Monday, December 28, 2009

Is Flying About to Become a Royal Pain?

Stella is ramping up for a post-holiday trip to her fine employer. I find that nothing says, "I really like working here," quite like showing up at the Real Office in Rochester, NY in January. But naturally I'll need to fly there, and given all the news lately, it seems like that's going to be a bigger pain than it might have been before this week.

That's okay. I can dig the need to make everyone feel safe. But I don't feel excited about the idea of not being able to do anything except sit quietly with my thoughts for the last hour of my flight. And I'm with Bruce Schneier on this:

I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's Hard to Vacation

When you live in your office building (e.g. you work out of your home) it is really tough to do the stay-cation thing over the holidays. Stella has been doing a supremely lousy job of it this holiday season. In part it is because this is one of the most important times of year in online fundraising (one of my primary concerns). I need to stay on top of the online giving data, make sure the system is working well, and resolve any donor problems that may arise quickly.

But it is also too darn easy to come out to the office and just do a little work. Maybe I should change the locks on my doors or something. No, that's not it. I need to have a little self-discipline that pulls in the opposite direction from where my self-discipline usually pulls me. Which is into my home office at six every morning.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Potential Tax Break for Virginia Telecommuters

A bill has been introduced in Virginia to offer people who telecommute more than 75 days a year a tax break on home office equipment, furniture, and the like. This is a great idea in an area where the traffic is truly awful, and where telecommuting can make a big impact on the quality of life. Encourage people to do what you'd like them to do with incentives like these. I love it!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Two Idiosyncratic Observations About Headsets

A ponytail, when properly placed, can provide an excellent resting spot for the behind the head style headset, relieving pressure on the tops of your ears. Also, spectacles and eyeglasses almost always interfere with a good headset fit, and are generally a pain.

Does anyone out there have a headset recommendation for the four-eyes set?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When Worlds Collide

If you're like me, you figure that people should know that even though you work awfully hard and are really professional when it matters, that you're not a robot and you may occasionally enjoy an adult beverage in the company of friends and family.

But maybe you'd rather your colleagues and business contacts don't browse those snaps of you playing beer pong when you were twenty (or last week, but nobody's judging you). These tips from Web Worker Daily are about the best advice I've seen on segmenting your Facebook life from different aspects of your real life.

Pictures of you dancing at a wedding can be safely sequestered from your Vice President's browsing. And that's a good thing. Because it's important to network and connect with folks, but you don't need all your business out in the wild. Right?

Photo from Sorry I Missed Your Party - a site that is frequently not safe for work, but always hard to look away from.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

To be a telecommuter, that is. Yes, Hannukah and Christmas are a bundle of laughs, family, lights, food and so on. And Stella is planning to take some time off to spend with her family -- the kids don't have school for two weeks and so it would be hard to work here anyway.

But it's also the busiest time of year for non-profit fundraising. And this is where telecommuting really works out for me. Because even though I'm technically taking vacation days, I still will come into work every single day of the break to run data, monitor the health of the online giving systems, respond to email, and the like. Having the flexibility to mostly be "out of the office" while still being just as in the office at a moment's notice is critical.

There are lots of times when having the tools to be in the office wherever you are would be helpful. Nothing is worse than getting the panicky call from the Real Office whilst on vacation and not really being able to do anything about the situation. If everyone has access to the telecommuting tools and the basics of how to use them, everyone is able to pitch in when absolutely needed.

Not that employers should abuse this privilege. But it can come in handy.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Double Your Employees' Output?

That's what one company did. Rather than just plunge into a telecommuting program without knowing what impact it would have on their business, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System did a controlled experiment. The claims processors who worked from home more than doubled the number of claims they processed.

To which I say, nice work, guys!

I think that this outcome is probably caused by a few factors. First, people who are allowed to work from home tend to really appreciate the privilege and work really hard to not mess it up for those who would follow them. People selected for these kinds of pilot programs tend to be the A players, people who have a lot of initiative and who have built up a lot of trust with their managers and co-workers.

And of course, when you're working at home, you don't get interrupted by coffee runs, chatty Cathy Colleagues, and all the other distractions and folderol that Real Offices can throw at you. The distractions of television, housework, and family are largely overrated. Seriously, have you watched "Divorce Court"? It will make you want to gouge your eyes out. I would much rather process insurance claims, frankly.

How much could your business gain by having your workers focused, calm, and uninterrupted for a few hours?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Always Good Advice

There are a lot of reasons your employees might all need to telecommute for some period of time. I know you're getting sick of me harping on swine flu and other epidemiological events, but consider bad weather, problems with heating/water/air conditioning in your facilities, major traffic disruptions, or the Olympics. That's what employers in Vancouver, BC are facing as they look toward the 2010 Winter Olympics. Needless to say between security, visitors, and all the rest, getting workers to offices in many parts of the city will probably be a challenge.

That's why the Vancouver Observer's tips for the basics of setting up a telecommuting environment at home available here are useful for Vancouverites. But they're also good for anyone looking for the details of setting up the home office.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On the downhill slide

We're on the short turn around to holiday parties, friends, and maybe it's best if the telecommuters don't go. Because there is a non-zero chance that we'll show up to the party in this. Actually, in my fevered imagination, I think that this is what my colleagues picture me in all the time. This or a muu muu.

Please, retain your discipline and composure, fellow telecommuters. Just because you can wear just a Snuggie to your home office doesn't mean that you should.

Monday, December 7, 2009

This is how inter-state taxation should work

If you're the StellaCommute reader who lives in Washington State but who works in Oregon, good news for you: You can prorate your income tax earned in Washington. So if you telecommute most of the time to your job in Portland, you should only pay Washington tax, not Oregon tax on that.

Get your calculators and figure it out.

Friday, December 4, 2009

If You Can Work From Anywhere

Why not work from the ski slopes like this developer for Etsy did last winter. While my corporate culture doesn't really accommodate this kind of thing, it's theoretically and technically possible. And I think it's kind of a great idea. You could really make this kind of arrangement work if you (like Stella) are in a different timezone than your core office, too.

Let's say you're a Hawaii surfing enthusiast (the real kind of surfing, not web surfing, goofballs) and you work for an East Coast outfit. You get up really early, work the East Coast 9 am to noon, surf the morning in Hawaii time for a couple of hours, then work East Coast 2:30 - 6. And you still have time to do other stuff before you go to bed. See? That could work.

Stella is considering a moderation of this: working Friday afternoons at a coffee shop. It could work. Maybe I'll try it today?

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Friendly Smiling Face

Stella has been working on her videoconferencing as of late. Skype is great for some stuff, but it seems to be relatively disinterested in driving my webcam for longer than a couple of minutes. And after reading through like a year's worth of discussion board discussions about this issue, I'm just at the end of my rope in trying to deal with it. The fine institution for which I work is looking at some higher end stuff from Tandberg that seems quite promising, but they're still piloting that. And it's not going to deal with my main videoconferencing problem: most of my colleagues don't yet have desktop cameras.

So most of the time I'm doing straight up phone conferencing and desktop sharing. I call into assorted conference rooms, I fire up a GoToMeeting (my go-to tool for desktop sharing), and we all yak and look together. It is generally okay, but sometimes it feels like there is a barrier of communication. Everyone is sitting in a room looking at each other, but I feel like sometimes they're not one hundred percent sure I'm there.

Lately I've been trying something new: showing them me. I'll fire up the camera on my GoToMeeting rig and show them my smiling, awake, non-pajama clad self. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I feel like having me visible on the screen helps to build trust, because I'm not afraid to show you me even if I can't see you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Touch of the Fabulous

Stella is all about utilitarian gear for the shut-in. After all, working at home is not a fashion show, and while you should be comfortable and have a workspace that is functional, you don't always need the slickest and schmanciest stuff. Unless that's the kind of thing you like.

I like these things. They're too fancy for me. But Christmas is coming. Hint hint.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Was It Prescient?

Stella dressed up as Lady Gaga this year for Halloween. If I may say so, my costume was pretty good, and as it turns out, highly appropriate for a telecommuter who relies on video conferencing to get things done. See this new video with Ms. Lady Gaga and Ms. Beyonce.

I will point out that neither of them is really dressed to convey the "office" feeling on videoconferencing systems, but that may not, in fact, be the point.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

So Stella Just Woke Up

And realized that Thanksgiving is next week. Really, how did it get to be almost December so quickly? However it has come to be, the holiday season is upon us and I can't help but feel a little bit like the Grinch in my disbelief that it's happened again. Last year, Stella was going to try to organize a telecommuters' holiday party in her home town. That didn't get very far, largely because I just sat around and didn't really do anything. This year, I posted a Craigslist ad recruiting local telecommuters. Um, that'll work, right?

So, taking it one step further: I'm declaring December 18th official holiday party day (to coincide with my Real Office's actual holiday party). So you know what we're going to do? Twitter a party. I'm starting it now #vivaciousdisembodiedhead.

Twitpic your best crazypants holiday sweater (or crazypants crazy pants!). Get drunk in your pajamas at eleven in the morning, and then tweet. Come on now! Well, not now. Unless you want to now.

You know, I'm not about command and control. I'm about having a good time all the time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Telepresence Gone Wild

Stella often fantasizes about having a wireless webcam strapped to the top of a RC Car that she could drive around the Real Office. Sadly I lack the basic skills or cognitive capacity to make such a thing. If only I worked at a robotics company like these guys. Then all my Real Office fantasies might come true.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Another Consolidation in Videoconferencing.

Cisco bought Tandberg. Now Logitech has purchased LifeSize. Interesting. I am happy there is all this interest in teleconferencing, and it's probably a good thing that Logitech (which produces a ton of affordable cameras that many telecommuters rely on to show their co-workers their happy faces) is getting into the more high-end videoconferencing market.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trying to Look Good

Stella loves to give shut-in fashion advice, but like the shoe maker's children, she isn't that fab herself. But I try, I really do. I try to pay attention to what is considered cute, and then do an approximation of that. But when you telecommute, it really feels like there isn't much point. As long as I look simply presentable from the waist up, things are good, right?

Well, there are areas where you can play. Like hair fashion -- I've been growing it out, so perhaps I'll experiment with headbands, barrettes, and braids. Earrings, that's good. Scarves and wraps? Okay! I'm going to start experimenting a bit and see if it makes me feel more un-dowdy. Because it's really far too easy to wear jeans and a t-shirt every day.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Being an Introvert Is Okay

I don't know if it's a chicken or egg thing, but I find the longer I work as a shut-in, the more introverted I become. It's not to say that if you met me you wouldn't find me to be a gregarious person -- I love to meet new people, I enjoy going out to parties and such, and I do well in meetings and in front of audiences. But I also crave time alone in my office to do sustained thinking, planning, working, writing. And I need downtime by myself (maybe a lot of it!) to recharge my brain and my ability to deal with people.

So I would characterize myself as a closet introvert.

Working at home is perfect: when I go on site, I'm all out. I meet all day, happy hours, dinners with colleagues, anything, all face to face. But other than that, I'm really mostly working quietly. So I read with interest this little piece from the New York Times. My favorite bit:

What does that look like on Monday morning? They prepare well for meetings and negotiations; they’ve done their reflective thinking in advance. They also schedule down time in order to recharge. And they seek out allies as trusted sounding boards and champions who can help spread the word about their quiet strengths.

This is good advice for the telecommuter, too. You are, by the nature of your working environment, an introvert, especially to your Real Office colleagues. So give yourself the illusion of extroversion.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Extreme Telecommuting With Kids

Sometimes I watch "House Hunters International" on HGTV and see folks buying houses on the beach in some South American country and I think to myself, "Heck, if they have an airport, why couldn't I do that?"

As it is, Stella is very far away from her place of employ, and there's nothing that would prevent me from going somewhere even more pleasant than where I am and working. Except that I have kids who need to go to school, and I just wouldn't want them to have to struggle in another language in a small town in another country. And where I live I'm surround by family who make my life extremely easy, so I really couldn't possibly complain. Although a beach...never mind.

Maybe you too long for an extreme telecommuting arrangement, and you have school age kids. Well, could full time online school work for you? Maybe.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Wired Employees Are Good

I'm really fortunate: my job requires me to stay on top of the more fluttery edges of the online communication so I get to explore Twitter, Facebook, augmented reality, and whatnot as part of my daily work. But it turns out that my willingness and interest in these things may also make me a better employee.

At least that's what they think at the delightfully named Gruntled Employees. The part I like the best: "They also know that what they say reflects upon them and their company."

That is so true. The fact is that in this modern age, your personal online profile and your professional online profiles, pages, blogs, tweets and so on are almost inextricably linked. It's a Catch 20/20 (as I once heard someone say -- a conflict in hindsight!). On the one hand you need to use your real self in some of your online activities so you get the networking benefit -- after all what good is your fabulous online brand if it doesn't also help you when you need to make your connections work for you and your company. On the other hand, there may be drunkface pictures of you out there in your online activities.

But I don't think that's a big deal. Because in the main, you, savvy online denizen that you are, know that your online personna is a big whole picture that includes the drunkface and the brilliant blog posts. And the ability to balance your personal life and your professional life is inextricably tied to that, too.

So you need to exercise balance and being awesome in all media. Real life, online, tweeting, blogging, and so on. It will make you a good employee and a good person.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Telephone as a Pandemic Survival Tool

I am not a germophobe, really. But I'm glad every day that I get to do a lot of what I do over the phone and through the interwebs. Why just today, I was phoned into a meeting where one third of the other participants seemed to be coming down with something or recovering from something. Yuck.

Newsflash: You don't have to be in another timezone to call into a meeting. If I'm calling in, maybe the sick people could stay holed up in their offices and phone in, too?

If you're experiencing an outbreak of illness, use your telecommuting tools to keep people from congregating together and sharing it amongst themselves. Even if people are just calling from office to office, minimizing face-to-face contact can really help minimize the spread of disease.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Today Is a Good Day

To telecommute, if you live in the Bay Area. What a nightmare. If you have a robust telecommuting program in place, you can handle unexpected snafus like this relatively easily. If not, you end up with an office full of people for whom it took three hours to get to the office to get back on the internet.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sometimes Changes In Routine Don't Increase Your Productivity

Ah, gentle readers, it seems like just last year that Stella was ruminating about her broken finger and taking small breaks (ha ha, get it) from blogging and being able to type 80 words a minute. Oh, wait, it was just last year. And now Stella is coping with a family fracture: the littlest Commute broke both bones in her arm in a fall off playground equipment at school.

Aside from the obvious maternal concern that I'm experiencing over Baby Commute's injury, there is the non-trivial disruption to my home-based office that has occurred. The good thing is that it has reconfirmed my most fundamental telecommuting ideal:

Telecommuting in no way substitutes for child care.

Do a search for images of "telecommuting mom" and you find all these pictures of women using laptops with their laps topped with small children. Sister, I got news for you: if you're really working, your kids probably aren't around. In fact, do everyone a favor and don't call it working.

I have a few coping techniques for when there are people in my house -- headphones, the thrill of the locking door, heavy sedation for younger family members -- it works out great. But there is always a designated adult (or young adult, now that Miss Teen Commute is 13 and a tremendous babysitter) minding the little one. And if not? I take vacation to care for her. Like I've been doing last week and part of this week.

Because no amount of headphones, blinders, and "talk to the hand because mommy's on a conference call" sign language is going to stop the piercing sounds of the Little Mermaid from penetrating my brain and rendering me incapable of coherent thought.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Admitting You Have A Problem

Okay, sure it's easy to mock the pen fetishists. Just because you're bitter that you have never known the love of a truly amazing pen, don't take it out on those of us who have been lucky enough to find our soulmate in fountain, gel, or Sharpie form.

But seriously, folks, the right pen can inspire me to greater paroxysms of entity-relationship diagramming genius. It's all in here, waiting to get out into the right notebook through the right pen.

Perhaps I do have a problem.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Telecommuting Doing Good

As you may or may not know, Stella has worked her whole career in non-profits and higher education. Except for that brief stint as a secretary for a stock brokerage, during which one of my electrifying tasks was to review the company wide phone bills and identify every time an employee had called from one branch to another without using the tie lines, then add up how much each branch had cost the company by dialing outside lines rather than internally. Seriously. I did that.

But I digress. I work in the non-profit sector because it's nice to use your powers for good instead of evil. I could do web stuff for anyone, but it's really satisfying to advance education, research, and patient care like I do. And then I read about this: an effort to use the interwebs to bring online work to refugees.

I kind of like this a lot. Yes, I know, I'm drinking my own kook-aid, but I really believe that education and access to technology is the only way that people can escape poverty. And here is another example of how modest access to technology is making lives better.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Routine Changes to Routine

Stella just got back from an onsite visit (note lack of posts. Sorry 'bout that) and as usual, this break in the routine of getting up and working has been a blessing and a curse. It's great to get out, to see people, and in this case to do the big reunion-homecoming-parents weekend. I was able to drive a golf cart around campus, talk to students and alumni, and generally feel like a real part of the institution where I work. The downside is the disruption to my schedule -- rather than work, I meet about work and since my staff consists of "me" I end up with a big list of things to do.

Web Worker Daily has an interesting post about changing your routine -- new music, a different coffee shop, paint your office, do something different -- as a way to improve your productivity. And I think that's true -- provided the change to your routine is something that leads to being able to actually still work.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I'm Making Excuses

There were only three of us. We were hungry. We didn't study up on Lincoln. The fact remains we finished 15 points behind the winners. But that's okay because the food was infinitely better than at the other place we did pub quiz (which is to say that it didn't induce violent gastrointestinal distress within four to six hours of consumption). So we'll be back.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

If Everyone Uses the Internet, Could We Bring It to Its Knees?

More importantly, does the internet even have knees? Whatever, this article from the Wall Street Journal blogs on October 2 poses an interesting problem: if we all end up quarantined with H1N1, and we all get on the internet at once to telecommute, attend virtual school, or update our Friendbook status to "I'm Sick...waaaaah!", will we kill the internet?

Heck, in my neighborhood a good rainstorm seems to dramatically slow the interwebs down, so I'm not feeling optimistic. But the chances of everyone feeling well enough to telecommute at the same time are probably low, and the network would adjust itself over time. But you should definitely consider that things might slow down as part of your business continuity planning. People should also be able to do tasks that don't require connectivity -- whether it's having some of their work files stored locally or on a thumb drive, having paper-based stuff they can take with them, or what have you.

And for the love of god, do have a back up for your internet phone. Maybe we should have kept the land line, I'm thinking. Ai!

Monday, October 5, 2009

You Know, I'm Not Even Tempted

One of the things you always hear when you tell people that you telecommute is, "I wouldn't be able to resist the lure of the television/housework/laundry/goofing off." But you know, it really isn't that hard to resist these things. Housework is not that fun, frankly, so I would have to be working on something pretty darn horrible in order to opt for housework over contributing to the success of the fine institution for which I work.

I'm not saying I don't goof off a bit. The interwebs are always beckoning with updates from acquaintances on the FriendBook, assorted kittens with assorted captions, and people to yak with virtually. But those things don't take me away from what I'm doing in a meaningful way, and are easily segregated to a few minutes here and there.

The biggest temptation I face is not getting onto the big projects. It's very easy to get wound up in doing little chore-style work tasks and not getting to my big thinking, big writing, big planning, big doing projects. But I'm working on that.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Beyond Casual Friday

Casual Friday isn't that big a deal here at Stellacommute Central. As it is I'm normally on the casual side of "software start up in someone's garage" so it's really hard to get more casual when I want to relax. Luckily, I've been turned on to the methods of office devolution through this easy-to-follow visual guide. So not safe for work, kids, but so funny.

I'm off to kill my own lunch with a bow and arrow. Carry on.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Complaining About Local Traffic For Once

Usually your gentle correspondent is talking about how she never drives anywhere and the traffic here in the Land of Enchantment to put this nicely...A Joke. I mean really. I've driven around the DC Beltway in a snowstorm. I know what traffic is, and this isn't it.

Except at this time of year: Balloon Fiesta. I know what you're thinking: We have balloon glows all the time, people need to relax. But it's 300+ hot air balloons going up in about an hour and a half. It's truly spectacular, and people come from everywhere to see it.

Unfortunately there isn't much way to get to the launchpad without driving there. At four in the morning. Seriously, only in New Mexico could you have the major event of the year be a thing that is over by 9 am. This place can be a mystery to me. And the traffic is god awful for Balloon Fiesta. Between people sleepily driving to the field to see the launch to the people randomly driving off the road because forty hot air balloons sail ten feet over the roof of their cars, it's a mess.

Good thing the city has a plan. My plan: stay home even more relentlessly than I normally do. Hey, employers who are anywhere near Balloon Fiesta Park: let your folks work from home, too.

Monday, September 28, 2009

In A Recession, What Gets Cut?

We can only hope that wasteful programs to keep you sitting in a cubicle are the ones that get cut, and not flexible work arrangements and telecommuting. Really, employers, telecommuting saves you money in the long run. And with H1N1 looming menacingly, you are a stronger company by having technology and policies in place that will help you stay in business if people must be quarrantined.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Re-awakening My Office Supply Fetishism

I've been so good. Other than some Energel and Sharpie pens (and I'm seriously lusting after the new retractable Sharpie pens...ooh they know where I live, and it's in the pen aisle) I really have restrained myself on the office supply front. I've been embracing a new frugality. I've got perfectly nice folders in primary colors; I don't need the paisley ones.

This article from LifeHacker is kind of making me reassess my home office though. I think I do need more effective cord management. What about you? Does rearranging your space make you work better, or is it actually just an excuse to waste a little time in the office?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spend Money to Save Money

This just in from Information Week: if you spend money to make your telecommuting infrastructure strong and useful to your employees, you save money and have more productive workers.

See? I told you so.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thinking About Scheduling (Some More)

My place of employment is a very meeting-heavy environment. I mean, people love to meet, they meet all day, and when you need to get with key decision makers (or heaven forfend, get a group of key decision makers in one room at the same time) it's often a two to three week wait (or worse) to find a time. Now Stella generally gets to escape some of the madness, because a lot of what I do is actual project work that comes after decisions are made, and I am 2,000 miles away most of the time.

But now that I'm getting into more "strategery" areas, I really need to get time with people, and it turns out to be really tough because they're all booked solid, packed back to back, lined up in stacks, and ready to mack.

Okay, not the last part. But you see the organizational problem here. I maintain that we should embrace the following rules about scheduling:

1. No one's day should ever be back to back meetings all day. Never. Ever. I don't care what kind of high-powered executive you are, you should have 90 minutes in the morning (even if it's broken into three 30-minute chunks) to do actual work, and at least 60 minutes in the afternoon toward the end of the day for processing what you've been handed during the day. Minimum.

2. Organization-wide meeting-free days are a good thing. Even if you're mostly managing other people's work, you still need some time for making. Uninterrupted free time where you can chew on those important-but-not-urgent projects that always fall by the wayside. Of course, this requires discipline, because sometimes those meeting-free afternoons become work-free afternoons, but you can do it. Tag some important-but-not-urgent task for each meeting-free day and you're in business.

3. Block time for "office hours" -- like a college professor who sits in her office during office hours so students can come in and wheedle for better deadlines, or a pediatrician who has "sick kid" appointments that can be doled out as people call with urgent needs to be seen, having time that is targeted for meetings but not booked weeks in advance is critical. It gives everyone some time to play with when genuinely urgent matters come up.

4. Consider carefully what meetings you really need to attend. Could you send a capable deputy and then have part of your regular confabs with your staff be filling you in on this or that project? You can get the skinny on what's talked about and get clued in on what you'd like to be involved in the deciding on when you send your able staff members out into the world. Try it.

5. Also, this sharing thing works both ways: you actively share what you've heard about in the meetings you attend with your staff so everyone knows what's happening now. Spreading the information helps you get the maximum value out of the meetings you simply can't miss.

Look, Stella isn't a business researcher, and I don't have any data or studies that suggest that these things would actually help people feel less harried and get more work done, but it makes sense to me. Maybe I should go get an MBA so I can study the dynamics of meeting scheduling.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Telecommuting as a Path to Employment for People with Disabilities

Stella has long had this thought in the back of her mind: telecommuting is ideal for people with disabilities. And then I find this agency, NTI, which specializes in training workers with disabilities for telecommuting jobs in a variety of fields (mostly customer service, call center, and medical transcription). But really, how cool is that?

If you're an employer who already uses telecommuters in some fashion, consider expanding your program to seek out and hire people with disabilities as well. It's a great way to keep a person in the workforce and contributing their talents and skills to society.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

An Excellent Use of Telecommuting Technology

Telehealth is an emerging field and as a resident of a big state with lots of rural areas where there is very little medical care available, it's something I've been aware of for a while. Now, big insurers like United Healthcare are getting into it and deciding that it might be covered, and that's a good thing.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Stella's Strategic Planning Plan

Just so you know, this is my basic strategy for making the outlook better for my colleagues. A simple plan is best, usually.

Drinks, anyone?

Friday, September 4, 2009

In the Office, But More Uprooted

Stella is getting ready to go on-site in the Real Office next week, and as usual it's a mixed bag. Of course, seeing people in person, having meetings that reassure instead of having technical problems that make people wonder if I'm making static noises with my mouth so I can get out of conference calls, and wearing shoes are always fun.

But the downside to being on-site is camping out in a conference room and running madly from meeting to meeting.

It just feels inefficient and frazzling. But hey, that's the work people. I'm trying something new this time, though. Instead of thinking of it as "camping out", I'm going to consider myself "location independent." And while my windowless conference room isn't exactly a cafe on a Greek isle, but if I close my eyes...

No. That doesn't work, but thinking of my self as independent rather than rootless may help.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

We now resume normal social activity

If by "normal" you mean "going to a bar and taking a test with your in-laws". We played Geeks Who Drink last night for the second week in a row, making it officially a thing. Our stalwart team leader Margret was home doing something meaningful with her baby (hence our team name) but we had another team member back from a long-term work assignment in Tulsa, so we had to go. Second place. Alas.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I Think the Skype Sale Is Good News

As a person who uses a SkypeOut number as her primary office phone number I was glad to see that EBay decided to just sell Skype rather than let it languish and die. Even though it wasn't useful to allow auction participants to talk to each other (um, isn't that the whole point of using the EBay? The stuff sits out there, you answer questions when it's convenient for you, and then when it's over your ship the crap to whomever won the auction?), Skype is very useful for me.

So good deal, I think.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"This Page Intentionally Left Blank"

Five words that always crack me up, because, by their very presence they nullify what they are intended to indicate. Like this cake. I recommend that you look at all the cakes on Cake Wrecks, and pause to reflect.

Monday, August 31, 2009

I Really Don't Mean to Harp on This

But if you're not thinking about telecommuting as a key component of your pandemic influenza preparedness planning, I don't even know what to say about it. When you have the tools for people to be in touch and productive from wherever they are, that's a good first step. But you also need to empower people to STAY HOME when they first feel iffy, rather than soldiering through another day a little bit achy.

Dig it: when you're a little bit achy (but not that sick) you are most likely at your most contagious.

So you come into work a little under the weather but still functional, and then you proceed to touch stuff and breathe on people all day until you give up. Then the next day you have a fever and you're really sick, but friends, the damage is done.

As an alternate approach, you could have access to robust telecommuting tools that allow you to be as good out of the office as you are in. You have a laptop, you can connect to your phone system and forward your desk phone to where you are, your VPN is pre-installed and all you need do is connect to see all your network stuff just as though you're there. And your boss knows this and will expect you to be in touch just like you are in the office as long as you're only mildly ill.

You're home just infecting yourself and your family. And that's better for the rest of us.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Feeling Lonely?

This is an interesting idea: a virtual portal. It's like having a little window into your office with a friend at the other side. This piece from LifeHacker suggests that you do it with sound, but you can also use a video-only+IM solution to have that sense of "someone else" with you without disturbing each other with the quiet swearing under your breath and keyboard clacking that might happen if you have a live mic and camera going all the time.

This would also be good practice for people like me who have to go back to the Real Office on a regular basis. Because when you're all by yourself all day it's easy to forget that removing shoes, applying lotion to your feet, and then putting your shoes back on to enjoy the fabulously moisturized feel between your toes is not something you can do in your Real Office. With people around. Who can see you.

Just saying.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Forcible Telecommuting

Most of the time, Stella hears from people who desperately want to convince their management to allow telecommuting. Now it turns out that companies are trying to save money by shutting down facilities and making people telecommute. Big call centers, companies where most of the staff is out in the field selling or servicing products, and of course, technology companies are all finding that they can maximize the savings that come from their telecommuting programs by making everyone do it.

You. Out of the office. Go on now, you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

I think this is great -- on the one hand people may feel lonely, and what not. But it's on the employer to make use of tools that help connect people virtually -- low cost ad hoc videoconferencing and instant messaging, for example, or occasional ice cream socials for people who are remotely co-located.

I don't even know what remotely co-located really means. But you get the idea.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Stop Using Specs as a Weapon

One of the things I've been working on is specs. I think of myself as being kind of good at the functional spec -- I'm not always clear on the precise technical means to accomplish the things that people want to do with systems and services but I'm very articulate about what we're trying to get done. I love writing specs, and I find them to be useful tools to

  • prompt questions from the non-technical customers and the programmers alike, all of which can make the project better
  • make it clear what we're doing and what we're not doing
  • avoid heartbreak and disappointment at the end of the project
Specs are great. But in the wrong hands, they can be deadly. Like when they're treated as a legally binding contract and are invoked to defend programmers against dissatisfied customers: But dude, you didn't say you wanted it to record the transaction in the database, the spec says "accept transactions" and the system doesn't throw an error message on submit, so it's working as we defined. Uh. Right. Don't get me wrong, customers are guilty of throwing the spec up in the programmers' faces, too.* Maybe you can't have a helicopter, and maybe you didn't hear the people say that a helicopter wasn't going to work.

So as the spec-gal, you also need to make sure that the customers and the programmers know that the spec is a living document, and features may be added or removed, but everyone's gotta know about it and agree to it.

*Yes, I know this conversation isn't about a computer programming project, but I think the common elements are easy to see: unrealistic expectations, the technical execution staff going off and not communicating with the customer thoroughly, with a hearty dose of mental illness. Pretend instead of "helicopter" they're talking about "dynamic form handling widgets" or somesuch.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Just So You Know

This is what Stella looks like when she doesn't do her normal morning routine. Without the designer dress, but with the high heels and odd hair.


Monday, August 10, 2009

I Did The Unthinkable

This morning, Stella did a couple of unthinkable things. First of all, I completely slept through and/or sleep-disabled my alarm clock. I attribute this to action-adventure dreams that I was having where there was so much gunfire in my dream that I might not have noticed my alarm clock's plaintive cries or perhaps just turned it off with a kung fu move in the dreamscape.

Be that as it may, the automatic coffee maker did its job in the kitchen and entered my dreamscape in the form of a pause in the action to sit in a cafe. My brain noticed this was unusual enough to wake up. At that point the smell of coffee in my conscious brain was enough to make me look at the time, and realize it was ten after six. And I'm usually at my desk by six. Whoops.

My second unthinkable act: I went to work in gym clothes. I did not do my usual morning routine of shower, put on a happy face, comb hair, smell decent, and so on. I just brushed my teeth, put in my contacts, and that's where my morning ablutions stopped.

You know what? The world didn't end. It was okay. I had meetings and the smell-o-vision wasn't functioning, and I was alert all day, and it was fine.

Just thought you'd want to know.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How Did You Celebrate?

Yesterday was National Telework Day! How did you mark the occasion? I did what I always do: took a shower, got a big cup of coffee and shuffled across my patio in flip-flops to work. I talked to folks on the phone, sent email like a fiend, cranked out work, took a break to go to the gym and do the family thing, and then I did a little more work that night.

Celebrate good times, come on!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Telecommuting To The Rescue

When a big influx of people comes to a region, even if there are two or three years to prepare, not everything is done in time. This is the case with the Base Re-Alignment Commission (BRAC) work that is bringing a ton of workers to the Ft. Meade area in Maryland. There were road building projects in the works, but with this and that (major economic meltdown and loss of tax revenue?) the projects won't be done.

Officials are anticipating a bit of a traffic nightmare when all those people start coming to work at Ft. Meade.

One of the answers to this problem: telecommuting. As with all parts of the federal government, the military is interested in encouraging telecommuting, especially where their base realignments are going to cause epic traffic.

Yay, telecommuting!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Could Your Business Handle 40% Absentee Rates?

What's that you say? Having nearly half your people out sick at any one time would cripple your business? I thought that's what you said. It's time to get really serious about those business continuity plans, and figure out how you could handle a bunch of your employees being sick, but not so sick that they can't be a little bit useful from home.


Seriously, kids, a pandemic of some kind is coming your way at some point. Maybe it's H1N1. Maybe it's something else. Maybe a bridge will fall down, or something else terrible will happen. Whatever it is that is going to keep mass quantities of your workers from showing up, it really shouldn't be a surprise to you, and you really should be prepared.

Like the state of Florida is. Although I would hope that a hurricane-prone state like Florida would have lots and lots of business continuity plans.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Headphone Fatigue

If you're like Stella, you spend a lot of time with headphones on your head. I use my Logitech wireless headset for phone and video conferencing on Skype, listening to music on Pandora, checking out webcasts, and a host of other things all day long. And then I fold up shop and go to the gym where I jam earbuds in my ears and listen to music whilst working hard to be able to continue to wear my work costumes when I go into the real office.

Frankly, my ears get a little tired.

I'm trying now to be a little more disciplined about not just sitting there with my headset on all the time. On the one hand, it's a great way to stay isolated and focused, especially during the summer when the eldest Commute daughter is home from school and prone to practicing violin in the middle of the day. But ending the day with a splitting headache because your pinnia have been pinned to the sides of your head all day isn't good. So my good headset ergonomic checklist includes:

1. Only use your headset when you need to. Can you listen to Pandora on the speakers? Do so.

2. Make sure you have breaks throughout the day. If you get up to go to the bathroom or make a snack, don't keep the cans on -- take every opportunity to give your head rest.

3. Vary your headsets. Sure you could use the same bluetooth stereo headset for everything, but in the same vein as giving yourself a break, going from a pair of cans to buds and back again can help change things up.

4. Of course, listen at the lowest possible volume. Preserve your hearing!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Just When You Think Your Dedication to Outmoded Technology Is Out of Control

You see someone who has it much much worse. Now, don't get me wrong, I like new stuff as much as the next American who does his or her best to prop up the economy through shopping. But Stella Commute does much of her non-tech shopping at thrift stores, and Mr. Commute buys the technology as old as he can. Witness our hi-fi stereo rig, pictured here. Yes, that's an LP record, kids, Steely Dan "Can't Buy a Thrill" on vinyl. And an 8-track tape recorder. So we can burn our vinyl to 8-track.

We're dorks. Yes. But we're not this bad.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

People Are Still Getting Flu

Now that the CNN-fueled panic has settled down about the H1N1 flu (no more Sanjay Gupta in a mask in Mexico City) you should know: people are getting the H1N1 flu all the time. They're being forced to stay home for seven to ten days, and unless you have some way for them to continue working through what is, for most, a mild disease, you're losing out.

What? You still don't have a business continuity plan for pandemic flu?

You're joking, right? No?

Good lord, get a VPN right now! Stop reading this and go, set it up and get it ready. Fall is coming, and this thing might could get worse when we get into real flu season. Come on people, don't make Sanjay Gupta come to your office with his little mask on.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Creating Connections to Physical Places from Afar

I have been a terrible poster* lately. Stella is not unaware of how she is neglecting her duties, and she apologizes, but every living brain cell has been going toward work work lately. That said, I've soldiered through a number of all-consuming projects (all of which came due at roughly the same moment) and now I'm trying to cast my brain on figuring out how to use the web to produce meaningful connections to a location without having people physically be there. And it seems I have some insight into this because of my own (remote) location.

I work in the fund raising and alumni relations arm of an eastern university. Not east coast. Eastern. In fact, it's in a place with a reputation as a snowy wonderland that is nearly impossible to get to by plane without making at least one connection, a reputation which is not entirely undeserved, honestly. But that said, it's also a wonderful place where people make lifelong connections and where really cutting edge research in a number of important areas is happening. A gem. We're gearing up to get a lot more people engaged and involved in the institution, and we're working to use the web to make it easier for people to be a part of the fun, without losing their luggage.

I'm thinking web video stuff. But what, and how, and what kind of production values do we want? The best, I'm thinking. I've seen the Parkinson's Foundation's use of the webinar, and I think this is a great thing -- a meld of important content, unique expertise, and a clear focus on the audience. But what other great uses are out there? Any ideas?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Seven Deadly Sins of Home Office Security

Seven Deadly Sins of Home Office Security. Well, a deadly sin is a pretty big deal but this article from ComputerWorld has some good tips that are always important to remember. Physical security seems particularly important to me. You hear so often about breaches happening because someone's laptop gets stolen out of a car or a home office, and suddenly your employer has to mail out a million "Sorry about your data go to free credit report dot com and keep an eye on who's stealing your identity" letters.

Don't make them do that. Lock up your dang laptop, okay?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I Suffer from This Condition

Once again, The Onion proves its mettle as the finest news source in the U-S-of-A by nailing my problem. Maybe you have this problem too?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Scheduling Secrets

Honestly, I can't remember if I've said this before, but scheduling empty time in your day is absolutely essential to having time to get stuff done. Even if you just mentally block it out, it's important to have time where you do nothing but go through what you need to do and do it.

Stella is on-site this week, and the whole point of these trips is to meet meet meet meet. And it's fun. I love seeing people, love getting to know them. But I also need to get work done, and so it's hard to balance. But it's okay, because I'll get caught up next week.

But it would be nice to have a little time to kick out the jams this week, too. Ah, well, that's what nights in a hotel are for, right?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Print Less

I know what you're thinking: Give me a break, Stella. I already spend 23 hours a day in my house in last year's slippers, and I haven't filled up my gas tank in two months. Yes, you're already doing a lot to save the environment just by virtue of being a shut-in, but you can conserve resources even more by doing one simple thing:

turn off your printer.

It helps you conserve in a few exciting ways:

  • You're using less electricity because it's not hanging out plugged in and vaguely on waiting for you to send a job to it.
  • You will have to think before you print, and make a conscious decision to roll over to it, turn it on, and wait for it to warm up. I find that my response to that is, "meh," and I generally just cope with looking at stuff on my screen.
  • I have to think that not being constantly stirred up makes the ink last a little longer.

So save some trees, ink, and juice, and turn that printer off.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It's Baaaaack

Yes, that's right. The Telecommuter Tax Fairness Act is back. Yes, the economy is in the crapper, yes we're all lucky to have jobs, but this is important. You should call your congress person and your senator and ask them to help get this thing out of committee or wherever the heck it is right now.

See here's the deal: you may be okay with regard to your tax situation, or you may not. How could you know? It varies state by state, and that's uncool. Stella is lucky, because the Land of Enchantment is (in the sage words of the nice accountant I asked about this whole mess) not aggressive about pursuing income tax revenue. But you may not be so lucky.

So tax fairness is important to all the shut-ins. Look into it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Adjusting to Summer

Stella has been a lousy poster, and she's deeply sorry, but it's been a hectic couple of few weeks. School here in the 'Burque ends in May, and with it comes a flurry of activity that any parent of children recognizes. Now we're settling into a new routine that involves a thirteen year old girl hanging around the house while I work.

It's distracting.

It's not like she's demanding peanut butter sandwiches all day or anything. She's working on some writing projects of her own, sleeping until eleven every day, going over to her auntie's house to swim, and generally entertaining herself.

It's just that I'm used to being here by myself. No noises in the house except the dogs warding off daily attacks from the US Postal Service, an occasional door-bell ring, and the like. So I'm adjusting, slowly but surely. More headphone use, more doorlocking, and also being tolerant of more interruption. After all, I can't completely ignore these children -- I do like them and all!

But adjusting to having more people around your quiet home office space is, well, and adjustment.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Work At Home Opportunity for the Apple Enthusiast

Love your iPhone? Want to work at home on the phone? Maybe this job is for you. Stella won't speculate about what it means for what happens next with ye olde iPhone. But whatever.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Climate Control for the Home Office

It's getting to be the summertime in most places. I understand from speaking with my colleagues in the Real Office that there was frost in their neck of the woods a couple of nights ago, but here in Stella-Land it's pretty glorious. And that means one thing:

My office is hot.

I know, how can I possibly complain about six windows and a skylight. And glorious sunshine every day. But really, it gets warm as soon as the angle of the sun reaches a certain point in the sky. And I worry about the health and well-being of my laptop, of my conferencing box, of my printer, everything. I don't want to cook their little computer brains, you know?

So I cool my office independently from the rest of the house. I have a unit in there that does a good job, and I also aim a small fan at the computers themselves to help them circulate air. What do you do to keep things cool when you're working in non-office settings?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Thank God I Work At Home

Stella had a humdinger of a weekend. She spent Friday night dealing with a very vomitrocious child, and then spent her own Saturday night mewling in her bathroom with exactly the same terrible virus. I was still a wreck on Sunday, and I'm not yet one hundred percent.

Thankfully I work a few steps from my bed. And so rather than try to put on a happy face this morning, I'm able to get some stuff done and not risk infecting those around me. Because trust me, you don't want what I had.

Not even a little bit.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Laptops Are Too Hot for Your Lap Anyway

Stella has had a lot of work to do lately, and in order to get it all done, her workday has sometimes intruded into her evenings. Alas.

For a while, I was de-coupling my laptop from my office desk and dragging it into the house so that I could work and at least be in the physical presence of my family, but since I added a ginormous new monitor to my rig in the office, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a reason why I would want to burn my legs and use a tiny screen rather than bask in the glow of all those delightful pixels.

Mmmmm, pixel-y.

Between the screen real estate and the full-size keyboard and mouse, it seems my interest in wandering the earth with my laptop is waning. I am a bit more isolated when I'm working a lot, but really it's not that bad. I am frankly glad to still have a job, and beyond grateful that when I have to go in on the weekends and in the evening, I don't have to go further than my back porch.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Feeling More Philosophical About Swine Flu

Now that Stella is out of the airports and away from places that had suspected cases of H1N1 flu (is this a virus I can get from R2D2's firmware or something? Jeeze.) she is feeling a bit more sanguine about the whole pandemic thing. I'm safe in my little home office again, and as long as no one chases me in here and sneezes on my slippers, I should be okay.

But what about the rest of my Real Office colleagues? They're still coming into close contact with each other. What if there really is a real outbreak of something that is dangerous and needs containment? Well I'm here to tell them that everyone with a laptop and the VPN installed can pretty much do whatever they need to do from wherever they may be quarantined. Even if they don't know it yet, it really can work.

PC World notes that telecommuting can be a good way to avoid getting sick. And generally speaking this is definitely true. So keep it in mind if things get sneezier out there. Mkay?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Paltry Posting

Stella is apologizing in advance for slow posts this week. Okay, actually it's Tuesday already, so it's not really in advance, but you get the idea. I'm onsite this week, and by the time I get home to the hotel I'm kind of more than a little zombified.

Mmmm, I wonder if they'll have brains tomorrow at the hot breakfast bar downstairs?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Telecommuting and Pandemic Flu

Here's something Stella really hates: getting off an airplane on a layover and seeing Janet Napolitano's face on CNN over a "Breaking News" graphic. It's probably partially a function of it being a slow news day, but people getting this wound up about swine flu is troubling.

The good news is that a robust telecommuting program can help save your business in the event of a widespread health scare. In Mexico City, the streets are deserted, and tomorrow should be interesting too. Companies who enable their workers to work from wherever they are (including making the phones ring where people are, VPN and other secure access, and so on and so on) will be in much better shape than those businesses where people have to show up to log in.

The same is true here in the US. So dust off those disaster preparedness plans, friends, and make sure that people know what they should do to connect in case there are restrictions on travel, going to offices, and the like.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Here's Some Good Advice

David Christiansen at IT Dark Side has written a good post about maintaining balance when working at home. It seems like a no-brainer: work-life balance is built in when you work at home, right?

But as I was just kvetching about on Wednesday, in fact it's hard to stay focused and work hard, and not be a total grind and never see your kids too. Because it's entirely possible to work all the time.

Don't do that, okay?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Take Your Daughter To Work Day

Does that actually work when you work at home? All the time? My daughters see me at work: there I am, working in my flip flops, having a meeting and waving them away frantically while trying to stay professional and calm sounding on the call I'm running.

Maybe I should make them take me to school with them.

Here's my dirty little secret: I know lots of mothers who look at working at home as a way to "spend more time with their families". Maybe I'm a grind. (Okay, I'm definitely a grind!) But I do not see it that way. It is a bit easier for me to pinch hit in a crisis at school or what have you, but I work when I'm working. I do not pay attention to my children, not even a little bit.

Does this make me a bad mom? Perhaps. But when you're the primary wage earner, and you work from afar, you kind of need to be focused.


Monday, April 20, 2009

One Inbox Reduction Strategy

Stella has really been trying, gentle readers. Really, I wanted to keep my inbox pure, containing only items that actually fresh and awaiting action, not those which are malingering and making me feel guilty. I've got mail folders for my major and minor projects, and I've really made an effort to put things there rather than let them stew in my inbox.

And I've failed.

I have been getting nasty messages from the Outlook administrator that my mailbox is over size, and I decided to do something about it today. I've found one way to make things more sortable and file-able: I lined the contents of the inbox up by sender name. It turns out that each person emails me about one or two specific projects that I might be working on for them, and so it is really easy to find all the stuff about the alumni directory when it's all grouped by the two or three people who are really working with me on it.

For sorting and filing, time is not as useful as sender, it turns out. And seeing all those old messages when I have it sorted by time is just kind of depressing. I'll go back to date sorting tomorrow, but right now I'm down to just fifty four items in my inbox.

I feel pretty good about that. Sad, isn't it?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wondering Why Stella Is Grumpy?

I had an insight this morning. Not an On-Site Insight (TM) but just a garden-variety insight. I am the mother of two charming and extremely well behaved children and a natural morning person. I'm up bright and early every day and working east coast hours.

But by the end of the day I am psychotically grumpy and willing to do almost anything to hustle the children into bed. And today it finally occurred to me: in my brain, it's like the kids are staying up until 11 pm every single night.

In point of fact, they're going to bed at a very reasonable hour, and we have a nice structured bedtime routine and all that jazz. The super nanny wouldn't find much to fix in the kids' behavior.

Unfortunately, it's all your dear correspondent's fault.

What to do, what to do? Honestly I'm not sure what I can do. I mean, this is the gig people. I have a few ideas:

  • I could delay my afternoon green tea fix until four or five in the afternoon to get that gentle caffeine boost a little later in the day.
  • I could be more disciplined about not doing recreational computer work between the end of my work work and bed time.
  • I could chill out.
I think recognizing the problem is probably the first step to solving it. Seriously, pinpointing the causal relationships between early rising and late-day grumpiness may just be enough to make me exercise a little more self-discipline and reduce my harpy factor measurably.

I'll let you know how that all works out.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Better Conference Calls

I saw this post from Sasha Dichter by way of reading about it in Seth Godin's blog. Is that enough blog call outs? Okay!

But seriously folks, he's absolutely right. Conference calls can often turn into torture. It happens pretty easily. Add to all the sins he notes poor sound quality on any end of the call, yammerers, table thumpers and so on and so on. His tips are also right on.

I'd like to add one of my own: make EVERYONE on the call call in. You eliminate the need for the voice of "in the room" because everyone is on an even footing. Use a tool that combines screen sharing with voice conferencing (there are free tools to use with Skype, or you can use a fee tool like GoToMeeting, WebEx, or what have you to get these things done).

But there is nothing more frustrating than being the only person who is calling in from afar, so level the playing field.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bigger Is Better

Stella uncrated her new 22 inch monitor last night, and let me tell you it is phenomenal. I found a great price at NewEgg, they shipped it fast fast fast, and now I'm basking in the gentle glow of so many pixels that my eyes are spinning.

Things I notice:

  • I need to practice moving from screen to screen -- it's a little tricky to figure out where my mouse can traverse the gap between my ginormous main monitor and the laptop monitor.
  • I need to figure out how best to work with all this real estate -- two browsers side by side, quandrants, what? Not sure what will be best, but I'm happy to experiment.
  • It's awesome.
Now on to the next phase of my over-computerized lifestyle: building a rig that is intended strictly for video conferencing, IM, Skype, etc. I feel like the video conferencing is straining my darling laptop's ability to cope, so I'm going to re-purpose an old desktop computer just for the communication stuff. We'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Internet Alternatives

I was speaking with my rep from a third-party vendor that I work closely with, and she is a telecommuter too. She was telling me a horror story: her home office internet went on the fritz and the ISP said that it would be perhaps a day before it was back up and running. Horrors! She hopped in the car to go to a nearby coffee shop and discovered their interwebs were out too. And so it went. Hours (and a few repair guys later) she was back in, but in the meantime, no work, no meetings, no VoIP, none of the things you rely on.

Honestly, I don't know what I would do if I had a lengthy internet outage. Cry maybe?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bad Hair City? Really?

Stella likes many many things about living at 5,000 feet. I love the fact that the clouds one sees are frequently peeking up from below the horizon because we're up so dang high. I love the fact that the arid climate means that sweat functions as it is supposed to: you sweat and it evaporates, thus cooling you. I come home from a run dusted in salt -- it's like being a piece of trout on the grill. Lovely.

And I find that the climate means that my hair is smooth and pleasant most days because there is absolutely no humidity. Why is this relevant to StellaCommute readers? Because I get up really early and I don't do anything to my hair, so the fact that it can look reasonably okey-dokey without much effort is non-trivial. But come to find out, we're the 12th worst hair city in the country. I'm questioning their methods.

I'm just saying.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Telecommuting Commute Time Reducer Number Two

As a follow up to the efficiency pants and the in-bed laptop stand that Stella recently covered, I am pleased that Gizmodo called my attention to this time saver: the keyboard pillow. They imply that one will be napping on the job with this, but I see it as a way to move seamlessly from sleep to productivity in the morning.

But then again, Stella gets up really early so she can be at work on the same schedule as her east coast colleagues, so perhaps my interpretation is off.

Nap on, dear readers. Nap on.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Shoes Are Shoes...Except When They're Totally Awesome

Stella has a complicated relationship with shoes. It's well documented. I have a love of shoes. I have pretty, narrow feet that look good in shoes of all stripes, and that I get pedicured before I travel. On the off chance that I'm killed in a plane crash I want them to find my remains and take extra care because they'll know I'm a well-kept and respectable person. But sometimes I find that my feet and shoes are not getting along well.

Lately I've been wearing some pretty fierce shoes, despite the fact that I only sit in my office and trip daintily back and forth between my desk, kitchen, and bathroom. And despite the fact that I frequently tout the slipper-wearing lifestyle that I'm privileged to pursue.

Part of it is that I'm a very short woman and wearing heels keeps my pants from dragging on the ground. I'm also experimenting with the uncomfortable shoe theory of productivity (wherein if one cannot walk easily around the house, perhaps one might best stay seated and working at the computron). But now I read that sky-high heels are a secret source of power. And that people (just like me!) are wearing them during conference calls to make them feel powerful and edgy. Actually, I did that yesterday and it kind of worked.

Maybe it will work for you. But this begs the question: is there a male equivalent of the five inch heel? What could a male shut-in wear around the house to bring himself sartorial pleasure and power? A tie? Hmmm. That doesn't seem right.

Ideas, dear readers?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Headphones as Noise-Proofing

It's been a little noisier than usual around Stella central this week, because the small kid has been home since Tuesday with some sort of eye thing*. I took a sick day on Tuesday (which is to say that I did my meetings with the plaintive strains of "A Part of Your World" in the background, but I charged myself a sick day because other than meetings I just made noodles and applied warm compresses), but the kid has been hanging around the past couple of days with Daddy on his days off.

It's tough.

They are noisy and prone to wandering into my office and demanding nail polish and whatnot. What is a shut in to do? She straps on her headphones and just ignores them. With my headphones on, I really can't hear people yelling in the house, I can't hear the terrible terrible score of "The Aristocats", it's like it's not even happening.

* I don't think it's contagious -- nobody else has caught it yet, so it may be allergies.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I'm Starting My Own Jelly

Well, kind of. My very good friend and fellow pub-quizzer (and her delightful pub-quizzing husband) just bought a house around the corner from mine. Like, it's a three minute walk over there (unless you're accompanied by dilly-dallying preschoolers, in which case all bets are off).

She's a nerd and usually she works in a Real Office. But she's having a baby really soon. And she's not really taking any maternity leave to speak of. And she'll be working at home very soon. So we're plotting our own informal semi-regular co-working arrangement.

I know what you're thinking: Stella, aren't you always preaching that working at home isn't a substitute for daycare? It is absolutely true. You cannot really work with a kid around. I am also a person who came home from the hospital after having my second kid and immediately logged into to take one last bit of malingering code live before officially starting my maternity leave. The baby was asleep in her little carrier seat next to me, and I worked. A bit, and not because my manager asked it of me, but because I wanted to get a few things wrapped up so I could relax.

Newborns eat, sleep, and poop. In between, you're kind of left with vague worrying about whether they seem stuffy or not, checking to see if they're poopy, and messing around on Facebook. Why not be productive? If that's what you want to do.

So yes, we'll give the co-working thing a try on an ad hoc basis. I'm envisioning walking over there for lunch and then working for the afternoon. Or vice versa. Or her coming over after my older child gets home from school -- the big kid can look after the baby, and we can go partake of wi-fi and geekery.

But first she has to have the baby.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Don't Do These Bad Things

From InfoWorld, great advice (in a backhanded way) about running a successful telecommuting program. While it's kind of written like "Don't do what Donny Don't does," it's really chock full of gold, if you're trying to get a telecommuting program started, or expanded.

Monday, March 30, 2009

I Am Not Sure This Is A Good Idea

The in-bed laptop stand is, on its face, a telecommuter's dream. Because nobody's commute is so short that you can't improve your time by cutting out the toddle across your patio to your home office. Yes, you too can go directly from drooling on your pillow to kicking out the jams.

But should you? I tend to think not.

I need a transition from snoozing to cruising. A shower, clothes, the whole nine yards. Just like I need a transition back from the world of work to the world of housework at the end of the day. Listen, I'm not going to tell you what to do.

But don't buy this thing.

Friday, March 27, 2009

On-Site Insight Number Two

Okay, Stella technically wasn't on-site this week. She was not in her home office, but rather than traveling to the Real Office she instead went to the city where her Real Office used to be for a conference. That is a terrible sentence. I should just say, "Baltimore".

Yes, the conference was quite worthwhile. Yes, Stella managed to get a fair amount of the regular work done at night and that one day when the luncheon was so packed full that she couldn't get a seat and so she hid in her hotel room for an hour and a half and worked while eating a bag of salt-and-vinegar potato chips she pilfered from the exhibitors luncheon buffet. But here is my on-site insight for this trip:

Being out of the office causes a greater hit on productivity than just the time spent away -- you have to add in the time you spend catching up, too. You know it's true: when you're not in your office, even though you answer your phone and zip off emails every time your Palmberry goes off, the reality is that there are something things that you just can't deal with when you're not in your natural habitat. It's more a mental thing, I think, than a lack of access to the technical or information resources you need.

Maybe it's just me, but I find when I crack open my Blackberry and see some horrible problem arise and it's ten at night and I'm in a hotel room, I just can't deal with it. It exasperates me. I don't want to fire up my VPN and get the documents that prove that the other person is deranged and send them around to all the people the crazy person carbon-copied on the original message.*

I. Just. Don't. Want. To.

So I fire off an email response that says, "I'll fix your wagon when I get back home." And I do that again and again. And then when I get back home I have to pick through all that stuff I only half answered and re-answer it. Not efficient. Ah well, such is life. I should be all caught up by Friday.

* For the record: this didn't actually happen on this trip. All my colleagues were perfectly well-behaved and in full possession of their mental faculties, no worries.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Science Confirms What We Already Know

Yes, it's true, friends: Caffeine is a performance enhancing drug. If you're running, it can help you run faster, ignore fatigue, and keep going.

Funny, I notice it doing the same thing for me sitting here making online forms work well. Thanks, science!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My New Office Mate

Is a non-trivially proportioned* jumping spider. I tried fruitlessly to take a good snap of him, but I don't have a good macro-mode on my camera so he's blurry in all the pictures. But Oh What a Lovely Spider: brown with orange spots on his body, four nice eyes, green mandibles, a real classic specimen.

He's a really good jumper though. I'm trying to keep an eye on him, so there aren't any unpleasant surprises during my one o'clock meeting.

*AKA: Big. Especially for something that jumps like this.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lazy Pants? Or Efficiency Pants!

From Gizmodo, these pants have everything the busy telecommuter needs: pockets, a plate, and much much more. If properly provisioned, you could work efficiently in your home office for hours at a time without those pesky trips to the kitchen for snacks and water.

If only these pants included a coffee maker, they might be perfect.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Nostalgic for Your Old Cube?

Here's a little something for those of you who are working for home, but find yourself longing for the comfort of a cubicle. The OfficePod. It's actually pretty cool -- like an ultra sleek shed that is devoted to work instead of mixing up paint and sorting out yer jam jars. And work.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Mobile Videoconferencing?

Stella is traveling today, and she really could stand to be more in touch as she moves freely about the cabin. That's why I was interested in this little analysis of Cisco's acquisition of the company that makes the Flip video cam. Some would say it's intended to give them some more heft in the small videoconferencing area.

Ooh. I like it!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Back To Basics

This piece from Forbes has the basic stuff that you should pitch to your boss when you're pitching a telecommuting arrangement. So emphasize your productivity, do it on a trial basis, keep regular hours, come in when you're needed.

Yes, yes, yes. Do those things. Ask today. Get telecommuting.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Classical Music Is Like Customizing Off the Shelf Software

Stella has a confession to make: she is a bad programmer. I understand the basic ideas (if then else, loop until, blah blah blah) and I can get stuff done, but I don't think it's my default setting. My strength has always been in two key areas:

- Understanding what it is that people are actually trying to do with computers; and

- Making systems get as close to that outcome as is possible.

Sometimes I get to make the system from scratch, and the outcome is pretty darn close to what my customers probably wanted to do. Sometimes I have to jolly other developers along and persuade them that the thing that customer wants to do is actually significant and worthy of their time and attention. But mostly lately I figure out how to get what we want out of third party products. And it occurred to me today that this is a lot like playing classical music.

When you play classical music, you can complain about how unplayable it is, but it won't do you any good. The composer is dead (usually), so it's not going to change. For all your complaining the music is what it is. Your job is simple: make it as close to the composer's vision as you possibly can. You need to play it well so the audience can make sense of it and enjoy it. You need to master the intricacies of the piece so you can perform it fluidly and make it sound easy. Easy!

That's your job when you're working with third party products: master the stuff you need to make your use of the product effortless. Understand the underlying structures and philosophies and make a mental model that bridges that view of the world with your customers' view of the world. Because most of the time you're dealing with a vendor who doesn't care that much about your perspective. Unless you're their only customer, they aren't going to respond to your every whinge and whine. You have one simple task: Make it work!

Monday, March 16, 2009

In Numbers Too Large To Ignore

We are telecommuters, hear us roar! Rawr.

But seriously, folks, ZDNet just published a nice little summary of a much larger forecast of telecommuting produced by Forrester Research, and the numbers they project are kind of exciting. Based on their research, they project as many as 63 million telecommuters of one type or another by 2016. (By the way, that's only seven years away for the futurists out there.)

I think that's swell. The more, the merrier -- in this case you will have actually merrier employees if you figure out how to support telecommuting and get them working at home more often. The post also has some good action items. One I really like:

Find the pockets of telecommuting support in your organization and create a collaboration environment for managers to support each other. There are real issues for a remote workforce around onboarding new employees, managing a younger workforce, establishing clear key performance indicators, learning how to manage by objective, and the like. The experienced managers in your organization can help each other with collaboration like wikis, training, and portal resources.
This is so very true. Often, telecommuting programs spring up sui generis when you have a committed manager who's doing what it takes to keep a key staff member. They figure it out and make it work, and then maybe a few more people get involved. But rooting out the pockets of remote workers and managers and connecting them with each other will help you make the most of their collective knowledge.

Friday, March 13, 2009

New Home-Based Career: Caterer

Stella would like to apologize for her paltry posting. She has taken on a secondary career as an amateur caterer for a friend's baby shower and has just been swamped, frankly. It's so much fun, though. I can see why people do this for a living. But as a second job it's a lot of work. But do stay tuned for more fabulous telecommuting fun soon.

Like Monday. As you were!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I'm Not Complaining

Okay, wait. I am complaining. Every morning starts really early. Really really early. And not only do I feel tired, I look tired. Really really tired. I'm happy to get up early. I'm often awake anyway so what the heck, I might as well get up and work. But what to do after a shower and what passes for "getting ready" doesn't cover the bags under my eyes?

I'm considering this stuff. Of course nothing will actually work, but I want to have dreams. You know?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Telecommuting Is Working

The Evil HR Lady has an interesting question from someone who works in a Real Office but whose manager is a telecommuter. It's interesting for a few reasons:

The manager does do something a little unexpected -- calls another exempt employee out for taking a flexible hour for a doctors appointment. During a conference call with other people.

But the employee's reaction focuses on the slipper-wearingness of his or her manager and how dare she call someone else out for exercising flexibility. S/he writes, "This from a woman who could be getting a pedicure at that very moment for all the rest of us knew. I always just assumed that during her WFH time, she was caring for her children, taking them to the doctor, picking them up from school, etc. It certainly did not bother me because it’s a new world, right? It’s all about results and not so much about bottom-time-in-the-chair, right? Well, apparently not for the daily schleppers."

Uh, no. Much like telecommuter proposals often wax rhapsodical about how great telecommuting will be for the shut-in's own lifestyle, kvetching about telecommuters often focuses on how they're not working.

Except we are. We work hard. We are real employees who sit in our offices eight, ten, or more hours a day doing what needs to be done.

So if you have a telecommuting manager, complain if he's not available by phone. Complain if she is a micromanager who calls and IMs twenty five times a day about that project. Complain if he can't seem to master using his headset. Complain if you actually hear children in his office during work hours and it makes it hard to hear him.

But don't complain because she wants to know where you are during the day. She can't see you leave for an hour during lunch and then come back, so communicating to her what *your* schedule is seems just as important as her communicating *her* schedule to you.

Don't blame it on telecommuting.

Monday, March 9, 2009

getting things done

Stella likes getting things done. Note that this is subtly different from Getting Things Done. But if that's what gets you moving, Getting Things Done can help you on the path of getting things done. When you're cranking out ideas and then making them turn into stuff that people can use, you're doing what you're supposed to be doing.

When you're relabeling your file folders, maybe not so much.

Then I read this manifesto and I fell in love, just a little tiny bit. This is my favorite item in the manifesto:

The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.

And that's really it, don't you think? We can all sit around and sort our task lists, but really getting through what you need to today just frees you up for doing even more awesome stuff tomorrow. Or later this afternoon. Or whenever you are ready to move on to your next big idea.

Friday, March 6, 2009

On All The Time?

Stella tries to work regular hours -- generally speaking my standard is if they're working in the real office, I'm working here. I think it's important that my colleagues never have to think about what time it is here, they just pick up the phone and call me. And I answer.

Or email back. Or whatever.

But what about after hours? Do I have an obligation to be available as much as possible? I am of two minds about this. Part of me says, "Yes, I need to do what needs to be done, whenever that is." And part of me says, "I need to draw the line somewhere."

The folks at ITBusinessEdge are wondering the same thing. What do you think?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Three Big Things

Check email three times a day? Work on only three big goals per day? I love these ideas, because they seem so sensible. I know everybody is linking to this from everywhere, but it's because it's a great idea.

Okay, gotta go work on the first big thing I'm going to get done today. And this isn't it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Upcoming Telecommuting/Work Webinars

The Telework Exchange is a site dedicated to federal teleworkers (aka shut ins, telecommuters, cloud workers or whathaveyou). There is a ton of useful stuff there, and they're now offering a series of webinars about assorted telecommuting subjects. There's one coming up. Maybe you'd like to attend -- they're free you know. Just go here for more info.

I do believe I might attend.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

One of the Best Things About Telecommuting

It's a sad thing I know: when I drive in the car I listen to pop music on the radio. I've got CDs and stuff, but I like the empty sweetness of pop music. Lately, the station I listen to has been playing this Jason Mraz song that includes the line "Open up your plans and damn you're free."

This has been stuck in my head. Mercifully not the song. Just the lyric.

Because it gets me to thinking about one of the things I most enjoy about being a shut-in: for whatever reason, people don't meet with me as much when I'm in my home office as when I'm on site. And this means my schedule is largely free. Don't get me wrong, I have meetings and such. But my time is much more my own in large chunks. And it means I can really get things done.

Just like Jason Mraz.

But dig it, this isn't just a luxury for the shut-ins. I've been advocating for people in the Real Office to block off more meeting-free time and I think it would help everyone execute with more ease, more focus, and just make the days more pleasant.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Culture Change Begins With You

I like a lot of things about this little story from Work Happy Now. What is that you like, Stella?

- I like the fact that a person just decided they were going to do something other than the usual way of doing things.

- I like the fact that they did it without any real hope or expectation of being recognized or rewarded for altering their own behavior.

- I like how they assumed the other guy would probably appreciate the effort, at the very least.

- I like that it was done without convening a committee of twenty and meeting for three months.

- I like that it worked to change the atmosphere of the workplace, and did so pretty darn quickly.

And here is the telecommuting tie-in: what could you do today that would enable a person to not have to drive 15 minutes and spend an additional five minutes parking, walking, and then walking, de-parking and driving another 15 minutes back to the office, just to attend a meeting that could last only 30 minutes, but that everyone stretches to 65 minutes, just to justify the hassle of getting everyone together?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Six Tips to Energize Yourself Whilst Telecommuting

Stella goes to work early. Okay, it's not early by Real Office standards -- I show up at the same time as everyone else. But remember, too, the Real Office for me is two time zones away from where I'm actually temporally located. And while I love this schedule round about 3:45 in the afternoon (my time, aka 5:45 Real Office time) there are two dark moments in my day: The first happens at 5:00 in the morning when I get up and go to work. And the second happens at 10:00 at night when I go to bed in the mountain time zone and it's late, Real Office time-wise.

By the end of the week, I'm getting ragged. So I actively seek out ways to stay energized in the office:

1. Good smells: I find that lavender and rosemary are particularly energizing and refreshing, so I create opportunities for me to smell these good smells throughout the day. A little lotion here and there just goes a long way, I find. I also like minty stuff, so sometimes I'll brush my teeth several times a day to wake up, freshen up, and straighten up and fly right.

2. Music: I've written about the music I listen to throughout the day, and it's really essential to keeping my focus and my energy up, even when I'm beat.

3. Fresh air: I guess this is a form of good smell (at least here in the 'Burque it is) but just opening a window as soon as it is climatically practical to do so is fantastic. Lots of oxygen, natural sounds of birds singing and dogs barking. It helps me feel connected to the world around me and a little more oriented in the actual time zone where I'm physically located.

4. Drop and give me twenty: I do push ups. I roll around on my office ball. I flex my feet. I get up and dance around like an idiot. Whatever. I move.

5. Reach out and touch someone: When I'm feeling sluggish, I call some poor colleague to shoot the breeze, follow up on some long term project, or some such. I figure I'm probably helping that person refocus too, but interrupting them. Right?

6. Nature's perfect food: I know the health people out there will say, "Watch out for too much caffiene," but to them I say, "Fie!" I make a cup of green tea. Or I make an(other) espresso. Or I drink a Diet Dr. Pepper. Or if it's the day after pub quiz, I do allllllll threeeeeeee...

Maybe you do these things, too?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pub Quiz Domination

I'm kind of surprised we did as well as we seemed to have. We won, and apparently we lead all night long, so that's kind of awesome. Our full team was back -- the impregnated one has been a little punky over the past few weeks but she was back full-force last night -- and so success.