Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Good Headset, Bad Headset

I wear my PC headset all the livelong day so comfort and performance is really important for me. I've tried a bunch of different headsets, and found one that really suits me.

The smaller headset is the one that came with my Motorola Bluetooth device. It is strange from an ergonomic viewpoint -- how can something that has so little correspondence with the shape of my ears possibly be comfortable? I tried it for a while and found that it was echo-filled and apt to fall off my head at inopportune moments. For being a small headset, it pinched and was just generally not that great.

Undaunted, I went back online and found the Plantronics headset with the small boom and a nice curvy wrap around earpiece. The earbud rests comfortably inside my little pinnia and the mic picks up my voice nicely. I can wear this thing all day and it doesn't pinch, nor give me a headache (all things that the stinkin' Motorola headset did).

I also discovered the secret to reducing echo for my teleconference partners: turning the volume on my earpiece way down. People are still quite audible, but they don't hear themselves through the mic. If only I could get the folks on the other end to do the same. Anyone who has ever teleconferenced knows the disconcerting effect of hearing your voice echoing back at you half a second out of synch.

It gives me a newfound respect for news anchors and sports casters -- these people have the producer talking in one ear, they're reading a script off a Teleprompter, they're feigning interest in their interview subject, and they have to smile whilst doing it. I completely lose my focus if my IM goes off while I'm teleconferencing with someone else. This is probably a skill I should work on -- I could be triply productive while talking, IMing and programming all at once.

Or maybe I should just focus on one darn thing at a time.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Extreme Commuters v. Telecommuters

You may have it bad, but not as bad as people who commute ninety minutes or more each way to work. Computer World reports that the Transportation Research Board finds average commute times rising and more people are moving into the category of EXTREME COMMUTER. I did some time as a Baltimore to DC commuter, and it is truly hellish to be in your car ninety minutes or more every day; public transportation is only a bit better, and the TRB says train- and bus-jockeys commute twice as long as those in cars.

Tucked in the headline and getting only one mention in the body of this article is the report of a survey that finds:

The growing travel times for physical commuting may encourage more businesses to
offer telecommuting options if workers consider time traveling to work as
wasted. A survey of 1,400 chief financial officers said offering telecommuting
as an option is the second-best way to attract top job talent.

Of course, the best way is more money, but having your work day not eat two or three hours of your home life because you have to get to some office. People are waking up to the undeniable fact that it does not make sense to drive two hours just to get on a computer and get back on the Internet. I'll try to track down the original study to see what other conclusions it might have about the importance of telecommuting as a beneft.

Touchy-Feely Workplace: The Federal Government

Once again that behemoth, the General Services Administration, is actively working to encourage telecommuting. One reason, according to a study covered in this article in EWeek, is because federal workers just aren't taking advantage of the programs that exist:

Just 140,694 federal workers telecommuted in 2005, 7.7 percent of the
federal work force and less than one-fifth (19 percent) of those who were
eligible, according to a report released by the U.S. General Services
Administration Jan. 29 as part of an effort to attract more workers into their
telecommuting program.

On the face of it, this seems like kind of an indictment of remote work, but the study goes on to reveal GSA's real interest in promoting telework:

In data collected from their 14 telework centers, the GSA found that these
facilities had saved commuters nearly 2.8 million miles of travel, or 115
thousand gallons of fuel and 2.3 million pounds of emissions.

Telework = big savings (and, as many survey respondents noted, career satisfaction). For the people who throw caution (and their concerns about ever being promoted again), most react positively to working without spending quality time in their cars staring at the bumpers in front of them.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Don't Try This at Home...The Office...Or Anywhere Else...Please!

Naked computing may be the latest trend in some places, but this is something that I just can't endorse. First of all, I use a webcam for hours every day and I never know when someone is going to pop in on me, visually. Second, I find that getting up, showering, putting on a happy face (e.g. some makeup so as to ward off comments like, "Are you feeling all right?" and, "Are you sure you're breathing?!?!"), and donning clothes that would pass muster on Extremely-Casual-Friday to be essential parts of making a successful transition to the office. It really helps a lot, because I don't have a long drive during which to do these things any more.*

The reasons not to do this kind of thing are legion: Really, shouldn't people be concerned about overheating fans on laptops getting all hot on their bidness? What about getting suntan oil on your flatpanel? Your laptop could get knocked off your lap by an errant volleyball and then what?

Naked telecommuting is a bad idea, most importantly, because eventually someone in the Real Office will find out and then everyone will be picturing you naked and goofing off for the rest of your remote work tenure. Which is bad.

* I would never put makup on during a drive. I don't even talk on the cell phone. I forbid people who drive my children in their cars from talking on phones whilst driving. I'm not kidding about that.

Teleconference Tips

From Web Worker daily, these are some great phone conferencing tips. It's not ony the remote worker who spends too much time in phone conferences -- everyone does this these days. I also recommend having a good desktop sharing application like GoToMeeting -- even if you're not able to see each other, using these tools allows you to point out the part of the document you're discussing at the moment and so on. Very useful.

Office Progress

The fan is up and the electrical outlets are moved! All the junk is out and the heating unit is ordered! We decided to go with an oil-filled space heater for the short term, because time is of the essence and there are only a few more cold months left here in the Land of Enchantment. The heater, a Delonghi TRD0715T, has a thermostat and a twenty-four hour clock so that I should be able to have it automatically fire up about a half-hour before I show up for work so it's not completely icy in my new office.

I've also been scanning home office design books online, and I think that I already have a pretty good set up. So much of that design stuff seems to focus on jobs that require special tables or storage requirements. Well, dig it, I'm not an architect or a fashion designer, so really all I need is a flat surface to put the computer on and some file cabinets to hide paper in. And these are things I have.

I've also assuaged my guilt at re-doing yet another office for myself (when we moved in here I repainted what had been a little girl's room in a more neutral tone and got rid of the lacy curtains) by painting the girls' bathroom at long last. And as an added bonus I can use the one wall color as a wall color in the office, thus not wasting it. The color is called, no kidding, Tangerine Dream. It's kind of a peachy white, and not at all umlauty like you'd think a color named after a German prog-rock outfit would be.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Present and Accounted For

According to several studies presenteeism is costing companies billions with a b. What is presenteeism? When employees show up for work even though they are ill, contagious, and otherwise unpleasant to be around because they're sick, all because they can't or won't use sick time to stay home and get better, that's presenteeism.

In the remote work environment this is not such a problem, of course. If I go to work sick, the only one I'm hurting is me, and if my colleagues in the Real Office are sick, what do I care? But the trend is one that I find disturbing. Many workplaces have "frequency" policies that punish people who take several sick days off in a row and make it more difficult to take leave the more leave you take -- even if it is leave that you are entitled to.

Okay, and before you get in my grill about "entitled" -- sick leave is an employee benefit that benefits the employer too. Your paycheck is an entitlement, too: you're entitled to have them pay you the agreed amount. Sure, we all know people who take a sick day every month whether they're sick or not, and frankly I don't have a problem with that. I worry that someday those folks will actually be sick (or have a baby, or a sick kid, or an ailing parent) and they'll be sorry they burned those sick days, but that is a judgement call.

Even worse than frequency policies are leave pools, fabulous schemes in which your vacation, sick, and personal leave is just one big puddle. If you're out of the office, it counts against that pool, whether you're island hopping or driving the porcelain schoolbus (a true busman's holiday if ever there was one). These kinds of policies virtually guarantee that people are going to come in sick so they have a few days left at the end of the year to take a small trip with their families.

I think people should apply the daycare standard for health: if you have a fever stay home. Vomiting? Seeya (wouldn't want to be ya). Supperating flesh wounds? Get on antibiotics and get the pus situation under control and call us. Pinkeye? Don't even look at me.

Get outta here!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Are you breaking my server?

One of the problems that remote workers face is knowing where their colleagues are. I find that sometimes my coworkers might could be avoiding me by hiding in the server room. And sometimes when I suspect we're having technical difficulties I can't find anyone on IM, phone, email, or webcam at their desks. When I was working in the Real Office I could tell when something was amiss because all the server folk would walk by my office looking vaguely exercised, but now I miss out on this experience.

Not to worry, technology is available to help: the network camera in the server room. I can see instantly who's in the server room, and because I know the layout, I can guess which server they're breaking ... I mean FIXING ... at any given time. I don't look that often, so people who are worried about their nose-picking habits should pick with reckless impunity. But it is quite helpful to have a password-protected peek into the server room whenever I need to figure out what might be going on and whether or not the people who can fix servers are aware of a potential problem.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Only 30 Shopping Days Until...

Telecommuter Appreciation Week! According to the American Telecommuting Association, "Telecommuter Appreciation Week" falls on the period from February 25 through March 3 (in homage to Alexander Graham Bell, whose birthday is March 3rd). But it raises the important question: what to get for the telecommuter who has everything?

I'm frankly torn. The American Telecommuting Association thong-th-tho-tho-thong is really awfully nice, but such a gift might constitute fostering a hostile workplace. In this modern age, Killer Bunny Slippers might be a safer choice for the telecommuter's manager to send along to recognize his or her far flung workers' dedication and self-discipline. The nice people at Think Geek have them available in many sizes that will fit the most gargantuan or lilliputian telecommuter out there.

I, for one, am counting the days. And flossing my ass.

Oil Dependency is for Suckers

Well, the state of the nation is strong apparently, and reducing our consumption of oil is a priority. Well super-de-duper. How about incentives for employers large and small to encourage telecommuting in addition to fuel technologies, automobile efficiency, and all that jazz.

The technology for effective telecommuting already exists and works pretty darn well. It's self contained and fairly explanatory. How much could eliminating your commute save? The Metro Washington Council of Governments has this cool tool to calculate the dollar savings telecommuting could give you.

Heck, I don't get in the car for days on end. Sure I might be getting a little cabin fever, but I'm not burning as much gas as I would if I were making even a short drive to the Real Office every day.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Close enough for government work

The U.S. Patent Office has successfully made the case for reimbursing remote workers for their high-speed internet costs, according to this editorial on CNET today. This is pretty cool -- a big government agency is setting a goal of having a significant portion of its workforce not driving the DC-Beltway:

The agency believes that this program will improve work force recruitment and retention, reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the Washington, D.C., area, and deliver substantial cost savings. It expects to have 3,300 employees participating in this program by 2011.

They're putting their money where their federal mouth is by making either 50% or 100% of the employee's broadband costs fully reimbursable. Employees will have to submit receipts and they also need to characterize their broadband use by how much time they spend actually working online. This is a meaningful incentive, and a strong sign to their employees that a relatively stodgy government agency is genuinely, really earnest in its support of remote workers.

Virtually the same

The next best thing to being there? The Baltimore County School System Home and Hospital Center, a unit charged with teaching students who will be out of school for more than four weeks, is using real-time conferencing to teach students over the internet.

School administrators and teachers point out that because they are teaching
real-time Web-conferencing, the homebound students' experiences are similar
to what they would have in a regular classroom.

You can see the whole Baltimore Sun Article here, but the gist of it is that a combination of a shared workspace (not videoconferencing, but a shared whiteboard online) and telephone conferencing is proving very effective for teaching students all kinds of subjects. Having shared visuals is better than just a phonecall, too, students and teachers report in the article.

The technology really is essential. Being literally on the same page whether you're in the same meeting room or different timezones is key to everyone in a meeting or conversation understanding and following.

Making a New Office (or Gaining a Guest Room)

We're going to be renovating a storage room to serve as my new office sooner rather than later. It's not that my current office isn't serving ably in this role -- it's large (maybe a little too large), heated and cooled, generally fine and dandy. What is missing though is not office related, but home related: a guest room.

When we bought this place, we knew that a home office was the key ingredient -- the move was predicated on me becoming a successful full-time remote worker so the office was not optional. We found a place that had the right price, enough bedrooms for each of the kids to have one to herself and an "extra room" -- an addition that opens off one of the girls' bedrooms and that also opens off the patio. And thus, my office was born, but we lacked an extra room to serve as a guest room.

It turns out that another point to moving somewhere beautiful like Albuquerque is that everyone back east wants to come and visit to do some hiking, skiing, climbing, drinking, or what have you. We love having house guests and housing them hospitably, so we knew at some point we'd want to do something about that. And now my sister and her family are planning a visit, so we've decided to take this opportunity to put my office in a more appropriately sized space.

It'll actually be a pretty simple remodel. We already have a 9.75 x 8.5 room off the other side of our patio that is attached to the house (it's the back of the garage), and it already has a door and window opening, and electricity. So the remodel consists of:
  1. Getting rid of or otherwise storing all the junk that is in there.
  2. Moving the electrical bits so they're not blocking part of the window opening.
  3. Installing a ceiling fan/light fixture.
  4. Installing a secure glass door and window.
  5. Painting and/or doing something with the walls.
  6. Installing carpet. (Yes, I know that it would be more practical to put tile in there, but it's cold here and carpet seems more welcoming. I don't do that much zooming around on my office chair casters anyway.)
  7. Installing baseboards/moldings.
  8. Schlepping all my office crap across the patio.
  9. Determining what we'll do about heating. In the short term, an oil-filled space heater will do the trick. A final heating determination will depend on whether we also do the garage-into-family-room conversion, at which point we might put an additional heat-pump kind of thing on the side of the house for both heating and cooling. We're thinking of the Mr. Slim split ductless heat pump. It's a pretty groovy device.
That doesn't sound too bad, right? The electrician comes on Wednesday, so we'll hasten through step one. And maybe paint the ceiling before the fixture goes up, as the ceiling is half white and half dark blue for some puzzling reason.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Jetlag as a Lifestyle

What time is it where you are? In my house, it's kind of like living in Indiana where different parts of the state observe daylight saving time in different ways. I know there are only two hours difference in time between Mountain and East Coast, but making the calculation quickly when determining whether I can accept an appointment with Mountain folk or Eastern folk is kind of a pain.

So I got this groovy little two-time zone clock from Red Envelope -- I am sure it's intended for jet setters who are travelling the globe, not shut-ins who shuffle from their beds to their office chairs in the pre-dawn hours, but it works for the shut-in fairly competently, too.

As evidence that I really need it, I offer this sordid incident: I became disoriented when the local time battery gave up the ghost. I started calculating that the East was two hours ahead of the East clock face, rather than figuring out what was going on. Then the East clock stopped too, and I thought it was ten o'clock for a long time.

I'm much more oriented in space and time now that I've got both batteries replaced. I can tell that it's lunch time in the Real Office and that's why nobody is answering the phone. Or that it's three o'clock here and that's why the children are coming home from school.

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Things That Work: Remote Access Tools

There are a few tools I use that make my lifestyle possible, and the most important are the remote access tools. Getting inside the firewall and having access to all the networked crap that I would were I sitting at a desk in Maryland is essential, and I have a few things that work really well.

For a long time I was totally devoted to the institutional VPN and XP Remote Desktop. Ah, so secure, so free. It was great, but the VPN killed my bandwidth and made videoconferencing a little too Max Headroom for some people's tastes. But it is good and I can do just about everything on my remote PC that I can do when I'm sitting in the Real Office.

GoToMyPC is a late but formidable addition to my arsenal. It has a few distinct advantages: no VPN is required, great for videoconferencing quality and the ability to fire up the IM Webcam option on the spur of the moment. I do have to pay for it, but the easy login, speed, and file transfer utility are pretty swell.

Once I get into that remote PC, a magic daisy-chain of remote connections takes place as I use a combination of XP Remote Desktop to connect to newer servers, and PCAnywhere to connect to the Windows 2000 boxes in our server room. All together, this stuff lets me be as good as "there" from a server maintenance and get-access-to-the-stuff-that-must-be-inside-the-damn-firewall perspective.

Too bad for anyone else in the house who wants to use the Internet though. With all this fired up, plus VOIP and maybe a little videoconference thrown in for good measure, it's a bandwidth bogarting situation. They should all be at school, babysitters, and work anyway.

Getting Ahead in Slippers

What telecommuter isn't writing or thinking about this one: I'm only in my seventh month of telecommuting so I can't really say for sure, but a recent study of 1,320 global executives conducted by HR consulting firm Korn/Ferry says that I'm less likely to get ahead by virtue of not being physically in front of my boss every day. It's the classic conundrum: everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Executives want to seem supportive of flexible work arrangements -- hey, we're hip, we're now, we're progressive, we're change agents. But they also want things to stay the way they were, and that means people in offices wearing ties and pantyhose.

In my workplace, there aren't a lot of opportunities for "promotion" per se. We're an academic institution and my productivity doesn't have a direct impact on my advancement -- I don't get a bigger bonus for writing more code or garnering more online transactions. Frankly, I feel grateful that I received the standard 2% raise during my recent review.

That said, I do feel that I could miss out on opportunities because I'm not "there" to be invited to meetings on an impromptu basis, or to identify and fix some problem by walking around the Real Office and hearing people talk.

So what do I do to counter this? By being as "there" as I can be. I work the same hours as everyone else in the Real Office so they almost always get me on the phone, IM, or videoconference as soon as they call, IM, or ping me. I keep my technology humming so that I can pop-in on a meeting by camera or phone whenever I'm needed. I keep an eye on what's going on on the conference room and ask to be invited to meetings that look like things I should be a part of. I call people just to chat.

But we'll see. One review down, but will I ever be promoted? Only the shadow knows...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A look behind the scenes

There are a fiew pieces of technology that I have running locally that make all the mayhem I create in Maryland possible. Actually, it's a lot of technology and this is just a picture of the stuff that's running here. Almost all of it has some counterpart in the real office that also has to be up and running for things to work well for me. The amazing thing is that on my side of the equation, it didn't really cost that much to get set up -- less than two grand for the PC and multi-function printer/scanner/fax, some software to make it all useful, some free tools. Here's the rundown on the hardware:

PC: Nothing special here, just the usual Dell desktop.

Multi-function printing device: HP OfficeJet 7210 All-in-One. Works great, but because my desk is a little stylish (read somewhat flimsy) it causes everything to shake when I'm printing. It makes the cat happy -- she can bat at my Harvey Pekar bobblehead figurine as it nods in assent at the brilliance of the documents I'm printing.

Webcam: I use a Logitech Fusion. The headset that came with it stank, so I've been through several iterations, and now have joined the Bluetooth crowd (despite my paranoia that Bluetooth is actually how the Machines will Rise -- please refer to Terminator 3 for an example of what can happen when all your household devices start to have their own little networks that you don't really have control over. But I digress.).

Headset: Plantronics PLT 510. Comfy, not too noisy, I don't get too many complaints from my videoconferencing partners. Wireless is just a little more complicated than wired, but much more comfortable. If I could get my desk phone to also be bluetoothy, I'd really be stoked. As it is, I use a separate, wired headset with the desk phone so I really look like a dork when I'm taking a call and I'm on videoconference. But you can never look too dorky, really.

Phone Service: VOIP. I won't mention the company name here, because I would hate to seem like I'm endorsing them. It's good enough, though sometimes prone to random call dropping and echooooooing. The VOIP was critical to maintaining a local telephone number with fairly reliable service. I'm not certain that I might not switch to a Maryland-based cellphone at some point, because frankly it couldn't be worse sound quality than VOIP is. VOIP has some cool features that help when I'm "out of the office" (e.g. back in the real office). Like I can forward my desk phone to my cell phone and people call me at the same number they know, and it rings where ever I am. I can get my voice mail from anywhere there is an Internet connection, get voice mail in my email, it's hours of fun for the whole family. Well, me.

Is telecommuting a stellar commute?

Telecommuting. It's the Holy Grail of the knowledge worker, but does the reality live up to the dream? The answer depends on many things -- how much coffee I've had, how well my technology is functioning, whether or not I'm getting the feeling like I'll never be promoted again -- well you get the idea.

My impression of what telecommuting is really like varies day-by-day, but after doing six months (hard) time in my slippers, I feel like I've gained some insight into the ups and downs of PJ life. Won't you join me as I regale you with tales of bulging capacitors in remote computers, co-worker misapprehensions about what it is I do all day, dogs barking during videoconferences, and much, much more.

And for the record:

1. No, I don't actually wear PJs in my office*.

2. Yes, I do routinely work in slippers. In fact, I've put all my shoes on the top shelf in the closet because I don't need easy access to them.

3. No, I'm not enjoying the extra time with the kids because I pay for a babysitter. When the babysitter was sick, I took family sick leave, just like I would do if I worked in the real office. And I did some work with the baby sitting on my lap to try and get something done because my deadlines are pressing on me like a two year old squirming on my lap.

* Okay, I did wear my PJs to do some work, but it was when I was on "vacation" and had to duck into the office for a few hours every day because it was the end of the tax year and things were really rockin' on some of the sites I adminster. But they were very office-appropriate PJs, neatly pressed, I assure you. I could probably wear them to the real office on casual Friday. If it weren't 2,000 miles and two time zones away, I'd do it too. Really.