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Tools for telework

You too can outfit a home office for telecommuting and conducting business. Americans are leaving the corporate mothership in droves. At last count, more than one in five of the nation’s workers engaged in some form of telework on either a full- or part-time basis. A 2001 survey by the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) also showed that a majority of teleworkers said they were more satisfied with their jobs, more productive than their peers, and felt more loyal to their employers than ever before. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

In fact, there’s never been a better time to approach your boss about telecommuting. “We’re starting to see more and more positions becoming teleworkable,” says ITAC president Tim Kane. Thanks to Internet and phone technology advances, working from home is both increasingly viable and affordable. Some companies favor telework as a way to cut down on overhead expenses such as office real estate. Some cities promote telework as a way of reducing pollution and rush-hour traffic.

So draw up a proposal and schedule a chat with your supervisor. Don’t just think about the kind of work you can do at home, think about how you’ll set up a home office to do the work. If your company doesn’t already have a standard template for handling and outfitting teleworkers, you’ll want to think through what the company will pay for and what you’ll pay for. The success is in the technological details. On that front, here are some things that telecommuters setting up a home office will specifically want to consider.

Hardware for the home

If your company isn’t providing a computer, you’ll have to determine what sort of unit best fits your work situation. Compatibility should be your first concern–what’s most usable to you, your coworkers, and clients? Often that means trying to duplicate your office desktop machine. Alternatively, you could just have one notebook computer and dock it into ergonomic bays at work and at home–complete with large screens, wrist-friendly keyboards, mice, etc. The main advantage of the latter is data: There’s no need to make duplicate copies of files for two machines if you only have one.

PC or Mac? That question will be answered if you consider the compatibility issue. It is becoming much less critical these days, however, as Microsoft Office applications are cross-platform compatible. Also, with the advent of Mac OS X 10.2, Mac users can more easily hook into Windows-based network at the office. But sales people will need to go PC for their Act! databases, while marketing folks may prefer Mac’s superior graphics capabilities.

Money is often a factor too, notes Minda Zetlin, author of “Telecommuting for Dummies.” “Overall, you get more bang for your buck with a desktop rather than a laptop, and more with a PC than with a Mac,” she says.

Still, the situation may be more subtle than Zetlin is willing to admit. Can you get more bang for your buck with one laptop versus two desktops? With ergonomic keyboards, screens, and other gear at both locations, your choice becomes fairly simple. The rule of thumb: You can get two PC boxes for the price of one comparably equipped laptop.

Ultimately, as Zetlin shows, your choice of machine may have more to do with personal style than hard numbers. A home office is not some beige cubicle–it’s an extension of your personal space. Mac owners find they are willing to pay a 30 percent premium for a stylized iMac gracing their desks. Similarly, a laptop may look more at home than a tower PC.

Connections are key

Computers are practically worthless if you can’t use them to network with colleagues at the office. You can always use e-mail and FTP from a dial-up account, but this option is too limited, especially if you need to retrieve vital data from the office network in real time. For this, you need secure access to the company intranet.

Companies that allow telecommuters to tap into corporate intranets from remote locales obviously need some way to distinguish authorized users from unauthorized ones. A virtual private network (VPN) is the most common solution. VPNs provide a secure connection, firewall, and encryption capabilities via standard DSL or broadband hookups. And they help keep out innocent bumblers as well as marauding hackers. “The initial concern is that other people on your home network can’t get in,” says Robert Winch, 3Com’s director of product management for small business. Consider that a malicious hacker could gain access to the entire corporate network through an unsecured remote user and you see why this is the primary concern.

3Com is one company that specializes in remote office connectivity gear. 3Com’s Office Connect gateway offerings provide three levels of security in this area. Network address translation changes the address of your IP connection to an unknown address (though this is still potentially hackable, Winch notes). Additional hacker pattern protection sniffs out predictable hacker behavior and counters it. And staple-packet protection essentially bundles information coming to and from your box and makes sure that it’s really from you or for you.

Communicate or fail

Depending on your role in the organization, your telecommunications gear may be your most vital. The trend is to unify as many modes of communication as possible. What if clients or colleagues could reach you no matter where you are through a single toll-free number? What if you could get your voicemail and your e-mail on the same screen on your laptop? What if you could conduct virtual meetings with your staff complete with video? These and many more modern telecom conveniences are available with the right gear.

Keep an eye on voice-over-IP (VoIP). Though still imperfect, it has the capability to transform telework: A PC and Internet connection could someday serve as your phone, allowing you to dial clients and vendors across the country and around the world without incurring long-distance charges.

VoIP phones essentially translate analog voice streams into digital code, creating tiny packets that can be sent over a DSL or broadband connection, says Brian Tan, a SOHO product expert with Cisco Systems, Inc. The packets arrive at company headquarters where a router or switch with call-processing software sends the packets to the appropriate end-user, after which the packets are converted back into analog voice stream. Communication with callers who don’t use VoIP technology is routed through a central corporate network. “Essentially the phone calls are free,” Tan says. “It’s just like sending an e-mail message, except it’s IP packets.”

Several third-party providers offer VoIP service to teleworkers, for a fee. Nortel Networks was an early entry into the IP telephony space with its IP Centrex technology. Service providers are signing on to offer IP Centrex to businesses and telecommuters in their areas. One example is Exario networks, a Parsippany, N.J.-based ISP that has expanded service offerings into a slew of convergence services to small businesses in its area, including VoIP. This type of VoIP implementation seems to suit small businesses with several branch offices and telecommuters because the businesses don’t need to invest in up-front equipment to offer converged voice and data to their remote workers.

So you have a dozen employees scattered across Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, and Alaska: How do you call a meeting?

In recent years, conferencing software and services have sprung up like mushrooms. Teleworkers like Robert Long, a telework specialist for Dow Chemical Co., for example, regularly use Microsoft’s NetMeeting to connect for internal business, and make presentations to external customers over PC with an audio tie-in line using Cisco’s WebMeeting.

For SOHO users looking for conferencing capabilities, services like Verizon’s Conference Connection are a good option. Via the Web, customers gain access to a toll-free number and are given a set of PINs. You e-mail a meeting time and password to participants, and at the appointed hour, everybody connects for the powwow. Verizon also offers Web-based conferencing solutions that allow you to present visuals online while the audio part of the presentation is done over the phone.

Teleworkers who occasionally spend time on the road or on site at company or client offices will quickly tire of checking multiple in-boxes for voice, e-mail, and fax messages. Unified messaging, available from a number of companies, can be a handy solution. It offers a single point of access to all three message types. Internet-based unified messaging allows users to check messages via a Web site or e-mail, downloading phone calls as .wav files and faxes as .tif files, for example. Some services allow users to access messages by phone, checking e-mail and fax headers using text-to-speech technology and responding with voice mail.

What if you don’t need unified messaging but you still do a lot of faxing? Don’t go investing in expensive services from your local phone company. Save a few bucks by using Web-based faxing services. Teleworkers who want to receive faxes from varied remote locations would do well to consider eFax, from j2 Global Communications Inc. Each user is given a fax number, and documents sent to that number are converted into .tif files or j2Global’s proprietary format and then routed to the user’s e-mail inbox. Tap into your e-mail from wherever you are and–voila!–a fax that’s more easily readable than most paper faxes.

Need to send a fax to 500 of your closest friends? Provide j2global with your party or media or vendor contacts list and it will provide the fax engine for blasting news to your nearest and dearest anytime you ask. Done on a contract basis via the company’s Web site, the service gives SOHO users instant broadcast capacity for “less than a few pennies per sheet,” says j2Global president Scott Jarus.

Printers and other peripheral issues

Even as technology enables less and less paper to be consumed by fax machines and other business systems, there’s no escaping the printed page. Sooner or later, you will have to compose a printed letter and send it via the U.S. Postal System. Imagine that! For these occasions, a quality printer can make the difference between success and failure.

“Don’t go for the lowest price or the bargain product,” says Steve Semos, an Epson product manager for office ink jets. Why not? You get what you pay for: It’s worth investing a few extra dollars for a printer that uses plain office paper (rather than fussy, expensive grades) or a machine that can keep up with your need for speed.

A trip to the store to check out printers firsthand is required. You’ll want to test print quality, feeding accuracy, and ease of use. There’s no industry standard for measuring speed, so you’ll want to see if that “pages per minute” claim pertains only to draft or economy mode, or if the printer can churn out top-quality printouts at record speeds too.

You have a choice between laser and ink-jet. Which one you choose depends on the quantity of printing you plan on doing. While lasers cost more initially, their toner cartridges cost less than ink-jet printers refills in the long run. Printer ink is not cheap, and if you skimp by using inexpensive alternatives, you might ruin your inkjet printer.

Marketing professionals who produce reams of press kits and data sheets will save money in the long run with something like the Minolta QMS Magicolor 2200 DeskLaser color printer, which costs around $750. Middle managers who produce a proposal per month can certainly get by with one of today’s inkjets, which offer affordability and sharp output for SOHO users. Semos recommends the newly released C-82. Priced at $139, it feeds on plain paper and uses pigment-based DuraBrite inks that come in individual print cartridges, thus reducing the cost of replacement cartridges.

Personal digital assistants

Despite mounting evidence that individuals who work at home are more productive than their cubicle-imprisoned peers, some bosses and coworkers remain convinced that telework is merely another word for goofing off. Assuaging their worries will be part of your job if you’re working from home. Personal digital assistants can help considerably.

“You have to be accessible, otherwise people suspect you’re out there playing,” says Toni Kistner, managing editor of Net.worker, a Web site for teleworkers. While running errands near her home in Portland, Maine, or attending trade shows elsewhere, she keeps in touch with her boss and colleagues in Boston using her Blackberry handheld. The unit allows her to monitor her e-mail remotely, responding quickly on the unit’s tiny keyboard when somebody from HQ pops up with a question.

“You’re on call constantly,” Kistner says, “but being that responsive makes you look really good.”

Power management

With any luck, power outages are the exception rather than the rule in your neighborhood. But when you’re facing a company or client deadline, even a short blackout can be a significant blow.

A surge protector and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) are the most important tools in warding off power troubles. The former prevents frying your equipment, but it’s the latter that will keep you up and running during a power disruption or voltage sag. Once considered an expensive luxury, UPS systems are increasingly affordable and recommended for almost anyone who uses a PC for work. The premise is simple: Each UPS contains a wall plug-in, a battery, and a switch that draws power from one source or the other as necessary.

Keeping a lifeline

Living outside the mothership has its advantages–until something goes wrong. The moment an application goes awry or that new piece of equipment doesn’t attach the way it’s supposed to, you’ll suddenly realize the value of centralized IT support.

If you’re teleworking for a larger company, there’s probably a number you can call for troubleshooting. Some firms even send technicians to teleworkers’ homes to make sure everything is set up correctly. But if you’re working solo or as part of a small business that’s gone out on a limb to accommodate telework, you had better have a plan for emergencies. Your life support may be a cousin who knows hardware. Or a friend who knows software applications. “Prepare for disaster,” warns Kistner. “I would find a good reliable tech support person and pay them well.” Even retaining a student from the local tech college is better than having no plan at all.

Minneapolis-based Intepro hopes to cater to SOHO support needs with contract tech service. The company offers service subscriptions that offer technical assistance of varying levels, from phone consultations to 24/7 house calls, at multiple price points. “We’re thinking in terms of fast food: fast, convenient, and friendly,” says Intepro director Odeh Muhawesh. The company provides services to individuals as well as small and midsized companies and eventually hopes to franchise nationally.

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