Thursday, July 31, 2008

3 Tips to Keep Yourself Busy When Traveling

This week, Stella is ensconced in the Real Office, which is to say that she is racing from meeting to meeting and running behind almost from the start of every day. I have newfound sympathy for doctors who have to see patients back to back -- it's impossible to stay on track with a schedule like this. But I digress.

Like anyone who travels for business, my days are full, but my evenings have been relatively free and peaceful. And while enjoying quiet time in my hotel room is a nice respite after a slew of yak sessions, it is also nice to do something other than consume wall to wall reruns of Law and Order: Advertising Delivery Unit. I recommend:

1. See a movie: Some people think seeing a movie by yourself is depressing, but I actually really enjoy this. I can see a movie on the spur of the moment without getting a babysitter lined up, and that's quite nice. By the way, The Dark Knight is spectacular. I'm really glad to have seen it on the big screen, although I found the fact that 90% of the previews were for other movies based on graphic novels or comics kind of strange.

2. Go shopping: Save space in your luggage and leave yourself one outfit short for your trip. Then you can go shopping for a little bit and you'll actually have a valid reason to pick something up (other than abject boredom).

3. Get outside: If there is a nearby hiking trail or other natural wonder, take some time on a summer evening and go wander around. Even if you're just looking at trees and flowers that you could see anywhere, you'll get a little fresh air and feel invigorated. Or allergic.

Of course, you can also just go to the bar for happy hour with the other people who go to the bar, and that's cool too. But I encourage you to stretch yourself and try something different to keep yourself occupied.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

300 Posts

Every time I do one of these posts about posting I resolve to abstain from blogging about blogging, but geeze, three hundred seems like a lot. Doesn't it?

I started StellaCommute more than a year ago as a way of crystallizing my positive and negative thoughts and ideas about telecommuting. During that time I've become disillusioned and re-illusioned about telecommuting as a lifestyle, I've held three different jobs, I've worn slippers, high heels, Crocs, and flip-flops. I hope that readers have found useful information here, and that I've contributed in some small way to helping people get more flexible work arrangements and make the most of them.

So, I won't do another blog entry about blogging for another 100 posts. I promise! Thanks for reading...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Four Ways to Get Your Telecommuting Proposal Approved

You know why you're here: you want to telecommute and you're looking everywhere for the magic exlixir that will take your telecommuting dream to your workaday reality. Dear readers, Stella does not have that secret sauce. But I do have some ideas that may mean that your telecommuting proposal will be favorably received:

1. Be A Star: Okay, this might not be entirely within your control, but people with key skills, key projects, and an utterly stellar record have better chances of meeting with telecommuting success. It's not just being a teacher's pet: people who are really great contributors are unlikely to fall off the map just because they put on slippers. Also included in your stellar performance must be exemplary work habits -- unless it's part of your corporate culture to show up whenever, you reinforce your image as a reliable machine by showing up with a religious zeal for timeliness.

2. Remember It's Not About You: Focus on the company, its needs and desires. Your proposal should focus almost exclusively on the benefits to the company (freeing up real estate, improved disaster recovery preparedness, improving the company's carbon footprint, whatever).

3. Prove That It Will Work: Figure out the technologies and tools long before you make the proposal. Even if you're not especially geeky, when you become a shut-in, you absolutely have to take much more responsibility for your own technical fate. Nobody wants to send someone home and they have to deal with a bunch of ID-10-T errors.

4. Be Reasonable: Don't issue ultimatums, don't make it hard for them say yes. One of the reasons that you're a strong telecommuting candidate is because of your long-term commitment to your company. Help the company come up with a solid telecommuting plan and agree to be a guinea pig without making a big commitment first. You'll make it work, and you'll make them happy that you paved the way.

Now wasn't that easy?

Monday, July 28, 2008

I'm Calling Out My Legislators' Staff Members

Stella wrote a few weeks ago about having sent email to Bingaman, Wilson, and Udall about the Telecommuting Tax Fairness bill. Friends, I hate to say it, but I'm deeply disappointed. No one...not a soul has emailed me back.

I'm more than disappointed. I'm a little furious.

What the heck kind of constituent service is this? Elected officials whose salaries my tax dollars pay, take a second and fire back a quick reply. It's not that complicated an issue, I don't think. Grrrrrr.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Telepresence Not Jets

Webcams not DC-10s. From the New York Times a nice piece highlighting the enormous travel savings that are possible when companies vigorously embrace remote meeting technologies. The article focuses on high-end telepresence, but I think that companies could see significant benefits with medium range webcams and software.

I should come up with some method of measuring telemeeting impact. Although it's not that hard to figure out. If you have folks who travel between two or three locations all the time, investing in a $100,000 telepresence system in those three locations would pay for itself in about 200 trips (if you spend $1500 per trip between airfare, hotel, cars, and wear and tear on your employees' souls).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Preparing to Telecommute? Practice Makes Perfect

Before you make a big commitment to the telecommuting lifestyle, it can be a good idea to make sure that all the things you'll need to foster your slipper-centric gig will work as well as you hope. Web Worker Daily has a good post about this -- although I think they're thinking of a bit more of an adventuresome telecommuting lifestyle (one that involves tropical climes and wonky wi-fi).


Even if you're just going to be trekking across your patio, you need to be absolutely sure that you'll be productive. When I first started contemplating becoming a shut-in, I began using the tools of the trade -- teleconferencing, webcams, online meeting software, remote terminals -- before I ever left the office. This was good in two important ways: I validated the technology would do what we expected, and I also proved to managers and powers that be that I could actually work through these tools. That made everyone happy, and much more comfortable with the whole idea of me being a gazillion miles away.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Worried About Four Day Work Weeks and Customer Service?

This columnist is. But check it out, managers: you don't have to give everyone the same day off. Seriously, try staggering the four day work weeks, so that some people work MT-ThF, while others work TWThF, and still others work MTWTh. There is no reason that accommodating work schedules have to result in cruddy customer service, despite what the state of Ohio thinks. You were made manager for a reason, right?

I believe it may be because of your ability to think strategically.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stella Commute World Headquarters

Stella's trying something new: video. I realize the office tour is about the most cliched thing possible, but never-the-less. Stella will try to do better next week.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Does Your Boss Actually Hate Telecommuting?

Well, she might if you aren't working when she expects you to be. But overall, the concerns raised in this blog post can be addressed by having well-designed telecommuting programs in place before you send the folks home. I am also increasingly convinced that when you're offering telecommuting in order to give your employees a break on their commuting costs, you really need to seek out ways that any position in your company can have a work at home day. I know what you're thinking: someone has to be there to answer the phones.

But could other staff members staff the phones so that the person who usually does that instead gets a telecommuting day wherein he processes all the travel reimbursements and TPS forms for the week?


Friday, July 18, 2008

Your Mother Does Work Here

She might not work here, but she does work here (if Stella Commute is your mother, that is). It's been a nice summer of being at home whilst my older daughter is also at home -- I know roughly where she is, I can keep an eye on her in the backyard swimming pool and whatnot.

But between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm east coast time, you really, truly can't come in my office. If I'm on the phone, you can't come in my office. If I'm looking quizzically at the computer, you can't come in my office. If you peek in the window and I wave you away vigorously you can't come in my office. If you barge in without looking through the window, you can't come in my office.

If you can come in my office, I'm not in my office. I'm in the kitchen taking a break, popping some corn, getting another glass of water, making some cinnamon toast. You can talk to me then. Otherwise, please act like I'm invisible. Shun me like someone being shunned from the village. I'm not there.

I'm at work.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Telecommuting Inspiration: $400K In Savings, Anyone?

If you're looking for a success story, try this one on for size. PCWorld is running a two part story about a company that shut down its traditional offices and sent every single employee home to work. Chorus, a tech company that provides clinical practice management software, went virtual and estimates they'll save $400,000 a year by not having offices.

Oh, and they're still conducting their core business.

Never mind the money they're saving their employees by offering them a way to be gainfully employed without driving their cars a zillion miles round-trip from the office to the poorhouse.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Novel Advice About Telecommuting

David Zinger has written a nice little post on his Slacker Manager blog with advice based on nearly thirty years spent working from home. You will not find words of wisdom about having a separate space, setting a regular schedule, or configuring your network, but you should definitely listen to what he has to say.

My favorite piece of advice: Enjoy it. I'm trying to do this more, and I certainly notice the joy of being able to kiss the baby goodbye on her way to preschool or being able to rest my feet on my devoted co-worker Bettie the Dog during the day.

But I think that enjoying it is also noticing the freedom I have to decide to work on what is truly most important at that moment. Too often when you're in a real office you can get caught up in whatever the wave of disaster is. Generally when people come to me with a big problem, I can process the request into the to-do list, triage it to see if it really is a big problem.

More often than not, it's something that can wait an hour or two. So rather than dropping everything because someone has cornered me in my office, I can get to a graceful stopping point on what I was working on, then turn my attention calmly to the urgent issue and kick that jam out, too.

It's not exactly eating bon-bons while throwing laundry in at Starbucks, but I appreciate that aspect of my workday every day.

Yay, telecommuting!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Update on the MagicJack

Okay, I know I was initially pretty enthused about it, but I ended up sending it back. They have a very efficient return system -- we'll see if my credit card gets charged. Over time, it just didn't seem like enough of an improvement over other VoIP stuff I was already using (SkypeIn, for example), and I didn't want to have Yet Another Number for people to wonder if it was too early* to call me on.

The MagicJack has a lot of potential for people who want a VoIP solution that is about as good as Vonage, quality wise, and seems less like the real phone company. One complaint: during installation, it manhandled my drive names and assigned itself to a drive letter that was already in use and it didn't even ask me about this. Not a big deal for people who understand that sort of thing, but I can imagine people freaking out when their beloved "M drive" or whatever disappeared and they could no longer find stuff they'd stored on the network.

*For the record, it's never too early for people on the East Coast to call me -- I wake up at an ungodly hour and I'm working when you're working. And also for the record, anyone on Mountain time who wants to call me after 9:30 at night: fuck you. That's not going to happen.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Managing Bandwidth for Improved Telecommuting

I am not a network geek. Oh, I can talk about ports in a firewall, and I can usually remember how to convert kilobytes to megabytes or whatever (usually after reviewing the Wikipedia article that details which is what) but I really just want to view my internets as a service much like the electricity that comes to my house.

I pay the bill, they deliver as much electricity as I wish to use.

Is that hard? No, it is not. I don't generally have to worry my pretty little head over whether the lamp in the living room is competing for electricity with the refrigerator -- they each get the juice they need to give me a flattering glow and keep the beer cold all at the same time.

I can't get this same level of reliability from my internets, though. I pay a non-trivial amount of money to those monopolistic weasels at Comcast (more than I pay for electricity I might add!) and what do I get? Not enough bandwidth so that I can do an online meeting and talk on VoIP at the same time. Forget about other users of my home network being able to do simple things like check their email at the same time as I'm working. Oh, and running any of it through the VPN? Perish the thought.

Frankly, it sucks.

I've done a few things to minimize Comcast's ability to bogart my workday, however:

1. POTS: I use a local telephone landline. Of course, the local carrier can't give me an area code where my employer is located, so I use a SkypeIn number that is forwarded to my POTS line. So people in the Real Office can call a number that appears to be local to them, and it rings on my Albuquerque plain old telephone. As an added bonus, I forward that "office" number to my Crackberry on the weekends, or when I'm on site and not at my computer as much as when I'm in the home office, so that it continues to ring wherever I may be.

2. Find Backups: I've found at least three places in my neighborhood that offer free Wi-Fi -- one of them is a barbeque joint that makes me a little nervous, but who says you can only have coffee when you're working? I'm having a pulled pork sandwich during this meeting! In the event of a Comcast flakeout, I'll repair to the Golden Pride and be back in business.

3. Despair: Okay, this isn't actually helping much, but admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving it.

Does anyone have any other techniques for handling my network traffic better that don't require a T-1 line to my house? Don't think I'm not considering becoming a minor network provider and sharing the T-1 love with friends and family through some sort of ill-conceived turning my home office into a micro-ISP scheme.

There has to be something between cruddy and ridiculous that I could be doing to improve my performance.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Tale of Two Obituaries

I don't usually deviate from my theme of "Telecommuting: Yay!" but I feel compelled to comment about two people who died this week: Tony Snow (Fox News lackey and White House Spokesperson) and Michael DeBakey (pioneer of a zillion kinds of important heart surgery). They've been yakking non-stop about Tony Snow. Dr. DeBakey has been relegated to the crawl.

Look, I'm sure Mr. Snow was a lovely human being. I am sorry his children and wife will be deprived of his company, and he was far too young to die. Cancer is terrible, and for the record, I'm against it.

But seriously, Dr. DeBakey directly (and indirectly through the several generations of heart surgeons he personally trained or who have the benefit of his techniques, surgical tools, and so on) SAVED THOUSANDS OF LIVES...never mind the more than 50,000 operations he performed himself. Artificial heart: check. Ventricular transplants: check. Key technologies that allow heart-lung bypass machines to work: that was him, too. He began to change the practice of medicine when he was a student in the 1930s, served in World War II, and pretty much rocked the cardiac surgical world for more than fifty years.

Tony Snow was on TV for a while, and told us what the Bush administration wanted us to hear.

Maybe Larry King should search his (surgically-intervened upon and working only because of people like Dr. DeBakey) heart and spend some time talking about someone who really had an impact on the world. I am not a journalist and I don't know what qualifies as newsworthy (obviously).

But am I crazy here?

Friday, July 11, 2008

I've Wondered, Too

This is an interesting blog post from US News & World Report asking whether serious personal problems (divorce, substance abuse problems for yourself or someone who lives in your house, or something else cruddy) are more difficult to deal with when you work at home.

I can see where having a job in a Real Office to go to would offer much-needed respite from a crappy situation at home -- you get out and see people who aren't embroiled in whatever is happening there, you have a reason to get your act somewhat together five days a week. For the shut-in, it can be just you and your slippers (and whatever problems you're having) day after day.

Luckily, old Stella is sadly one of the most happily married people she knows, and my biggest home-based problem is the fact that the weiner dog keeps peeing on the living room rug, causing me to crawl around on my hands and knees every night with a black light to find the stains, then spraying Nature's Miracle in a vain attempt to make her stop.

Going to the Real Office wouldn't really solve that problem, now would it? In fact, it might make it worse.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another Company Comes Into The Telecommuting Light

Or is it the dark side? Whatever, it hardly matters. Bank of America is rolling out a big expansion of its telecommuting program, according to this article on the MSNBC. Technically speaking it has been available to all employees everywhere, but like many telecommuting programs it hasn't enjoyed widespread publicity. Too often, there is a don't ask, don't tell aura around telecommuting arrangements that really gets in the way of their promulgation.

Now Bank of America is getting some PR bang for their modest investment in telecommuting programs (okay, there's a little risk, too, but seriously it's not that bad). They're going to get a bunch of drivers off the road in Atlanta (a hellish commuting town, I've heard) and they don't really need to do that much differently.

Wasn't that easy? Too bad it took an energy crisis for them to get around to aggressively promote their nice policy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I'm Getting Political

No, I'm not going to rant about the election. I'm going to rant about how it takes staffers a long time to respond to email. Earlier this week, I sent a nice message to staffers in my one sane senator's office (that's Bingaman) and in my rep's office (ol' "Stay The Course" Heather Wilson), and I also emailed the good Senator B. directly more than a week ago.

What's that sound?


I know Heather's bummed out because that goofball Steve Pearce beat her in the primary for Pete Domenici's seat. But Bingaman is just sitting there happy as a clam -- why can't he write to me about why the Telecommuter Tax Fairness act is languishing in committee?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I'm Getting a Blogging MuuMuu!

Okay, maybe not, but I was snorting quietly in my slippers when I read this post on Jezebel. I, too, rock the business costume when I go to the Real Office. Actually, the new Real Office is a little confusing in this matter, because the men have a code of "no ties except when in the presence of a member of the Board of Trustees, the President, or someone who's given kind of a lot of money." Well, that's clear. But what does this mean for the ladies, pray tell?

Well, for me it means that I pack a suitcase with a suit, a black skirt and assorted tops and/or blouses, and I wear heels. Maybe it's the anxiety of the shut-in, but I try to make an extra effort to be presentable when I'm on-site, just to prove to everyone that I am a real person and not secretly living life as Jabba the Hut.

In a muu muu.

Monday, July 7, 2008

What Does a Good Work Day Feel Like?

I'm getting into the swing of the new job -- I've got a project that will be doing a soft launch in a couple of weeks, and some other things started, I'm getting to know people. All in all, it's not bad for a little over two months work. I'm getting into a good flow, and I have identified some factors that make a day feel like I've really been useful from afar.

1. Regular standing meetings with key team members: As a telecommuter, I can be pretty far off the radar screen for my colleagues, so having routine meetings set up well in advance gives me a chance to appear in front of people. Not everyone needs to hear from me all the time, but weekly meetings with some, bi-weekly meetings with others are an excellent way to keep momentum going. Also, as scheduled up as people are at this place, getting on the calendar a few months at a time is often the only way to get timely time with people.

2. Clear projects: For a while as I was getting started, a too-large portion of every day was spent horsing around with the trappings of telecommuting. From getting assorted VoIP solutions running, to messing with headsets, to figuring out travel and other arrangements, it seemed like a lot of the work I did at first wasn't really work, but metawork. Now that projects are well defined and rolling, it's easy to assign big chunks of the day to working on those projects that might could help the bottom line. I still spend time dealing with administrivia, but I don't feel as bad about it because I'm doing other stuff too.

3. A mix of interruptions and focus: Because I'm building rapport with my colleagues and also slogging through some tight deadlines, I feel the best kind of day is where I spend some of it chatting/IMing/meeting, and some of it heads-down-on-task.

So a day with at least one meeting, a fair amount of time spent on project work, and a little down time in the middle to go to the gym or move laundry from machine to machine -- that's a nice balance. I don't like days that are too much one thing or another, it turns out. Luckily, it's pretty easy to construct the kind of days I like. Yay telecommuting!

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Demise of Telecommuting Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Wasn't it just a few months ago we were bemoaning some of the major telecommuter-employers calling their shut-ins back to the Real Office? Yes, it was. But now that gas is outrageously expensive and workers are facing real economic pain, employers are re-embracing telecommuting as a way to keep people from sobbing uncontrollably at their desks as they think about how much it costs them to get to those desks.

More evidence: this piece from the Baltimore Sun with a number of examples from Baltimore-area employers who are using telecommuting as a way to ease the burden of driving around.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

By Any Means

The federal government is (or has the potential to be) a real leader in telecommuting promulgation. They have some broad-reaching mandates to encourage remote work in an effort to reduce the truly horrible traffic around Washington, DC, and some agencies do better than others. I thought this article about how the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is handling some changes around base realignment offered some real inspiration. They're not only looking at secure telecommuting arrangements, but they are also looking at ways to reduce the need to drive.

Wi-fi "Magic Buses"? Super. Perhaps some of the DISA employees will have lasting mystical experiences.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stella Loves to Win

I am not competitive about some things: I cheerfully finish in the bottom third of any athletic endeavor in which I participate, I'm not worried about who makes more money than I. But I'm finding myself feeling ruthlessly aggressive about Geeks Who Drink, which our team Backwards Compatible totally rocked this week. You have to scroll down to see us.

Our score: it was high.

Alas, next week we will not be there because my band is playing instead. Normally I would only miss Geeks Who Drink if I was in another state, but the music is important to me too, and this was the gig we got. I expect all the team members to be at my gig, too. We're trying to pack the place with relatives and in-laws (e.g. the kind of people with whom I play Geeks Who Drink).

But the week after this? Look out geeks...we're comin' to git ya.