Effective telecommuting does the job

Effective telecommuting does the job

Learn how to set up and maintain space, and you'll become an organized and efficient telecommuter

By John Breeden II

GCN Staff

In today's wired world, employers are finding out that telecommuting'when set up correctly'improves productivity and morale, as well as helps attract and retain top talent.

Instant messaging, e-mail, telephone and fax can keep any telecommuter in touch. Minutes or hours wasted on the morning drive turn into productive time, and staying late is as easy as staying put.

The General Services Administration and state and local governments have begun pressing employers and agencies to form telecommuting policies to relieve traffic congestion around big cities. See documents about GSA's Interagency Telecommuting Program on the Web at www.gsa.gov/pbs/owi/telecomm.htm.

To test real-world viability, I became a telecommuter for a couple of days. I wrote this tutorial and submitted it to my editors from my home office.

Except for the fact that writing it went faster because of fewer distractions at home, I found no significant difference between working at home and at the office.

Not this kind

I put myself in the place of a telecommuter who works from home one or two days a week. My advice does not apply to users of GSA's telecommuting centers, which supply and charge for work tools. Nor does it take up the problems faced by on-the-road telecommuters who must find hotel rooms with proper data ports and power connections. I've considered only the issues of setting up and maintaining a static telecommuting space at home.

First, the manager and the employee must decide whether the employee can or should telecommute. It's not for everyone. Isolation is a constant companion, and workaholics might not be able to stop at the end of the day. Telecommuting can put a strain on family members. Children at home might need day care just as they do when a parent's away at work. Also, the telecommuter must be organized and have good work habits because the workload doesn't lessen at home.

For some workers, telecommuting is a natural fit. In my case, I can just as easily review standalone products in my home office as at work. Sometimes I need network resources and have to link in because I don't yet have a LAN at home, although some organizations do help telecommuters set up such resources.

Unless the job requires a worker's physical presence'such as opening up an office each morning, attending meetings or supervising a staff'it probably is amenable to telecommuting a day or more a week. After you've got your manager's go-ahead, the next step is to design a suitable office environment at home. Set aside an area where you will do nothing but work. The ideal home office has a door that closes, but almost any area will do as long as it is dedicated to work'even a walk-in closet or a section of a room will do.

It's best to keep the office away from bedrooms, though. Documents and faxes have a tendency to creep into living spaces, and nobody wants to be awakened at 5 a.m. by the beep of an incoming fax.

Resist the temptation to mix home chores with telecommuting. Keep home work and office work separate, and your telecommuting experience will be more fruitful.

When the real estate is configured, stock it with the tools to get your job done. Here you will run into some expense, though probably less than you might expect. Some supervisors will pay for all or part of your telecommuting necessities; others leave you to build the space on your own.

To begin, you will need a computer with a modem, a telephone and an answering machine. Some people also want a fax machine. Even though the PC can be configured to send and receive faxes, I personally prefer a dedicated fax machine. The computer will need its own phone line in most cases. The fax machine and telephone can share a line.

The PC ideally should have a Pentium II or Pentium III processor. A Celeron system might suit as long as you don't do heavy multitasking. Make sure you have 64M of RAM, although 128M would be better. You also need a decent video card with 8M of video RAM'about the minimum available today and good for most office work. You'll want an 8G hard drive; 10G or more is advisable if your office will migrate to Microsoft Windows 2000 applications next year.

Home alone

Windows 98 is an adequate operating system. Windows NT is more reliable and powerful, but you will probably have to do your own technical support at home. There's only so much the agency help desk can do over the phone.

You'll need a CD-ROM drive, of course, and you might want to look into either an Iomega Corp. Zip drive or an Imation SuperDisk drive from Imation Corp. of Oakdale, Minn., if you have one on your workplace PC. That way, you won't have to e-mail yourself those 50M files or 50 different files. Simply carry your work back and forth on the high-capacity disks.

Consider a good 56-Kbps modem, even if you have another connection into the Internet. The modem can act as a backup.

A 19-inch monitor is best, but get at least a 17-inch model.

Most PC makers have computers specifically designed for home offices, and buying direct can save considerable money. Expect to pay $1,500 to $2,000 for a good system. Consider investing in a support contract'usually around $100 for three years'in case your agency offers no telecommuter support.

When your system is in place, buy a utility suite to keep things running smoothly. One of the best I've seen is Fix-It Utilities 99 from Mijenix Corp. Another is Norton System Works from Symantec Corp.

The second most important decision, after the computer, is how to connect to the rest of the world and link back to your office. Most users would choose a standard 56-Kbps modem. Almost every computer sold today incorporates one, and it will be more than adequate for standard tasks such as sending e-mail, browsing the Web and downloading small files.

If your PC has a Universal Serial Bus port, consider buying the 56-Kbps MultiModem USB modem from Multi-Tech Systems Inc. It's tiny and plugs easily into a notebook PC for use on the road, too.

Need for speed

A 56-Kbps modem has two disadvantages for telecommuters, however. Compared with alternatives, it's slow.

Users who regularly download 10M or larger files will find a lot of the workday eaten up by downloads. Also, it requires a second phone line at home, which adds cost to your setup.

Two options are cable modem and digital subscriber line. Many areas of the country offer both. In the Washington suburbs where I live, availability and cost varies wildly. In my Maryland county, a one-way cable modem costs $85 a month; in the next county, people have two-way service for $50. I can get DSL for $50 a month although a co-worker in northern Virginia cannot.

DSL requires the phone company to bring a special line into your home. The access speeds are as much as 126 times faster than a 56-Kbps modem, but not every area has DSL. Check with your local phone carrier.

Finding a good cable modem service is more difficult. If the local cable company has a two-way network, you can send and receive data through a cable modem. If your company has only a one-way network, you will have to maintain an extra phone line, which is inefficient and costly. But in areas with two-way networks, a cable modem can be a good deal, with impressive speed and sometimes free cable television service as a bonus.

Prices for DSL and cable modem service depend on location.

In some counties in my area, users pay as little as $40 a month, which is cheaper than service from an Internet provider plus a second phone line.

You might need a 10/100-Mbps network adapter for either a DSL or cable connection. Some companies provide the card for free when you subscribe, but look into having a card installed when you buy a new PC. It will be cheaper than paying $50 or more later. Get a good-quality card, such as those made by 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.

You should buy dedicated virus protection for your home system, especially if you interface with many other users over the Internet. A good choice is Symantec's Norton AntiVirus, which constantly updates your virus profiles. Regular updates keep you protected against destructive new programs for which the blanket coverage on your office network won't help at all.

Go configure

After your computer is hooked up to the Internet, configure your second phone line to take calls and faxes and act as your default voice mail. Surprisingly, this is easy to do by daisychaining the devices with phone cables.

Plug your fax machine into the phone wall jack at the front of the chain. Connect the answering machine to the auxiliary-out connection on the fax. Then plug a phone into the answering machine, and you are all set.

Unless you have a device without an auxiliary-out connection, you can connect about four devices this way before the signal becomes too weak. Most fax machines sold today can detect a voice call and roll it back to subsequent devices on the chain. Some even come with a built-in phone, saving you a step.

Many home users are buying multifunction de-vices that print, scan, fax and make copies, such as the Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet 720, which runs about $430.

If you don't need that much functionality but want a good, inexpensive printer, try the Epson America Inc. Stylus Color 640, which does near-laser-quality printing in full color, for about $200. It is quite fast, turning out 4 pages per minute in color or 5 ppm in black and white.

These tools make telecommuting tick


MultiModem 56K USB

Multi-Tech Systems Inc.

Mountainview, Minn.

tel. 612-785-3500


OfficeJet 720

Hewlett-Packard Co.

Palo Alto, Calif.

tel. 800-752-0900


Stylus Color 640

Epson America Inc.

Torrance, Calif.

tel. 310-782-2600


Zip 100M

Iomega Corp.

Roy, Utah

tel. 801-332-1000



Fix-It Utilities 99

Mijenix Corp.

Boulder, Colo.

tel. 800-645-3649



ICQ Inc.

Dulles, Va.

tel. 877-228-2592


Norton AntiVirus

Symantec Corp.

Cupertino, Calif.

tel. 408-253-9600



Symantec Corp.

Cupertino, Calif.

tel. 408-253-9600


Pentium II or III
with 64M of RAM
Same office suite
used by your

An answering machine is necessary in case you cannot get to the phone. Even telecommuters need lunch breaks. Make the message sound professional, and be sure to return phone calls.

As for telecommuting software, Symantec's pcAnywhere includes tools for daisychaining and utilities such as a contact recorder, so you can let your boss know to whom you are talking and what you are working on from home.

Make sure to install any programs that you normally use at the office, such as a word processor or spreadsheet. If your office has standardized on Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect, you'll want it at home for compatibility.

Some software lets you dial into your computer at work to retrieve files, but you will have to use a standard phone line and configure your work computer correctly. The system administrator ought to be able tohelp with that.

Now that you have all the tools in place, stay connected to your office. Give colleagues your phone and fax numbers, set your e-mail program to check for new messages every five minutes or so, and make sure co-workers know your home e-mail address. You might be able to configure your work e-mail to forward messages to home, and some offices also let remote workers check their e-mail over the Web.

To be completely connected, you and your supervisor could install an instant messaging system such as ICQ freeware, downloadable from the Web at www.icq.com. ICQ'which is not an acronym but means 'I seek you'' lets you and co-workers chat in real time, send messages faster than e-mail and even see when your correspondents are online. Other instant messaging products are free from America Online Inc., Yahoo Inc. and other sources.

If you stay connected and have a dedicated office space with good equipment, you will be surprised at how efficient telecommuting is.

I've tried it, and I'm hooked.

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