Teleworking (aka working from home) is increasing fast as new technology and communications make it possible. Here’s how to make the most of it.
It can be the best of both worlds – getting paid to work, but doing so from home where you can avoid hours wasted stuck in traffic or beating the train crush, not to mention saving on those transport costs and expensive cafe lunches. Plus, you can even sit there and work in your PJs, as long as you don’t sleep on the job.
But if you’re going to work from home – part-time or full-time – you need the right setup. This applies whether you’re working as an extension of your presence at work, or if working from home is your full-time employment. It is, as always, about the right tools for the job.
Ideally, you want a spare room. It’s not just that you need an area to work, or that the area is sufficient to support your work (if you can only fit a tiny desk it isn’t going to help if you work with a lot of papers), it’s also essential to help you strike the work/life balance: an area separate from the rest of the house allows you to close the door at the end of the day and separate your work from your home life.
Then, of course, you’ll need:
Don’t underestimate the value of a large desk. The height should be around 70cm tall and should have enough space to comfortably place your monitor 45-60cm away from you, and which should be adjusted so the top of the monitor is roughly in line with your eyes. Regardless of whether you use a notebook or a desktop, having ‘spread space’ to lay out your work on your desk helps you keep organised. You also need room for your mouse, keyboard, phone, printer and anything else you need to work (no, that espresso maker doesn’t count as essential for desk space!).
If you plan to telework extensively, you need to think about your health. A bad chair can encourage bad posture and ultimately lead to problems. If this is your full-time working environment, you need a decent, ergonomically sound chair to support your hours at your desk – just as is if you were in the office. So no, that kitchen stool is right out! The chair needs to be height-adjustable, and you need to set it so your hands and forearms rest on the desk at a 90-degree angle, with your feet flat on the floor. It’s not just a matter of posture – being comfortable and having your back properly supported enables you to work more effectively. There’s a reason chairs can cost a lot of money, so invest in a good one. In many ways it’s the centrepiece of your work space.
This is often neglected, but the work space needs to have good lighting. Sunlight is ideal, but otherwise if using artificial light make sure it’s overhead and diffuse to prevent glare. If you have to use desk lamps, face them away from your field of vision. Be careful with windows for sunlight – monitors placed facing them will also suffer glare, and windows behind can cause contrast issues with the monitor and strain your eyes, so it’s usually best to place them perpendicular to the window. Blinds are very useful for controlling lighting in your work space.
Another often-overlooked component, how noisy is your work space environment? Your space at the office may be quiet or quite rowdy, but it’s usually consistent and you can tune out. At home, external noises such as the street or neighbours, to say nothing of internal ones from family or pets, can be distracting. If you can’t prevent the noise, you can reduce its impact by masking it with radio or playing music on low volume. You should also set a schedule of when you can and can’t be disturbed.
By definition, teleworking is a surrogate for your office, and so needs much of the same equipment. You likely have most of these already, and what you don’t have your IT department may be able to supply – it depends on the policies for teleworking at your office:
The obvious one. Desktops certainly make it easy, but notebooks and the prevalence of 3G means you don’t actually have to be bound to any one place to telework. It’s also easy for an IT department to outfit a notebook with everything you need to telework installed and ready to go, which not only makes it easy for you but allows them to ensure security with a known installed software base and configuration.
Broadband is prevalent these days, and one of the key drivers for telework adoption. However, you can also use 3G through dongles or phone tethering (Android and iPhones make this a snap). If you plan to use remote desktop software (see ‘Router’, next), broadband will be all-but essential – 3G can’t match the latency or speed. Check your broadband plan – if teleworking will break your data cap, you’ll need to upgrade to a larger plan before you realise your cap is broken. Paying through the nose for excess 3G data, or being throttled by an ISP, will kill your ability to telework effectively.
If you have other networked devices connected – notebook and desktop, network-attached storage, printer etc. – you’ll need a router. Most broadband modems these days include a four-port router and wireless, which is usually sufficient. These however are almost always 10/100. If you plan to move a lot of data at home, you’ll need a gigabit router or switch (a switch is preferred if you have heterogeneous devices with different capabilities).
Printer or MFC
If your role requires paperwork, you may be expected to print out material. Printers are cheap these days (though inks can quickly add up – read reviews before deciding on a model).
Backup and storage
Sounds boring, but this is vital. Firstly, where are you storing your work files? Are they only on the work network, or stored locally? If they’re on your notebook, what happens if it gets stolen? And do you have a backup regimen? Hardware fails eventually, so storing just on the desktop or notebook is not enough. An external USB drive or (if you have a lot of data) NAS is essential. If backing up is always last on your to-do list, automate it with specialised software. Cloud services are another option (more on this below). These days multi-terabyte USB drives can be had for peanuts.
Sometimes email and messaging isn’t enough. Your home phone is one option for keeping in contact, but a mobile is probably preferred. If you can, get a new mobile specifically for work. Not only can this help you keep your work and home life separate (leave the mobile in the office when you’re done for day!), but as it’s for work it should also be a work cost. Otherwise, VoIP is cheap if you have it as an option on your broadband plan.
Other hardware, aside from stationary (you did buy or borrow some pens right?) that’s useful are surge protectors (this is your work, getting behind due to a hardware failure probably isn’t what you have in mind), wireless routers if you plan to be able to ‘roam around the home’ with notebooks and phones for work, and if your ADSL or cable broadband connection is in a different room to your home office, powerline networking devices can allow you to connect rooms without stringing cables around the home.
There are a number of solutions for teleworking. If your company encourages and promotes teleworking, it will likely already have a solution in mind – software specifically designed to make connecting remotely both easy and, importantly, secure. Traditionally, there are two key methods for teleworking:
Connecting to your work PC
As though you were sitting in front of it. You can interact with your PC’s desktop and do anything you would normally do if you were at work. Software to do this includes Citrix GoToMyPC, Symantec pcAnywhere, TeamViewer, LogMeIn, NoMachine, and Real VNC, among others. Microsoft also has remote desktop software built into Windows 7, as does Apple for Mac OS X, and there are a range of free tools for Linux.
Connecting to the work network
Usually via a VPN (virtual private network). This gives you access to shared drives, the intranet, printers and other services as though you were sitting on the network at work. For extra security, some companies will run remote desktop software through a VPN. Windows, Mac and Linux all support VPNs out of the box.
Both have their pros and cons. Remote desktop software is a virtual presence at the office, and has the advantage of providing any software and services at home that you would be able to access and use if you were at work. It also makes it relatively easy for the admins to keep the network secure, as your access is only via your PC. The downside is that this can be a bandwidth-heavy solution, operating your desktop remotely in real-time.
Access to a network such as with a VPN can be a lot less bandwidth-intensive – you’re literally connecting your home network (even if that’s just your PC) to the work network through a secure connection. You won’t have access to your work desktop, but you should be able to access anything else on the network that you would normally be allowed to use via the VPN.
There’s a third method these days that’s rapidly evolving thanks to the internet – shared cloud services. Rather than connect to a secure work network or PC, if a business migrates its email, office applications and file sharing online then the concept of the office no longer becomes the physical work network sitting in the building where your office is located – it becomes any place you happen to be, as long as there’s internet access.
This is something that groupware providers have been taking heavy advantage of, and three of the big players are:
Microsoft now provides Office 365 which integrates local Office software and web-based services. This include Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, SkyDrive storage, Exchange and SharePoint.
Google has its suite of apps that include Google Docs, Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Talk for messaging.
Zoho provides Zoho Docs, Zoho Mail, Zoho Meeting, Zoho Projects, Zoho Chat and even shared Wiki collaboration with Zoho Wiki.
All of these aim to provide a consistent suite of productivity and collaboration programs that work both at the office and remotely for teleworking.
Other software that is useful specifically for teleworking includes messaging – even if it’s just classics such as ICQ, MSN or Yahoo – and video conferencing, for which there are plenty of options, though Skype is the most well-known. Beyond this, depending on your role, you can even find shared cloud services that include web presenting, whiteboarding, screen sharing and project management. However while cloud services can still be secure, and provide a way to work and collaborate through purely internet-accessible tools, the downside is the reliance on cloud service providers – if they go down or suffer outages, so does your business.
Your company may also require some extra security software be installed (even if it’s just a reliable anti-virus/anti-malware suite). After all, your PC becomes an access point to the network, which is one more point of vulnerability. If this is the case, follow whatever procedures your IT department requires. It’s a small price to pay for the freedom of working from home.