Wednesday, February 28, 2007

What Do You Do All Day?

This is the question that I think comes up the most, particularly among my neighbors. They are mystified as to how I can sit in a room in my house all day and get things done. So I'm going to log every little thing I do today. This may be instructive for me too -- the answer to the burning question, "Where does the time go?" Please note that all these times are ET -- it's really two hours earlier when all this is happening, but at some level that doesn't really matter.
  • 8:20: Start up everything, and look at who's on IM. Use GoToMyPC to connect to Real Office PC and open email. Read through all the messages and delete what can be deleted. Fire off a couple of quick replies for things that can be dealt with right then, turn some other emails into tasks to be completed.

  • 8:35: Check VoIP voicemail. One call to return right away, one call is going to take more finesse, and a consultation with my boss.

  • 8:40: Return a call and get a new, but very small task. Create item to test an idea and get back to the customer about results.

  • 8:45: Get on the phone (er....on hold) with customer support for a product that we're having trouble with to work through a fix that will be coordinated between our contract developer and the product vendor. Note to companies with long phone support queues: many of your customers have heard that breezy jazz A Lot -- change it up every now and then. Please.

  • 9:00: Still on hold...IM-ing with a colleague about assorted stuff, mostly work related.

  • 9:01: VoIP drops my call. Sigh. Back to the end of the customer support queue.

  • 9:02: Answering more email/tasks whilst on hold.

  • 9:15: Talking to customer support.

  • 9:20: Knocked out another little fix to an online form whilst talking to the support rep. Let the customer know by email that the fix was in.

  • 9:21: Quick peep at the boss' calendar to see if he's in to answer a question. Nope, he's scheduled to be on campus for meetings.

  • 9:25: Pop in on another colleague through IM and chat a little bit about what we're working on for today. Start to work on a problem she's having and make sure it isn't something wrong with a key system.

  • 9:40: IM Phone call with my colleague to discuss the issue further, plus small talk. Multi-tasking whilst talking, working on a form for a customer.

  • 9:45: Up the ante -- we go into the conference room for videoconference and further trouble-shooting of the problem my colleague is having.

  • 10:00: Off videoconference, work on some coding on a server using XP Remote Desktop.

  • 10:15: Boss pops on IM to discuss troublesome issue, work through it while continuing to make changes in code between bursts of typed conversation.

  • 10:35: Email a couple of customers about new web forms for their review, and then inside to make some coffee. (It's now 8:35 MT, and I can say goodbye to the big kid before she goes off to school, too).

  • 10:40: Back at it with a cup of green tea and some oatmeal. Pick up some voicemail that came in while I was videoconferencing earlier.

  • 10:50: Schedule an online training session for later in the week with two customers. Will serve as a prototype for regular training for my customers who wish to send mass email. On to the next thing on my task list, reviewing a third party product that a customer wishes to add to online giving forms. Piece of cake, customer will be happy.

  • 11:15: One of the customers gets back to me about their web form -- a few small edits and she'll share it with the faculty in her department. Let's crank those changes out so I can move something into the "out" column!

  • 11:30: Phone call from customer interrupts form work -- do a quick demo of an online forum utility she's considering using with a planning committee. She likes it, so she'll get back to me with the names of the people to add to it.

  • 11:45: Back to the form editing.

  • 12:15: Form out to customer for final review, time for "lunch". (Of course, it's actually only 10:00, so I run some errands preparing for my upcoming trip to the Real Office on Sunday.)

  • 1:00: Reviewing email and voicemail that came in while I was out of my office.

  • 1:20: Phone call from customer to review web form.

  • 1:30: Back on knocking off another task from the list -- adding revised info and passing on to the customer. One more item for the "out" column.

  • 1:50: Quick updates to a spreadsheet to track form status before a meeting.

  • 2:00: Pop into the conference room for a scheduled meeting. Wait for other attendees to show, and then meet.

  • 3:00: Meet a coworker virtually in the server room to allow him to reset his password on one of the boxes there. I fire up the network camera in there so I can see when he joins me.

  • 3:10: Customer call -- where did my gift go? Not to worry, I can see it from here so things are okay.

  • 3:20: I need a glass of water!

  • 3:25: Back to little issues in email -- tracking down an institutional webmaster to make a link to a new online giving form.

  • 4:05: Phone call -- work on the issue in the phone call. Then make a few more phone calls and leave messages in a few places.

  • 4:30: Wrap up emails, convert a bunch of messages that came in to tasks on my calendar.

  • 4:55: Review the schedule for upcoming onsite trip.

  • 5:00: Quitting time.

The day shifts gears so many times, I'm not achieving the "code for four hours straight" nirvana that many telecommuters expect. But I'm getting a boatload of stuff done, and people feel like they can get my help at any time. And I'd wager that my day doesn't look too different from those of my Real Office colleagues.

And that's really a good thing.

Third Places

The idea of third places for work -- not home, not the office, but somewhere else -- is an old one. This week, Business Week has an interesting article about official third places cropping up in major metros around the country.

I like this idea. One of the big problems I have in working in my monastic cell...ummm...I mean my truly lovely little home the relative isolation. There would be times when it would be nice to work with other people now and again. I can see that having the impetus to get your act together and get out to your third place might make the transition to work easier for a certain kind of slacker. The promximity of coffee would also be a plus.

There are some third places with free wi-fi that I might not haunt -- like the Golden Pride Chicken and Ribs place near my house. They proudly started offering free wi-fi last month.

But I'm not sure that working for hours in a barbeque joint is what Business Week has in mind.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Security for the Shut-Ins

We're all security conscious these days -- there have never been more ways into vulnerable data systems and nobody wants their company to end up in the news for security breaches caused by some slipper-based dunderhead. Likewise, none of us wants to be that dunderhead.

Computer World has a good article today on the steps companies should take to make remote work as secure as possible. When practical, people should only work remotely on company-owned equipment -- for the full-time shut in like me, that means a company-configured desktop rig. Making a pool of properly virus scannered and otherwise locked down laptops available for the less frequent remote worker would also be a safer way to go about it. Least favorable: my family computer with goodness-knows what-all running on it. Well, my family computer happens to be very well-managed too, but I don't know what your kids are doing on yours!

Having policies and training is also key to keeping the real network protected from problems that could be introduced by remote workers. Policies on having data outside the firewall (generally a no-no) can be supported by having the remote PC act as a virtual machine connecting to a system inside the firewall so that all the heavy lifting is done on a safe, locked-down network.

This article also notes that one company makes it a policy to visit home offices to validate that their security policies are being adhered to. My remote work agreement notes that this is a possibility, but the distance between me and the Real Office means that such intervention is unlikely. Though I would certainly pass muster.

Allow me to add another security recommendation: basic physical security of the computers and any files taken off site is critical. Lock your office door and have a locking file cabinet for the materials you work with. Don't leave the laptop in the car (not even in the trunk). Close the blinds when you're not physically in your office so that peeping prowlers can't see the bewildering array of computer equipment in your office. These are simple, but important steps you can take to reduce the risk that your hard drive will fall into the wrong hands.

Here's the thing: even if your laptop is stolen by some indivdual who just wants to sell it for a fix, and who can't possibly begin to make use of the data that is stored therein, your employer is still going to have to deal with the repercussions of that data loss. It's a total nightmare.

Consider yourself warned.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Telecommuters Are Cheaper than Real Workers

Okay, we're all real workers, but you know what I mean. I just read an interesting white paper from Avaya making the case for telecommuting programs for contact centers.

I know what you're thinking: why would the IP Telephony Contact Center Advisory Board give us bad advice.

Nevertheless, the white paper cited some pretty interesting data. For example, they note a Gallup poll that found that training a new staff member cost 30% again of that salary. By having programs in place that reduce churn and turnover (and they note that telecommuting programs can reduce turnover from 40% or higher to around 10%), companies realize significant savings.

They go on and on about how great telecommuting is for employers. You can hire people at small town rates -- because they can actually live in small towns. Contact centers can bring people in for two and three hour stints at peak call times more easily. Employees who might be less inclined to commute 45 minutes each way for a two hour peak shift are more easily persuaded to connect for a few hours in the morning and then again in the event when they just shuffle down the hall to strap on their headsets. There is also a measurable decline in the use of sick and personal time, to the tune of about 20%. Again, you might not feel well enough to sit on the train for an hour, but you are probably able to duck into your home office for a bit and get some stuff done.

Of course, we're all familiar with the benefits for the employee: slippers, slippers, slippers. I think the most interesting piece of data in this white paper pertains to transportation costs. Noting that contact center work is often low-paying, it goes on to say:
Telecommuting puts the transportation and commuting costs of $5,000 plus the
incidental costs back into the employee's pocket. This increases the ... net
disposable income ... by more [than] $400 per month. ... The net effect is that
home-based work has a significant impact on the [employee's] real income.

No matter what kind of remote work you do, I think you can see your own situation resonate with these data. I know I'm much less cranky-pants about going in on the weekend to fix something now (when I shuffle into my office in my PJs and fix the problem remotely) as opposed to when I was in the Real Office (when I'd get dressed and drive downtown, find some place to park because the garage wasn't open on weekends, hope that I wouldn't get a ticket, and fix the problem).

And how many remote workers out there were able to successfully negotiate remote work arrangements because they were just too costly to replace?

Some Bugs in the System

Well, actually it's technically an arachnid, but anyone who works in software development will agree that it's important to remove all the bugs you can.

This gentle beauty was hiding behind a stack of those three-inch thick programmer paperbacks this morning. I think this lovely lady is a wolf spider* based on the information available on What's That Bug. WTB has been an invaluable resource in sorting out my coworkers here in the lovely 'Burque. We had a number of really large and potentially deadly black widows last fall, along with some charming brown recluses. I am sad to say that before I found WTB I was on a "Kill 'em all, let God sort it out" spree.

I've since adjusted my thinking and I relocate most of my spidery office mates to the wilderness of the backyard. I still kill all black widows and brown recluses on sight, however. I have small children who play everywhere in the yard and garage, and until the little one puts on enough body mass to not die from a truly venemous spider bite, these ladies are going to have to take their business elsewhere.

Notes on this specimen: That is a 3 x 5 card and a regular size shot glass, just so you have an idea of the scope of the problem. I relocated her to a nice plant out by the fish pond, the idea being that there is shelter there from the cold nights, and lots of likely places to spin her next web.

Note to other telecommuters: This is the kind of happening that, when you tell your colleagues in the Real Office about it, makes them glad they do not work at home like you. Store up these incidents for happyhour small talk during your on-site visits.
*Upon subsequent reflection, I believe her to be a funnelweb spider of some stripe, because she had spun a lovely and very sticky web that was my first clue to her hiding place.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Lot to Think About

I know you all are probably already down with Creating Passionate Users but I just wound my way over to this blog, and it's like a usability textbook written in an engaging casual voice. I'm a developer who works on the fringes of the core development environment in my office (not just because I'm working from 2,000 miles away, but because my projects are sometimes maybe possibly treated like red-headed stepchildren because they're not explicitly part of the core application that our office creates and maintains). I'm also a fringe element because I'm a bit of a ringer, programming-wise: I have a degree in music history, and I've come into the programming realm through a random assortment of week-long classes in various things that I've needed to get the job done at the moment. I'm a jack-of-many-trades, and, honestly, a master of only one: understanding what people are trying to do with software.

Yes, I've got people skills, godammit. I talk to the customers so the godamn engineers don't have to deal with them.

That said, I think that spending time actively thinking about how you bridge the gap between end user desires ("I want it to email the fifteen thousand people I'm imagining in my head, and can it toast my muffins, too?") is time well-spent. It's easy to get jaded about your customers (they're pesky, cranky, demanding, prone to calling your boss when they don't like the answer they got from you) and become more enamoured of your application (it's your shining achievement, all that code you wrote compiled right and actually runs, you love all your menu categories and you worked really hard on it).

The fact is that everything we do should help people get something done. And Creating Passionate Users is, at its heart, about making things that cause human beings to be happy while they're doing the things they need to do using computers.

I'm a person. I use computers. I want to be happy, too.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Heaven on my desktop

Welcome to my little slice of heaven. It took a bit of work but I got it all working together. It turns out that a signal splitter is not what you need to get a dual monitor rig working. You really need to have two different monitor outs on the PC. Once I figured out how to use the analog cable to wire the original monitor to the analog out (a white connector), and the SVGA cable from the new guy to the SVGA out (the standard blue monitor connector) that's when the magic started to happen.

I can see that it's going to take me a little while to really work out an entirely proficient workstyle with all this luxurious screen real estate. For today, I'm divvying up my interruption windows (IM, local email) on one screen and my remote desktop on the other screen.

Top benefits I've discovered in the four hours I've had the dual monitor rig working:

1. When I minimize a window from the secondary screen it sinks down to the task bar on the main screen. When I restore, it pops right back where it was on the secondary screen. As I get used to this, I'll have the habit of looking where I put things for my commonly used apps.

2. When I am doing a GoToMeeting screen sharing session, it only shows my participants the main screen. I can have assorted other stuff popping on my secondary screen without disrupting the flow of the meeting. This is useful when I need to ask questions of a colleague in the background of a meeting, and then come back to the meeting with the answer.

3. The skeptical members of my family who might have been pooh-poohing the necessity of getting another monitor and spending an hour or two wrassling with getting it hooked up properly were completely blown away by the absolute coolness of dragging and dropping windows from one monitor to the other. They were shocked and awed.

Now I just need to make myself feel aesthetically satisfied with how my mission control-esque setup looks. It really geeks the place up in a way I hadn't anticipated.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


This article from Computer World showcases the dark side of being able to work equally well from the Real Office or the home office: working all the time! The world is growing smaller, and top managers are managing teams with members from all around the globe, taking the work day into new and exciting time zones.

On the one hand, it's encouraging that teams are interacting in real time from wherever they are. But I have to think that when your workday lasts 18 hours that's not a Good Thing.

Maybe I'm shiftless, but that is just too much.

I think that these kinds of management groupings might should to embrace asynchronous collaboration strategies. Tools like Twiki or any of the zillions of collaboration tools profiled on Web Worker Daily could help to wean time zone-challenged work groups off late night phone calls and what not.

Teams can work together even if they're almost never awake at the same time.

See, this is what I'm talking about

I've been thinking more about the grand corporate telecommuting program myth v. reality conundrum, and I found this little gem, a study done by researchers at the Carey School at ASU. They studied big four accountancy firms, and found a distinct disconnect between the publicized flexible work arrangements and the reality of how they were perceived and practiced.

According to the scholars, their findings underscore the need for members
of the U.S. public-accounting profession to pursue fundamental cultural change.
The rhetoric of work-life balance must match up with a new reality, the
researchers write. It's time for "[alternative work arrangements] to be
viewed as an acceptable career path for men and women seeking more balance
between their work and non-work lives."

The article also points out how important work-life balance is, particularly for younger workers. It seems like companies need to figure out how to both talk the talk and walk the walk of telecommuting and flexiblity in working arrangements to really make things happen.

Or maybe that younger generation just has to work its way up to being in charge of stuff so they can make the rules and send everybody offsite!

(Thanks to for the tip to the study.)

Another benefit of early rising

This is what I see out my office window, right now.

I am one lucky son of a gun.

You can see the blue blur from headset and folders on my desk reflected on the window. My current office has a lot of windows which is very pleasant, but it also lets in a lot of sunshine. In the coldest days of winter, that's a real benefit, but now that is past it's getting hot in here in the afternoons (or is that spelled "hot in herre"?).

The new office that I'm working on is under the shade of a tree on the other side of the house, and it has a single window (as opposed to five plus a skylight). I think that it will be much easier to manage my temperature over there.

And the window still faces the back yard so I'll have the benefit of these amazing sunrises.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Too close to the fridge?

One of the things that many telecommuters note is how they tend to gain weight: the Midwest Institute on Telecommuting Education notes it in their FAQ, and many coders who work from home note that they start eating early and often. This is one of those "your mileage may vary" issues. My mileage is about 12 - 15 miles per week (as one friend noted, "That's not very fast"), so I think you can guess where I'm going to come down on this issue.

In my slipper-based tenure, I have found that I'm actually eating better than when I worked in the Real Office. Without an excuse to wander down to the snack shop and pick up an overstuffed sandwich and a bag of chips, I don't. We don't tend to keep the bad stuff in the house anyway (with two small children, we try to set a good example for a lifetime of healthy eating), so sticking to oatmeal, last night's leftovers, and popcorn during my workday isn't that big a trial.

It's not all saintly low-fat dining: my well-documented caffiene addiction is probably not the best habit I have. But I try to build in healthy habits to my workday, too. Like I force myself to take a lunch break by going to gym and running for a while. So I get the benefit of not grinding away all day, and the benefit of going for a run.

Plus I'm adept at lying to myself about how much fun running is, so it really does seem like a break to me.

Office Supply Fetishists Unite

One of the things I like best about running the southwestern branch of the Real Office is the fact that I'm responsible for procuring my own office supplies.

I've long had a problem with office supplies. As a small child, I would scrape together change from under the davenport cushions and run down to the local Agway (yes, I grew up in a very small, rural town where the center of commerce was, in fact, the Agway Farm and Supply Store) and buy myself notebooks. I would agonize over the display of small and medium size notebooks, trying to make the right choice. Side or top binding? Red, blue, black cover? Maybe a stenographer's notebook? Spiral or sewn? What about the composition books?

Once the choice was made, I'd take it up and give Mrs. Overturf (that was really her name) my gritty handful of change. And the search for the perfect pen to write with would begin.

Now, I can go to Staples any time I want and because I have a reasonable amount of disposable income, I can select the office supplies that make my heart sing. Color coded folders and matching labels? Done! Post-Its in various configurations? Check! Sharpies, Sharpies, Sharpies! And my latest addition: plastic-coated paper clips that make every grouping of papers hum with vibrant togetherness. Yes!

Do I have a problem?

Or maybe I should write that "Do I have a problem!"

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Luxury? I think not

There has been some criticism of my decision to treat myself to two monitors. Well, it's actually been self-doubt on my part. Am I deranged for thinking I need this? Is it going to be like Arthur's moon boots?

But then I looked at my screen and saw this:

I have my local Polycom window, my local desktop with related stuff open on it, my remote desktop through GoToMyPC (mad props for adding sound, Citrix!), and then I was connecting to a server that I needed to work on through XP Remote Desktop.

I think my two-monitor rig is a justifiable expense, dear readers.

Telecommuting: Myth or Reality?

When your business is in a place that is too expensive, too rural, too cold, too whatever the problem might be in attracting top talent, establishing a robust telecommuting program can be an effective way to solve your qualified worker problem.

Convergys is using telecommuting as a key HR strategy. A quick browse of the CNNMoney feature on the Forbes Top 100 Employers finds a slew of companies whose workers cite their telecommuting and flex schedules as a key perq -- and one assumes that this PR is good for recruiting.

What I find puzzling is the don't-ask-don't-tell attitude about telecommuting policies in company recruiting sites. If you look at Convergys, Google, Microsoft, and other places that I know have theoretically robust telecommuting programs, it is hard to find information. It's almost as though they want the PR, but they don't want to attract candidates who are just angling for the slippers. It makes me wonder if their outward enthusiasm for telecommuting is just...well...outward enthusiasm.

What if actual use of these telecommuting programs is like men's use of FMLA -- sure, the law says new fathers can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child, but in practice almost no father does take 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

Do you work for one of the big employers with telecommuting programs? Are you connected with your community of telecommuting peers? How many other telecommuters do you know at your company?

I'm just wondering.

Monday, February 19, 2007

In Praise of Jetlag

So I know I've kind of complained about the Jetlag Lifestyle (or J.L.) that working East Coast hours in the Mountain time zone can lead to. There are certain disadvantages to the J.L.: the unfashionably early bed time it requires, getting dressed in the dark and the concommittant errors in judgement that can lead to, eating lunch at 10:00 in the morning (too early for even McDonalds to serve one a burger with a straight face).

But in the interests of fair and balanced blogging, I must tell you that there are some advantages to rocking the J.L., too. My day ends at 5:00...East Coast time...which means I generally wander out of my office around 3:00 Mountain time, just as my older kid gets home from school. I have some time before the rush of dinner and what not to hang out, play Scrabble, or blo...I mean do some laundry. I know I'm working just as long as I would otherwise, but some how it seems like I have more time.

I also took some steps in the morning to make my life a little more bearable at that end of the day. I undertook a series of organizational projects to make getting dressed in the dark easier to do correctly. Maybe I have a low tolerance for fumbling in drawers, but it was driving me nuts to fish around blindly in my scanties drawer for five minutes and still end up with grossly mismatched socks. I sorted, I paired, I banished things that were beyond their engineered lifespans, so now I have neat sections of panties, scanties, and socks. I also moved the shoes to the top shelf of the closet that I can't really reach, and moved my pants and trousers down to shelves below. I never wear shoes, and I always wear pants, so it just made more sense that way.

The key change I've made to accommodate early rising is attempting to train myself to sleep until my alarm actually goes off. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have to put their alarm clocks across the room so they have to get out of their beds to turn them off, and people like me who anxiously wake up every ten minutes in the hour before their alarm clocks go off and thus never actually hear their alarms. I was getting up earlier and earlier, and really exhausting myself as a result. I tried telling myself that I was switching my hours to start at 9:00 ET instead of 8:30 ET (which was rapidly edging toward 7:45 ET which's really early here in the mountains....I don't want to talk about it).

This seems to be working, having the same effect on me, the pathologically prompt, that setting the clock randomly fast does on the chronically late. Or would that be the converse effect? In any event, giving myself permission to start later means I'm actually starting on time, okay, maybe only ten minutes early.

That's better. Or maybe I'm in denial.

Staying Motivated

From Mike Rohde's LinkedIn page, these tips about staying on top of things for the home-based worker are really great. I'm not sure that I could add anything -- they've covered all my top ideas: dedicated, isolated space, regular hours, local contact numbers for your customers, planning non-work time as rigorously as your work time. Primo advice.

Why Online Is Better than In Person

I should have known better than to go to a computer retailer on a Sunday afternoon. I'm not stupid, and yet I undertook a task of such complete folly that I really don't have a rational explanation for my actions. Not only did I go into a retail environment but I was a bit under the weather and consequently not at my strongest. Let me just say it was a seething pit of hell. Not only could I not find a soul to hand me a monitor and splitter switch, I actually sold two wireless routers for this retailer.

This poor woman was chasing after a store guy with a wired router in her hand saying, "But please, could you just...just..." with such an expression of desparation on her face, that I couldn't help myself. We went over to the router section, talked a little bit about what she was trying to do, and I hooked her up with a wireless router and the wireless adapter for her computer. Then while we were standing there, another lost soul wandered up. He had purchased a wireless router earlier that day, and the store guy had not bothered to ask him if the computer he was trying to network had a wireless adapter. So he got what he wanted, too.

And then I went home and hopped on Newegg and ordered the cheapest monitor I could find -- I don't need no stinking speakers, just fire up all the pixels, boys. I am not sure if the splitter switch I got was right, but I know from having ordered from Newegg before that sending it back will not be a problem. I didn't have to deal with some cocky computer store guy talking down to me, I didn't have to stand in line at the cash register juggling my boxes and parcels, I wasn't told they didn't have the cheap one I want in stock, nobody tried to sell me extended coverage.

Online is good when you know exactly what you want.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Seattle Area Telecommuting Info

From a non-profit coaltion called Commuter Challenge, this site has a lot of information about alternatives to cars for Puget Sound commuters, including some telecommuting resources. While it looks like interest in (read "maintenance of") this site trailed off in the middle of 2006, the documents here provide good language for those who are starting to pursue remote working arrangements to peruse.

I found that looking at other kinds of remote work agreement language helped me draft my initial telecommuting proposal that ultimately was accepted by my kind employer. Just more "beyond the blank page" information for you to chew on.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Things I Covet

I work from outside our institutional firewalls...way outside. Fortunately this is easy to overcome with remote access tools like GoToMyPC our institutional VPN and XP Remote Desktop and so on. What is less easy to manage is my limited screen space, given that I am often connected to three computers, not counting the local PC that I'm actually working on.

I've always been a bit of a window-pig, but lately with a videoconference window, local GoToMeeting control panel, a connection to my remote PC, and then a connection on that remote PC to a server in our server room, plus whatever applications I'm using to demo whatever it is I'm talking to my videoconference victims about -- well you see my dilemma.

Enter the dual monitor fantasy. It never occurred to me that I could have such a thing, but then I find that many
bloggers and even Microsoft saying its a piece of cake. And so I've decided that I must have it.

LCD monitors are cheaper than ever, and so I'm rushing out today (literally!) to get myself an additional monitor for a nominal fee. This is after I check whether my videocard will support such mayhem.

I kinda wish I wasn't my own IT guy. But then again, I'd probably have to wait a month for our real IT gal to do this, so it's likely a good thing I can act on my wild impulses. Right?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Being There

From Slate, a little commentary from economist Tim Harford, about how people travel more than ever, even though technology connects us all. That is an interesting paradox, whether you think about it in the macro sense (nations needing to have face-to-face talks) or the micro sense (I still find tremendous value in being in the same room as the people with whom I work closely, even if it's only once in a while).

For some kinds of communication distance is no object -- I can send you specifications and we can go through the document page by page over the phone or in an online conference and that really gets the job done. But I'm not sure I'd want to deliver a pitch for a multi-million dollar proposal from afar -- I need to see that fleeting expression of happiness or disdain, pick up that slight throat clearing you do when I mention how I plan to market what I'm doing. Even with the best videoconferencing systems on the fattest pipes, there's a delay, a fuzziness to the conversation that makes those nuances hard to catch.

The moral of this story? Pick the right communication tool for the job, and realize that sometimes it's an airplane.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I'm All Business, Baby

Today is very unusual: we're having a snow day here in the beautiful 'Burque, and the Real Office is closed too because of inclement weather. This is a rare instance of weather synchronicity indeed.

Tons of East Coast workers are telecommuting today and being productive (or blogging) -- at least those lucky ones whose employers have made an investment in remote access technologies. How fortunate for them. But it's not just weather that can make remote work valuable to a company, and Business Week has a whole set of features talking about the benefits some major employers have seen in ramping up their remote work programs.

I am also partial to the feature about towns working to attract remote workers. I know Albuquerque is positioning itself as a mecca for knowledge workers seeking refuge from outrageous real estate prices on the coast, and other towns it seems are doing the same thing. What a good idea.

Across the Pond

Imagine a telecommuting publication that has been around in paper form and online since 1993, and it's not published by a Silicon Valley dot.bomb wanker. It's Flexibility, published by a non-profit entity that seems to be comprised of a few consultant companies and office space designers. When I first found this site, I thought it might be one of the many cobwebsites that I've discovered where someone went whole-hog for a bit and then it died in May 2002 and hasn't been touched since.

But no!

There's a seminar on managing remote teams today! There's a conference about running small nimble offices using remote work technologies in March! (Now I just need to figure out how I can wrangle a trip to London out of these guys to speak at a remote management seminar. Just kidding. Mostly.) Some of the content is old and some of it is promoting tools and software developed by the supporting companies, but it's still relevant and interesting to people who are researching their options. For example, this article details the demographics of who is telecommuting in the UK. Even though it's from 2002, it's got some interesting insights about trends.

In case you're interested.

The Home Office Is Like the Real Office

People believe that telecommuters are more productive because there are fewer interruptions, and I think that in general this is true. However, if you're doing it right, there are just as many opportunities for interruption, long meetings, and all the other things that can distract you from getting the actual work you're paid to do done. Not to be too contrarian, I think that one of the key reasons I'm successful as a full-time telecommuter is because I am interruptable: my coworkers know that they can call, email, pop in on the webcam, or IM anytime that we're all working, and they should, generally speaking, expect to get me.

I think it would be very distracting if I was not so rigid, in fact. I'm not a contractor, I'm a regular ol' employee, and if other people in my office aren't free to sit in coffee shops at eleven in the morning sipping a latte whilst casually checking in on their email, then I am not free to do that either. I try to treat my home office like a genuine extension of the Real Office, and govern myself accordingly (jaunts into the kitchen to make myself coffee-based beverages notwithstanding). I show up on time, I take a reasonable lunch time, I work extra when I have to go on a spree in the middle of the day.

Today was a typical day in that it was very like a day one might have in the Real Office. A few emergent problems derailed my plans to get a few malingering tasks kicked out first thing this morning, then a customer called with an urgent need, then I spent three hours in meetings (important meetings, but still time consuming).

The net result? Very much like being in the Real Office: I didn't get the things done I'd set out to do. I feel a tad exhausted. I'm looking forward to tomorrow when I only have one thing scheduled, and the rest of the day is mine to organize around the assorted projects and tasks that I have on my plate.

Managing tasks, projects, interruptions, meetings, and so on, is a challenge for workers in all milieux, I think. I'm finding that spending time actively thinking about how I'm working -- a sort of metawork practice -- is quite helpful for renewing my attention to everything in my work world. I think viewing telework as a potential cure to in-office distraction is like thinking that using a PDA is going to make you more organized. If you can't use a a paper-based calendar/planner, a Palm-Berry won't help you get stuff done -- it's just a new place to not write things down and busy yourself rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic of your daily work schedule. Likewise, if you can't re-orient yourself after a meeting, phone call, or IM interruption, then working at home probably isn't going to help you get more done.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Beyond the Blank Page

A key element of a successful telework/telecommuting program are clear policies, guidelines, and agreements. The Denver Regional Council of Governments has a telework promotion site (and a great acronym: Dr. Cog) that includes a number of documents, including a model agreement and policy document.

When you first start exploring a telework arrangement, often there is no written policy or guideline to help you and your boss figure out what it is that you're trying to do. Using one of these documents as a foundation for your specific arrangement is a good starting point.

Plus I find it absolutely charming that so many cities and states have official telework promotion initiatives. For example, in addition to Dr. Cog, there is the federal government site, Telecommute Connecticut, Telework Arizona, and others that I've yet to find. Each of these sites has good information, training, documents that can serve as a foundation for your particular telework agreement, and links to other stuff.

Quite helpful!

Blogging for Profit?

Hmmmmm, I'm not sure that profit is really my goal. I started StellaCommute as a way to focus my thinking about the experience of telecommuting, to think consciously about the changes it's brought to my work and home lives, and to stay abreast of the tools and techniques that are making my slipper-based lifestyle possible.

The nice folks at Web Worker Daily note that many
bloggers are bringing in a handsome income -- who knew?!? Well, they knew, obviously. I think that I am much more of a zen blogger, where the process is the point. I'm interested in looking critically at my work, writing some decent headlines, and, I hope, finding some readers who think that I'm not a complete dunderhead.

I like to set achievable goals.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Work at Home Job: Farmer

Our bias is always that people who work at home are engaged in knowledge work. But this article about online discussion groups used by farmers got me thinking: farmers have been working at home...well...since humans first began cultivating crops, really. I grew up in a farming community, and know that it's absolutely true that farmers, like all home-based workers, have to be self-disciplined, and keep a sharp eye on their task list, time management, all that good stuff.

Of course, it's hard to forget to milk the cows, what with the plaintive lowing the ladies do when they're overdue for milking. But all the other things that go into running a farm -- maintaining equipment, preparing fields for crops, planting on time, using the correct feeds, fertilizers, staying on top of what's new in the industry -- farmers run small businesses from their homes. And because they are rural, and often isolated from neighbors, the Internet is a natural fit as a way to get the best management and practice information.


Big Ol' Jet Airliner

I feel a surge of exuberance every time I plan a trip back to the Real Office. Maybe it's just the prospect of spending five hours sitting quietly on an airplane without anyone wiping snot on me (at least that's how I'm hoping things go -- I realize there are no guarantees), but I am way looking forward to getting out of the house.

My upcoming trip to the Real Office will be different than the prior two, in that I'll be spending the whole week actually there. My previous sojourns have been in part for off-site events. They've been like the worst part of both worlds: like a vacation in that I'm not in my (home) office and so I'm not getting things done like I should, and like being at work in that I'm not home and I'm on the go from morning 'til night. This trip should be significantly less madcap, and I'll have more flexibility in terms of scheduling face-to-face meetings with colleagues and coworkers.

That face-to-face stuff is really the point of going. I've written about my shut-in tendencies, and how I miss the casual encounters in the office. This trip should help me get back in touch with all the interesting, fun, creative people in the Real Office.

Plus I'll get some knitting done.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Telework Training

I know I keep going on about the federal government's encouragement of telework, but I just can't get over how they promote remote work. I really shouldn't be so surprised, given the truly awful traffic around the D.C. metro area where the greatest concentration of federal workers do their commuting. It just has to be more efficient to have people working after a one-minute walk to their home office, or even after a fifteen minute drive to one of the telework sites that are scattered around the D.C. area.

In any event, that progressive and efficiency-conscious employer has a very nice set of
online training classes for prospective teleworkers and managers. I particularly like the one about pandemic preparations, which notes:

The key to successful use of telework in the event of a pandemic is a
robust routine telework program.

So all of us sitting around in our slippers are actually a vital part of our nation's pandemic preparedness. Fab!

Negotiating Telecommute Arrangements

A lot of people ask me, "How on earth did you get Mr. [extremely conservative and totally cautious boss] to agree to let you move across the country?" In my case, it was a combination of years of hard work, a demonstrated ability to be self-disciplined, and complete luck. I received an acceptable job offer in my target city, and I justed happened to walk into my boss' office to discuss it with him five minutes after another heavy hitter in the office had informed him that he was leaving to make a lot more money working for a soulless military-industrial complex company. Needless to say, he was at a particularly vulnerable moment. When I was willing to not quit and instead work with him to get a telecommuting arrangement worked out, we were both happy.

Over the course of the next nine months, I did my own proof-of-concept testing. I bought my own web cam and started using it informally with my customers, who reacted positively. I researched the institution's official stance on remote work arrangements, and wrote both an office-wide policy and a personal telecommute proposal for my boss. The policy was essentially a CYA -- it made the hurdles to get a part or full time telecommuting arrangement high, but not impossible, and spelled out responsibilities in any arrangement that might be struck. Who pays for what, what are the standards for communication, and so on, were all spelled out. We got our technology ducks in a row -- VoIP, Polycom Videoconferencing, IM, remote access to servers/systems were all set up and working smoothly before I got out of town.

And then I moved. All the planning meant that everything went very smoothly with the move, and I've been working pretty smoothly ever since.

So transitioning in a long-term job from a full-time in the office arrangement to a full-time in your slippers arrangement is one way to do this. I don't know if I'd be able to negotiate telecommuting for a new job -- I'm traditionally a poor negotiator, grateful as I am to simply have a job. This nagging feeling I have that I'm barely employable likely stems from the fact that I have a music degree and thus am essentially barely employable.

But the Wall Street Journal has this advice for bringing up telecommuting in an interview.

Essential Equipment: Communication Edition

One of the key factors for remaining transparently available to my East Coast colleagues is a local telephone number, and my VoIP phone service has proven to be a good fit. When we began plotting my move out west, my boss and I considered a cell phone, but the potential problems -- What if my new house is in one of those terrible pits of poor cell service? What if I'm like the kid we had doing tech support and I run up hundreds of dollars in calls to Russian girls that I met in New York City Russian night clubs? What if I drop it in the toilet? -- made it seem kind of unappetizing.

Enter Vonage. We looked at a few services, and Vonage had the advantage of good reviews, substantial funding, and just generally seeming like a reasonably large company with decent customer support. I've liked the service fine.

I have had excellent customer support experiences -- granted their front line customer support is obviously off-shore, but when I had a complex problem and demonstrated my competence (I am a semi-pro geek, after all) they quickly referred me to top tier support. And when the top level guy wasn't sure of the answer, he honestly told me that he'd research it and call me back the next night, which he did. And, miracle of miracles, the solution he gave me worked first time.

The call quality is decent. I drop a call out of the blue probably once a week at the least, and I've beefed before about the sometimes echo-laden effect that my callers get, but overall it's good.

And now Wired has done a review that agrees that Vonage is really the best VoIP. Just scroll past all the Playstation and winter coat stuff, it's down there in the middle of that page.

If Wired says it's good, I feel like less of a sap for liking a company that features giant lobsters in their commercials.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

It Is Just Like Heaven

We moved to Albuquerque because our family is here in great quantity, but even without that, it's a pretty fantastic place to live. There are gorgeous mountains to my east, a dry and pleasant climate (record snowfall this winter notwithstanding), so much sunshine, an interesting blend of native Pueblo culture, Spanish influences, a convenient airport with a daily non-stop flight to the place I need to go when I travel on business, and so much more.

Forbes Magazine, that compiler of lists, also has Albuquerque in its sights as a heaven for telecommuters. They add to my list of benefits a good university, a decent high-tech culture, and the low cost of living. They've got that right!

If we didn't have family here, I don't know if I'd choose to live so far from the ocean, but all things considered, it really is an amazing place to live.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

There are some jobs you just can't do

One of the classic arguments against telecommuting is that there are some jobs that you just can't do in your slippers. And while this is true, it turns out that being a doctor may not be one of them. I just found this October 2006 article in USAToday of all places, about a physician who telecommutes from Israel. For some of the people profiled, working in a radically different timezone is an advantage -- one radiologist is able to read films for the graveyard shift while she's fresh and awake in daylight, for example.

They all note what I've discovered, too: working an East Coast job (with the concommittant pay level) while being physically located in a place where the living is easy (i.e. cheap) is the killer benefit. Besides not paying to drive anywhere, not buying myself a $7 sandwich every day for lunch, and so on, I'm also able to live in a much more affordable part of the country.

I think I'll go make myself a bowl of oatmeal. And a latte.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Is this because I've been referring to myself as a shut-in?

I've been working on a post for a little while about the ambivalence I feel about telecommuting, and those nice folks at Web Worker Daily have beat me to the punch. They note a post in about the isolation that's possible from working at home. Vishal P. Rao, the lifehack poster, writes about how being home all the time, espeically with a spouse who's home too, can make your social circle dwindle.

In my case, not only am I a shut-in, but we've also moved across the country to be close to our family. On the one hand, this means that I've got a built in group of friends, and as I genuinely love my in-laws, they really do function as friends. Okay, "function as friends" just sounds dopey. They actually are friends, as is my dear friend M. who was here in the Land of Enchantment waiting for me.

This said, I do miss the energizing effect of seeing people who aren't related to me, like I did when I worked in the Real Office, though. It is a strange paradox: on the one hand, people are irritating. They're prone to asking me for help with stuff that isn't my job any more because I used to do training and customer support, and because I've been around long enough that I know a lot. They are often talking about stupid things and want to rope me into a conversation about American Idol contestants and whatnot.

But they also keep me in touch with things that are outside my own immediate interests and workload. I get a lot out of hearing about other people's work, because it lets me know about the larger world of what it is my office is doing. It's more than just "watercooler" type stuff, it's really getting ideas about other people's lives, what they're involved in at church, how their children are doing.

These things are important -- they give a richness to my relationships at work and help me understand what is motivating my coworkers in a real way. This is more than "Office Retreat" touchy-feely crap. I get a lot of benefit from knowing different people and learning about what else they do outside of the office. And that is harder to do from 2000 miles away.

I'm just saying.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Dearth of Taxes

The national Telework Coalition has renewed its efforts to get more tax equity for telecommuters who may or may not telecommute "at the convenience of their employer." The Telecommuter Tax Fairness Act would take that bit of language out of the tax law so that your employer need not have given away your office for you to not be taxed both in the state where your Real Office is, and your home office state as well.

New York State is the big offender, because it wants to tax all that income that's earned "in the state" by people who are VPN-ing into servers located in the state. They try to make the case that because people are telecommuting so they don't lose their sanity in the morass that is NYC traffic that it's not at the convenience of the employer, but the employee.

I'm skeptical. I think it's pretty gosh darn convenient for employers to be able to retain talented staff members by allowing them to work from home. It's an amazing benefit that doesn't cost much (or anything, depending on how you set up your program) to implement. And the effect telecommuting programs have on employee retention, particularly in high-traffic-density areas, is well documented.

It comes down to everybody getting their little payday. It seems like New York gets a significant economic benefit from having companies located there. How much money are they really losing to telecommuters anyway?

Friday, February 2, 2007

Essential Equipment - Caffiene Edition

I've written before about how working on East Coast time is discombobulating. Let me tell you that at 5:45 a.m. here in the Land of Enchantment, there is one piece of equipment that I simply won't be without: the Espresso Machine. We actually only recently became such extreme hipsters that we require an in-home espresso machine, but now that I'm in my second month of on-demand lattes, cappuccini, Americani, et cetera, I can't imagine how I ever wandered the earth without such a divine tool.

Certainly there have been other coffee makers in my past. I spent quality time with Mr. Coffee, those Pod brewing systems, the French press, and going out for coffee. Darting across the street for a cuppa joe with my boss was a favorite activity when I worked in the Real Office.

Now that I'm a shut-in, ummm, I mean a full-time telecommuter, it was clear that having a large volume of coffee available to me was not necessarily the right trend. I was drinking coffee all day, and getting less joy from it than perhaps I should.

Now that we've added the 'Spresso to our gadget universe, I enjoy one or two quality (read "ass-kicking") cups of coffee beverage a day and I'm not just swilling coffee all day. Plus, since I favor lattes, I have dramatically increased my calcium intake through the consumption of equal shots of espresso and steamed milk.

That's healthy, right?

Any Port in a Storm

Home networking is a bit of a pain for the extreme telecommuter, and some people think that Real Office IT should be concerned with what's going on on my network. And this is probably true. I run a ton of stuff through my little Comcast connection, and it definitely feels the strain. When I am yakking on my VoIP phone, running a teleconference, maybe sharing some application with my meeting participants over GoToMeeting, I find that my bandwidth is maxxed out. And then my poor husband tries to watch some CNN video -- and things are bad.

Aside from the sage advice, "Well, shouldn't your husband be at work? Keep him off the network, fool," what else should IT be helping me with? Configuring and securing the wireless router was a pain, and even the basics of getting the correct ports open on the VoIP router so that I could put my videoconference and other applications through it correctly was a pretty big job. Then there was the process of negotiating with the institutional fire wall folks to get the pathways opened on the other end so that all this connectivity could connect to something that I actually need to work. Fortunately, I'm a pseudo-IT person (in that I'm aware that there are ports and that they can be open or closed), but for a less-nerdy home worker dealing with that part of the equation would be a bit of a problem.

In fact, this is a major barrier to rolling out these technologies to more of our users -- the complexity of dealing with a variety of home connectivity configurations, the fact that much of our network (even within our own department) is managed by other people who might have less of a customer service-focus than you might expect, and then the subtle trickiness of getting the webcam, videoconferencing, remote desktop access, VPN, and all the rest working happily together. We're working on it, but it seems that each rig we set up is slightly different and we hit new problems, making it difficult to publish a cogent user's guide that could step the moderately clueless through the process.


Thursday, February 1, 2007

Remote (non) Work Tools

While this is not strictly useful for my day-to-day work, it is intriguing in terms of what it means for creative work. Wired is reporting on eJamming Audiio service that was previewed at DEMO '07. This seems really cool: it uses P2P to allow for live playing with remote players without delay or lag. I have no idea how it could possibly work, based on my experience with latency in even the slickest videoconferencing software, but hey.

This would solve one of the big problems that I've experienced with being so far away from my co-workers: the challenges of putting together a goofy band for the annual senior staff retreat. My partner in musical crime did just leave our division, but there are many other musicians who are game for a goofy band experience for the annual "retreat" (read "sitting in conference rooms all day yakking about strategery, and then repairing to a local pub for some drinks").

Perhaps eJamming will allow us to eJam from afar, and thus sustain the fine tradition of career-ending performances at the retreat.