Monday, April 30, 2007

Never a better day to telecommute

To all the people who have to get to work today in the Oakland-SF area, my deepest condolences. The traffic situation looks like it's going to be an absolute nightmare and it won't be fixed for "weeks or months" according to the nice people at CNN. Companies with strong telecommuting programs will feel less of an impact from this highway collapse, but it's going to hurt everyone who has to make their way around the bay area big time.

But here's the thing: companies in the SF area should have some serious disaster recovery/business continuity plans in place already. We all know what's going to happen there someday (in fact, in college I saw an hysterical geology documentary about SF titled The City that Waits to Die -- I wish I was joking) and even non-catastrophic earthquakes will cause widespread transit disruption.

Every company who will want to make money or otherwise operate during a post-earthquake time period should have a way for their employees to do their work from where ever they may be.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Goofiest and Most Wonderful

Yes, I know. I look like a lunatic sitting in my office wearing these. It's the stupidest use of USB ports ever. They're pink and purple.

But my hands are so warm.

You know how it is: the air conditioning is in overdrive and you're sitting right under the vent. Your hands get stiffer and slower and your typing speed slows down. Way down. You shake hands with people and they start checking for your pulse. Worse yet, you have to go into the server room to do some sort of work that requires you to be in the same chilled room as the dang servers. The floor vents are shooting refrigerated air up your skirt, and you're trying to get out of there as fast as you can, but your hands are getting slower and slower.

It's a bummer, and it happens all year 'round.

Enter USB-heated gloves. I'm toasty and warm, my hands aren't like frigid little squirrel paws. This is great.

I'm actually kind of looking forward to using these babies on an upcoming disaster recovery drill, a fabulous event that requires one to sit in a supercooled server room for sixteen hours. These are going to work perfectly.

And earn me an unprecedented level of guff from my colleagues. It's a win for everyone!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Building Roads and Telecommuting Opportunities

In Minnesota, a comprehensive regional highway plan is incorporating the encouragement of telecommuting in the overall strategy. According to a piece in the enigmatically named Thisweek Newspapers, the state department of transportation is submitting a proposal developed in partnership with the University of Minnesota and others, that offers as part of the overall transportation vision:

...the “Four T’s:” Tolls, transit, telecommuting and technology.

Promoted by USDOT as “bold” and “comprehensive,” the initiative is a paradigm shift from maximizing the number of vehicles moving on the roads to maximizing the number of people getting around, said Dakota County Transportation Director Mark Krebsbach.

“The [Four T’s] are all intended to reduce the number of cars on the road and work toward shifting people toward transit,” he said.

To which I say, "Here, here."

As in, "Right here in my home office, man!"

Monday, April 23, 2007

Old Media Focuses on New Workstyles

The North Jersey Record is starting a weekly column on telecommuting. Well, how exciting. The inaugural article notes that approximately 120,000 people telecommute from NJ (most likely to companies based in the Big Apple).

That's a lot of people not driving or otherwise wasting time in mass transit. Cool.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Less Fun from Afar

Okay, telecommuting isn't all sunshine and roses (although it is a very nice day and my rosebushes are really bolting). It turns out that attending office send-off parties is much less fun from a distance. It's kind of like being the ghost of teleworkers distant -- you can see them, but after a while they really don't notice you that much. Plus I'm missing out on empanadas and crab dip.

This is why I'm glad I'm going to be able to fly in for my beloved manager's farewell party. I won't be a fly on the wall, and I'll get to show him my profound appreciation for the years of learning and fun he's given me on the job, for the trust that he showed in me by allowing me to do this crazy telecommuting thing, and for just being an all around good guy and one of the smartest people I know.
The real question that I need to answer is this: Is my telecommuting arrangement in jeopardy because of this major, major management change? Our Real Office is heading into an uncertain time, and I just don't know if it will be a) easier to navigate because I'm isolated from the day-to-day rumor mill; or b) harder to navigate because I'm isolated from the day-to-day rumor mill.
Does anyone need a systems analyst who can really, really write?

Changes in Environment

I'm just full of environmental improvements. Inspired by Lifehack, I, too have started using an exercise ball for a chair. Like I started today. I'm looking forward to all the benefits promised including:

  • Effortless weight loss
  • A six pack (this would be a welcome replacement for the twelve-pack I've been working on)
  • Better posture
  • Reduced back pain
  • A big pay raise
  • And much more

I actually considered doing this a while ago, but didn't realize how much I could inflate my exercise ball. I decided to push it to the limit, and now it's a really good height for my work.

Please stay tuned for the exciting outcome. If stomach muscles miraculously appear as a result of this experiment, I promise I'll take a picture.

Spring Wardrobe

Many people take the change in seasons as a cue to add some new items to their wardrobes, and shut-ins are no exception. With the warm weather, I tend to wander around the yard to look at the turtle in his new outdoor compound, to look at the roses, to feed the fish, or just to stand somewhere outside and breathe fresh air.

This activity has taken a toll on my winter slippers, which are more of a traditional slipper -- in other words slightly fuzzy. Napped fabric plus "enchantment" (e.g. dust and small rocks) has equalled a vague shabbiness that doesn't seem appropriate for the office.

So yesterday at the insistence of my mother-in-law I treated myself to a lovely pair of Crocs. I think that even the Go Fug Yourself girls would agree that these are not fugly per se. Although they might reject them just on principle. Thank god I'm not famous or I would really be looking over my shoulder for the paparazzi.
Yes, paparazzi in my home office in the back yard. I might be delusional.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Oh, for Pete's Sake

I've really been trying not to flip out about the whole Vonage situation. Maybe it's a naive faith in large corporations -- why would a start up with a product in complete legal trouble not be able to continue to provide me quality service?

Yes, yes, I know. I know people who showed up for work in 1996 and found themselves with no paycheck, an empty office, and pile o' stock options that could now be used for making paper snowflakes. I know that the Krispy Kreme franchises here in Albuquerque just didn't open one morning, and everyone was left scratching their heads. I know people who were left stranded at airports because their airline went out of business in the middle of their trips. I know I know I know.

But come on, Vonage. Do you really have no idea what you'll do if Verizon's suit is successful?

You might should think of some alternatives, friends.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Telepresence, and Quality Communications in General

Now I think I'm beginning to see the difference between telepresence and the videoconferencing of today. It's quality, as this nice little piece from MSNBC explains. I absolutely love more people actively promoting the idea that people can work well without working in the same physical space. The key is the quality of the communication.

It seems like so many of the tools we use today are a bit primitive. You certainly can be highly effective using IM, phone and echo-laden videoconferencing tools, but you must have good communicators at both ends of the equation. If the person you're trying to communicate with can't type what she means, and can't say what she means, and can't diagram what she means, all the communication and shared workspace tools in the world aren't going to help you.

Actually I'm not sure that situation would be made much better by being physically present, either. But we all know people who are exasperating to IM with because they type soooooo sloooooowly. And people who will never call you on the phone, and rely on longwinded emails to get the message across. And people who only call you on the phone and harrangue you for forty five minutes on an issue that would have required a one-word email response: "Yes!"

Maybe sharp, easy to use, highly responsive telepresence really will change things.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Looking for somewhere to meet?

You're in luck if you are in California. Regus is working its little partnership with the nice people at Cisco to make available hundreds of virtual meeting rooms that you may rent by the hour. There is a metric ton of them in the Golden State, and truly there are lots all over the world. It seems like a good thing for

a) Small companies or sole proprietors who wish to host virtual meetings with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, while not actually buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

b) Big companies that wish to conduct multi-city interviews, training sessions, presentations or other meetingery, with every site having a consistent high-quality experience.

c) People who really like to see their far-flung colleagues and are willing to spend three c-notes an hour to do it.

In any event, it looks pretty cool.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

When your phone doesn't ring, that'll be me

One of the most frustrating things for anyone in business is when your calls aren't returned. It's doubly frustrating when you're a shut-in (e.g. a telecommuter) and getting calls returned is the only way that you can move forward on your projects. I'm not sure what the answer to this vexing business problem is, but I've tried the following things:

1. I leave a specific, not too long, and clearly actionable phone message: "I need you to call me by five with your decision on the color for the banner." Not a vague statement about needing feedback on the design, one thing that the target can think about, come up with an answer to, and call you about.

2. I hassle the person with a consistent message through as many channels as possible. IM, phone, email, carrier pigeon, it's all fair game if you're not calling me and I really need your answer.

3. I don't escalate instantly. I try to give people a day or two to get back to me -- hey, we're all busy and sometimes you really don't know what the answer is without talking to someone else. It is so annoying when people go from 0 - 60 phone calls a day without giving you a chance to answer.

4. I try to work down the food chain before I work up. If I can't get someone, I'll try her staff members to see if maybe they have heard the answer, or they can tell me that she's in Tahiti for the week and won't be getting back to me. Going down the ladder rather than up is also a way of reducing the feeling of escalation -- nobody likes to have their boss called. I try not to do it unless I really feel like the person is avoiding me and jeopardizing the project.

Does any of it work? I am not sure, but at least if I try these things I feel like I've given it my best try. Sometimes I just make up a response in my own head and continue working based on that fantasy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dealing with Far-Flung Contractors

This interesting article from eWeek deals with the complexities of managing a host of contractors in a large corporate setting, but the issues it raises are pertinent whether you're dealing with a small number of contractors or hundreds.

The company in the case study found that they had so many vendors providing so many contractors that everyone was becoming confused -- a recipe for spending too much. There was a mix of newcomers and established contractors, and no clear idea of who was really the better provider for services. After some analysis, they ultimately came down in the middle, using predominantly established vendors, as these presented the lower risk for the company, but also tapping new vendors where the bids for services were competitive. Oh, and there's some software that they use to track all these people and interface with their ERP product. But that's beyond my scope here.

How does this translate into the telecommuting world? Well, if you're a company weighing options on hiring anew or retaining existing people even though they're far away, this article suggests that going with known entities who know your business is ultimately more cost-effective and lower-risk.

It also highlights the fact that when dealing with contractors, remote workers, or even Real Office workers, you must actively manage not only the project but the logistics of dealing with those people. It would be nice if all we had to deal with was the nuts and bolts of our actual work, but the reality is that paying attention to the meta-issues of staffing is key.

It's not so much the heat as the humanity.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Et Tu, Comcast?

I found this little item in PCMagazine -- apparently Comcast in its infinite wisdom can just cut you off if they feel you're using too much bandwidth. What a nightmare. I would wither and die -- okay possibly just find it really really hard to do my job if I was suddenly cut off from my broadband. How about you?

Better yet, thanks to the virtual monopoly that your typical cable provider has in your typical community, you may not have any back-up.


Monday, April 2, 2007

Anticipation Is Worse Than Confrontation

I have a confession: I have a messy in box. I had an ugly confrontation with it this week. It was really bad -- more than 170 messages sitting there, thinking they were important enough to be at the top of my attention. Awful. I realized this weekend that just wondering what was above or below the fold (depending on the sort order) was really stressing me out. So I did something about it.

I went through every single message in my in box, and either added a task to my to do list, responded to the person, or trashed it.

It turns out that email clutter is much like regular clutter. Very rarely do you find that winning lottery ticket or original printing of the Declaration of Independence in your clutter; likewise it is rare that you find a hand grenade with the pin pulled. Mostly it's stuff that you should have gotten rid of a long time ago -- receipts for meals that don't need to go on the expense report, directions to places you where you don't need to return, scraps with random numbers written on them that no longer have meaning.

In my email I found about thirty actionable items. The rest was either disposable (like, I'd already dealt with it or I wasn't going to deal with it because I was just the zillionth copy on the message) or so quick to deal with that I didn't even bother making a task of it.

In looking at the stuff that was in there, I tried to be analytical about why it ended up sitting there in the first place. Many of the messages were about difficult issues that I'd dealt with almost completely at the time, but maybe I felt there was more that needed to be addressed. But if no one has required more follow up since November of last year, then it's okay for me to consider the issue dealt with, I think. Some malingerers were messages where I was one of several recipients -- maybe at the time I thought I should do something about the issue, but obviously I hadn't and wasn't going to. There were many messages that I was clearly hoping the six-month automatic clean up would just do the tidying for me.

I've determined that every six months is not frequent enough for me and my tenuous grip on sanity, so I'm committing to getting everything dealt with every week.

Now I just have to work through my thirty tasks -- some are pretty big, others are little, and naturally they join a non-trivial backlog of other tasks on two other lists. But hey, we're IT professionals.

"Backlog" is just another word for employment security.

You've Really Let Yourself Go

One of the risks of the shut-in lifestyle is extreme dowdiness, I'm discovering. Aside from the potential to become enormously fat due to refrigerator proximity, it turns out that you have to actively resist the urge to wear sloppier and more disheveled clothing as time goes on. Or maybe it is that you have to bolster the urge to purchase clothing for yourself on a regular basis.

Despite the fact that I am a faithful follower of Go Fug Yourself, I am not, how you say, a fashion plate. If left to my own devices, I might could still be wearing outfits that would not look out of place on Cyndi Lauper circa "She's So Unusual." But time marches on, and frankly I'm getting a little old for all that. Having stylish teenage nieces and a critical ten year old daughter is a help in getting out of that rut. But the very fact that I rely on teenage constituents for fashion advice may mean that you should take my recommendations with a grain of salt. Nevertheless.

There are some things that I don't think any telecommuter should give in to:

1. Elastic waist pants. In general, wearing anything in your office that is meant for sleeping, exercising, or swimming is a bad idea. Elastic waist pants just lead to making it easier to ignore one's burgeoning waistline, and it's not a good idea. I don't care how comfortable it is.

2. Wrinkled or dirty clothing. I know that the resolution on most webcams is not so good that the wrinkles will show, but it's the principle of the thing. Likewise, no smell-o-vision yet, but you have to sit in your office with you. Why not have a pleasant time of it?

3. Owning only extremely casual clothing. No, you don't have to dress up for work. Yes, everyone knows you work at home. But dressing like a hobo all the time for every event you attend in your life is not really for the best. You still have to go out and occasionally meet clients, right? Or have lunch with friends who work in Real Offices? Or god forbid go on a job interview every now and then? Date night with your spouse or significant other? You should have something presentable to wear for these occasions, and while it need not be fashion forward, it should probably be from this decade. Every once in a while, pick up a new something that is not slippers.

Although I think I need some spring slippers -- something that I can wander around in the yard in without getting them gross. Maybe some Crocs. Don't tell the Go Fug Yourself girls!