Monday, June 30, 2008

Encouraging Telecommuting by Not Discouraging It

In the New York Times, a nice opinion piece by Nicole Belson Goluboff about removing the tax barriers to telecommuting. She's a telecommuting activist, and she's right on in this little piece. In an age where gas is one million dollars a barrel (or something) and all the ice in the North Pole is melting, it's time to get it together and make it easy and welcome telecommuting into the realm of normal stuff people do at work.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Thinking About How To Build Great Web Stuff

I've been charged with figuring out a bunch of web stuff for my new job. The position I occupy didn't exist before, and there is quite a backlog of dusty sites that need to really do something much more than they are. Once I can kick out the jams on some basic needs (an intranet! functional online giving that we can make changes to without waiting six weeks for an over-committed central programmer to get to it! other duties as assigned!), I'll be focusing on some more epistemological web service issues.

There are ideas bubbling in my head about what we should be striving to achieve with our online offerings, but then I read this at Seth Godin's blog, and darn it if he hasn't completely hit the nail on the head. As usual.

Data, Stories, Products (services), Interactions, Connection

This is what a website that seeks to make a meaningful philanthropic experience should have. All five, on every page. We tend to think of stories -- Little Janie's life was saved by the research at Hospital X -- and products -- The ever popular and always stultifying Ways To Give section -- and miss opportunities to do more. We also tend to understand data as something that we may use in private to govern our interaction with individual donors, but turning it around to drive what we put on our website is something we might feel less comfortable with. Non-profit site design often turns into everyone-gets-a-top-level-menu-item exercise, rather than featuring the six programs or causes that garner the lion's share of giving.

If we're doing a good job understanding our data, we would understand that those six programs are our "brand". They're what our donors come to us to support because they recognize us as a leader in those areas, a good place to invest their hopes for a better future, and their money.

Interactions? We tend to just try and get people to call us or email us, because we're focused on major gift fundraising, and nobody gives a million dollars on the web. Except when they give you $5,000 on the web and see how you handle it before they deepen their relationship with you.

Connection is a struggle -- figuring out how we can make that connection deep and meaningful through a lukewarm medium like the web. I don't know.

I need to think more about this, but it makes my brain start to race.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I Wonder What Her Tax Implications Are

I love this story about a NY state tax employee who is now telecommuting part time for the state from her retirement home in South Carolina: people are giving them a hard time, but she points out that they have auditors in the field all the time, so it's really nothing new.

Except of course that they tax the bejeezus out of anyone who does exactly what she is doing. It doesn't sound to me like her arrangements meet the "convenience of the employer" rules that NY loves so dearly. Another great feature: her job is to translate tax code into words that people can understand.

My suggestion: start with section 601(e) of your stinking tax law, and expand outward to 132.18(a)...frankly, this whole document can take a flying leap, as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, June 23, 2008

MagicJack: What a Goofy Product Name

But wow, does it do what it says it does. Look, dear readers: Stella isn't one of these bloggers who gets sent free stuff all the time in the hopes that she will flog it on her blog. All thirty of you who read (and I know at least fifteen of you personally) are not worth much in marketing land. So when I say something is really awesome, rest assured I've paid my own money to get it and I really do think its awesome.

I read about the MagicJack on CNN on Friday, and it sounded promising: around $40, unlimited domestic calling the first year thrown in at that price, and about $20/year for unlimited VoIP. I figured what the heck, it's not that much money and how could it be more wonky than Skype is 70% of the time.

But it totally rocks. It's a little USB device on one side and an RJ-11 jack on the other. I plugged it into my laptop, waited for it to install its software, plugged the phone in the other side and there was dialtone. Like for real dialtone. I went online, picked a number and was calling away lickety split.

I did three long phone calls on it today. It didn't drop the call once, nobody said that they couldn't hear me, there was no echo, it was just normal calling. I was even running GoToMeeting at the same time as I was talking (something that would normally kill Skype) and it sounded great. I'll have to try it with the VPN running -- if it sounds good over the VPN, then I'm just going to buy stock in the company or something.

I don't know how it works or why it's so much better than other voice over IP thingies I've tried. I just know it is.

But there is some bad: They need to do something about their graphic design. It all seems a little "Kaboom", like Ron Popeil is going to jump out of the website at me and tell me to set it and forget it. The device looks vaguely like the Clapper -- it's clear with a blue light to tell you it's working. Plus the packaging is orange which makes it look a little like Vonage (with whose call quality it doesn't deserve to be associated).

But seriously if you want to make calls on your PC, give it a go. Tell 'em Stella Commute sent you.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I haven't been harping on the eco-grooviness

Telecommuting saves gas. I know, it's so totally obvious. I can hardly bring myself to write about it, but lately telecommuting's benefits for gas-strapped employees has been all over the news. But wait, wasn't it only a few months ago I was writing about companies calling their telecommuters back in droves out of some misguided managementitis?

Now everyone is all hot for helping their employees by letting them telecommute rather than burn through yet another tank of $5 a gallon gas. Well well well. Isn't that nice. If you're really faced with the prospect of losing valuable employees in droves because they can't afford to drive to headquarters five days a week, you'll let them telecommute.

The more enlightened employers out there have skipped the crazy mood swings on telecommuting, and have been reaping the substantial benefits of a well-run telecommuting program for years. Witness Sun, who released a report on the economic and ecological impacts of their telecommuting program.

Well, that really is special.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Don't Videoconference in the Nude

I was recently speaking to one of my new colleagues about webcams and the like. He's a long-time remote worker who has always just used the phone and frequent on-site visits to get his work done. And that's well and good if you're a three hour drive away. For me that's not an option, can't say that with more clarity. I'm totally reliant on my webcam and frankly I love conducting online meetings using it. I'm new to the job and most people aren't used to working with a disembodied head just yet. The webcam inspires some level of confidence that I'm really there.

My remote working comrade was less keen on the idea of coworkers being able to see the state in which he's doing business.

I can see his point of view: what's he's been doing has been working. But maybe it's been holding him back, too. People who are concerned about a webcam being too invasive need to follow a few simple rules and avoid making big mistakes, like the ones listed in this Wall Street Journal article.

No eating. No unprofessional attire below the waist if you plan to stand up during the videoconference. Learn how to operate your software, your camera, your headset -- be sure that the mute button really works the way you expect it to. Test your connections and technology before you get started on a really important presentation.

See? You can still wear pajamas on the days when you have no meetings scheduled, and nobody can tell that you haven't brushed your teeth today.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Presentations Without Pain

I am gearing up for a cornucopia of conferences in August and while I'm mostly looking forward to them there is one thing that gives me concern: the prospect of sitting through several days of terrible terrible slide software-driven presentations. I'm with Rowan on this: is no one paying attention to the extremely good advice on the internets about how to improve your presentations?

At some of the recent conferences and trainings I've attended I've been subjected to

  • People showing slides with graphs labeled in 8 pt. comic sans serif who, when asked what the data meant, answered, "I'm not really sure." Uh. Great. Why are you showing me the data then?
  • People starting out with a stack of 213 slides (all of which were also printed out and handed out at the beginning of the class) and then proceeding to skip through 70% of them saying, "These aren't my slides, these are from another presentation, but some of the information may be good." Why are you getting paid to put on this class again? Thanks for not caring enough to even think about what you'll be wasting my time with, jerk.
  • People reading their slides...word for word...with no word left unread...and no word spoken that isn't on a slide. Um, you know, I can read too. Seriously, I'm a really fast reader. Maybe you should just print your cruddy slides out and I'll read them in the bar over a pint of Guinness rather than sitting in this rickety chair in a freezing convention center.
Please, can't we stop it? We're paying good money for training, to attend conferences, and to take the time to attend your little WebEx sessions. Please, for the love of all that is holy and sacred, make your presentations not suck.

Stop presenting like a mandrill.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Telecommuter Tax Fairness Act

As a New York State telecommuter, I can only say yesyesyesyesyes to the sentiments in this opinion piece from Edward A. Zelinsky as published on the Oxford University Press blog. His post, The Telecommuter Tax Fairness Act: Stopping New York’s Tax Attack on Telecommuters, is right on the money.

Given the mayhem that is taking place with gas prices, the global warming, and so on, regressive tax laws like New York's (wherein they eagerly grab at every bit of income they can tax irrespective of whether you, the hard working telecommuting shut in who lives 2,000 miles away, are partaking of the great state's tax-funded services) are not a help to people who are seeking to balance your desire to work in a place with your desire to not drive yourself into the poorhouse.

So yeah! Telecommuter Tax Fairness Now!

Posted using ShareThis

Friday, June 13, 2008

An Important Note for College Planned Giving Fundraisers

For pity's sake, please do not start sending planned giving brochures to people who are turning 40. Look, I am in the business, and I know what you ghouls are thinking: she's getting older. But I am so NOT READY for information about making my bequest intentions known (and making sure they benefit my college). I'm already dealing with mixed feelings about turning into an old bag -- should I continue to dye my hair? am I too old to wear shirts from Threadless? is that my ass? -- I don't need you, Planned Giving Advisors, advising me that I've got one foot in the grave. Thank you very much.

I am still working hard, I am still saving diligently for retirement and hoping that my children will be able to partake of the New Mexico Lottery scholarship when they get to college (and/or earn ginormous merit-based scholarships, and/or consider attending the fine institution of higher education where I work). My will has to deal with who will steward my children through their formative years should I be killed in an unfortunate encounter with an industrial mixer.

Could you give me another 25 years, please? Trust me, I know how it works. I love my college, and I am really and truly grateful for the ways in which it transformed my life. But seriously, ask me about a CRUT again, and you're out of the will.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Telecommuting Employees Aren't Freelancers

And they probably shouldn't be galavanting off to the coffee shop every day. That's my stance on the matter, and the so-called Crotchety Manager, Ken Hardin over at IT Business Edge, agrees. I think his analysis of what makes for bad telecommuting arrangements (a free-for-all, schedule-wise, uncertainty about what people are doing when, and other types of mayhem) is right-on.

So do it right. If you're an employee, work regular hours like the other employees. Take lunch as expected. Answer your phone when it rings. Go to your online meetings on time.

And if you're a freelancer, then do whatever you like. Work in your bathing suit at three in the morning at some crazyass rave afterparty* for all I care. Just deliver my deliverables.

* Do the kids these days still go to raves? Or rave afterparties? I have no idea. I'm old.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

IM: Not So Intrusive After All?

A lot of GTD advocates and focus-junkies and their ilk advise people seeking order and productivity to limit interruptions from things like email, instant messaging, and the phone. But research pointed out in the New York Times suggests that IM might not be that much of a disruption.

The gist: more conversations, but they tend to be shorter and more to the point. So the count of interruptions may be high, but the volume of time you spend dealing with them is small. The problem for many folks, however, is not necessarily the time spent on the IM, but the time spent getting back to what you were doing before you were IMterrupted.

And another factor to consider: one person's IMterruption is another person's road block where she can no longer Get her Things Done without information and input.

Can you tell I'm kind of excited about coining the term "IMterruption" (and its corollary, "IMtrusion") to represent what happens to you when you get IMed as you're in the middle of doing something important. I just Googled it and there are only 166 references right now, and most of those are obvious mistypes of "interruption". Someone noted the term might mean losing text that you're working on when an IM window pops up, but since that doesn't really happen, I am going to say that's not really what it means.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

People Trying to Hire, Take Notice

I read Work In Progress pretty regularly (and I wonder what will happen when Lisa T. Cullen takes maternity leave...I hope she'll be blogging from maternity leave). She had a good piece a couple of days ago about how telecommuters should be screened in the hiring process. Check it out. The fact is that more and more people are going to ask about telecommuting arrangements during interviews, and you need to find ways to assess whether this kind of arrangement is appropriate.

But you should definitely consider making telecommuting arrangements.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Getting Telecommuting Started Right

As loyal readers know, Stella recently went back to the ranks of full-time telecommuters. So far, it's a pretty sweet gig. I'm back to working for one of the smartest guys I know. I'm working for one of the up and coming development operations, a place I really believe is on the right track with the right tools to really make a difference in the world. And that's cool.

But I think I am struggling a bit against a corporate climate that finds remote work a bit, um, strange. People seem eager to treat my time face to face with them as the only time we can meet. I'm stacked up with meetings like there's no tomorrow. And tomorrow is equally filled with meetings, frankly.

I know that it's on me to make it relentlessly pursue online meetings with people when we're not physically call people over and over again until the realize that phone will work well. See, I know from experience that if we all morally and philosophically and epistemologically agree that phone calls are the moral equivalent of meeting face to face, and we all embrace the tools that make it all work then guess what: It Will Work.

I can see I have some work to do, though.