters need to understand that this is vital for them to remain on the agenda and in other people’s minds.
  • Don’t underestimate the benefit of a good desk and a comfortable chair: you’ll be using them more often than you would in the office (you never have to get up to go to a conference room, since you’ll take all conferences on your phone).  A good keyboard is also vital, but OSHA regulations tend to be downplayed or ignored.

…and in many cases, things I don’t currently have. Info based on the 14 months I’ve been working from home so far.

Some of these are very specific to working from home long-term, not just the occasional day here and there, but they are points to consider anyway.

  • A comfortable chair: get an Aeron, you’ll be sitting down a lot more when you work from home than when you’re at the office. If for no other reason, you don’t have to stand up and walk over to a conference room, since you’ll be on a phone conference. Plus, the coffee machine is closer to my desk at home than it is at work, so I’m back sitting down faster. STATUS: got one of these, probably the cheapest Aeron model, but it’s well worth the money. I’ve tried several different other models from Office Max and the like, but by the time you find one you like and doesn’t cut off circulation to your legs over the long run, you’ll have spent the equivalent of the Aero anyway. And by the way: buying Aero’s for $100 on eBay from failed dot-com liquidators? May have happened in 2001. It doesn’t any more.
  • A good desk, with plenty of space. This one is obvious and is true for the office as well, but since you’ll have more personal stuff (mail, magazines) hanging around at home, you’ll need an extra corner. Don’t get the IKEA cheapies, get something solid that won’t drop the sliding keyboard tray into your lap every third time you open in.
  • An espresso maker. If you’re a coffee drinker, you don’t want to have to get into your car every time to get to the local shop. I’m not a coffee snob, I don’t want to spend $800 for the latest Gaggia, I’m not that good at telling the difference. I use a Starbucks Barista, and it works for me. If you want regular coffee, get one of those and make Americanos instead: they taste better. STATUS: I got the Barista as a gift from someone who bought it and never used it. Score! If you can get a burr grinder, you’ll get better/fresher results by buying whole beans, but that will cost you $150 for a good grinder. Go to your local coffee shop and get espresso-ground, store it in an air-sealable container. Remember, I’m not a coffee snob, so there are probably coffee connoisseurs out there fainting away as they read this, but it tastes fine as long as you use it within 5 days or so.
  • As a counter to the previous item: a local coffee shop with free Wi-Fi. You’ll need to change your environment every so often to avoid going crazy, especially if you live in a very cold climate where you can’t leave the house for months at a time. In Minnesota, this means Dunn Bros, since Starbucks and Caribou both charge for WiFi (a business principle equivalent to charging separately for sugar these days), or–even better–your real, locally-owned coffeeshop (e.g. the Riverview). STATUS: got this, although I don’t make it out there that much these days since it’s too cold to bike. Yes, I’m a wimp.
  • A real speaker phone. I have an AT&T model phone that has a simple speaker phone in it (this one), but it’s not really suited for all-day use. I didn’t think I’d need one, but home phones do not work well for long conference calls, even with an earpiece.  STATUS: don’t have one, want one if someone else will pay for the $600+ that the decent Polycom models seem to require.
  • A bluetooth/wireless earpiece that can connect to a landline. The Jabra Bluetooth 6210 seems to fit this bill, but I don’t know what the battery life is like. STATUS: don’t have one, want one, not willing to pay $150 for one.
  • Separate systems for home and office use. Don’t mix the two, EVER! The temptation will be strong to put your software, your documents or your digital pictures on the office machine, especially if it’s the faster system or the bigger hard drive, but don’t do it. Seriously. There are so many reasons why mixing the two is a bad, bad idea.  STATUS: well, I have about 7 systems at home, and the office computer is the least powerful of them all, so this isn’t a big problem for me.
  • File/data sync software: use this to regularly copy the remote office files you need to your local system, otherwise you’ll be frustrated every time you open that 20MB Word doc across your cable modem, and you’ll kick yourself when your cable modem or the VPN are down. I use Groove, Outlook (in cached mode) and FileSync from FileWare, amongst other things. I don’t recommend the Microsoft SyncToy across a VPN connection: it’s awfully slow. To be honest I hesitate a little in recommending FileSync, since I’ve never heard back from them on 5 attempts to recover my registration info: I’m not sure they’re even still in business. But it’s a great app. I do love FolderShare (free!), and I use them for personal docs, just not on the office system.
  • Corollary #1: the copy on your home computer should NEVER be the only copy of a document. If it is, you are standing on a hill in a thunderstorm wearing chainmail and waving a golf club in the air, asking the Gods of Computer Catastrophe to pay more attention to you instead of trying to find more words that mean the opposite of “serendipity”.
  • Local backup. Just copy all the files you need to back up to the office computers, you say? Not such a good idea. If your office computer system (that one with the VPN software loaded) fails, how do you access them? I do regular backups of the docs on all my systems to DVD, so when (not if!) one of them fails I can access the docs from another one. Of course, the office DVDs need to be protected in some way: they may contain company confidential information, so it’s not sufficient to just copy all the files over: they must be encrypted and/or physically protected. STATUS: got a DVD burner on each machine. They’re cheap these days: I got Sony models for $39 after rebates. Just don’t buy too much media at once: the price on DVD+/-R media drops faster than you’ll use that 100-pack that looked like such a good deal at $80 last month.
  • Random collaboration tools: whatever you need. NetMeeting, some form of IM, video conferencing if your company supports it. You’ll need to do something to make up for the loss in face time, and in my case that means constantly reminding people of my presence via email, IM, internal blog postings… it’ll be different depending on what you do and what tools your company uses. STATUS: Outlook, Exchange IM, AIM, Trillian, iChat/AV with iSight, Polycom ViaVideo, WebEx… even PC remote control tools. I use ’em all, because I want to be available to anyone who wants to connect. Remote control tools are especially important because sometimes you just need to see what someone else is clicking on that gives that weird error, or they need to see your desktop so you can walk them through something.
  • Scanner and printer. You usually don’t need a fax machine if you have a scanner, and I forward scanned copies of bills and invoices to our Finance department using the scanner and email. They actually like it more than faxes, which are just an analog copy of something that started out in digital and will go back to being digital in the end after about seven conversions. STATUS: have’em. Got three scanners, in fact: one just for slides, but that’s for personal use.
  • A decent knowledge of computers. You’re remote: from the Help Desk’s perspective you might as well be on another planet. Learning how to troubleshoot basic computer problems will save you hours of frustration and waiting while the Help Desk tries to get their remote support tools to work over the VPN (which they were never designed or architected to do in the first place). STATUS: computers are my life. I’m OK.
  • A door. You need to be able to separate work and home life, and that means sometimes being able to shut the door. If for nothing else, to avoid your recently toilet-trained son from running in and proudly shouting what he just did in the potty… right as you start a video conference with the SVP of IT. STATUS: yes, that did actually happen to me. I’m not very good at keeping the door closed, since it starts to feel a little claustrophobic, but my family is very good at understanding that when I’m in the office, I’m at work.

I’m not including the standard software you’ll need as part of maintaining a healthy and usable PC/Mac (antivirus, anti-spyware, email, productivity suites) since that will be dependent on what your company uses, and is not specific to telecommuting. But you do need this stuff on your personal computers too: that’ll be another post.