ST. PAUL — The COVID-19 outbreak is giving American workers a crash course in how to work from home. Telecommuting had already been on the rise, but the coronavirus has made it a necessity for millions who normally commute to offices.
At the Pioneer Press, for instance, most newsroom employees are getting shooed out the door this week. I had been telecommuting mostly nonstop since late February, and it’s a practice I’ve honed for years (though I do also like going into the office when a virus isn’t rampaging across the planet).
But for those not used to telecommuting, this is a confusing and stressful time.
I’m here to help. This article has advice in several categories. But consider the piece an appetizer prior to the main course — that would be a new ebook by Take Control Books called “Take Control of Working From Home Temporarily.” This is a guide to setting up a home workspace that will get you through this scary period with maximum efficiency and productivity. Note: I am one of the book’s contributors.
When working at home, safety is paramount. An improperly configured home workstation can lead to all manner of physical maladies, such as back pain and repetitive strain.
You need a high-quality work chair with good lumbar support and lots of adjustability. Your work surface should be at the right height for typing — meaning your elbows should be at about a 90-degree angle as you tap on your keyboard. Your display — be it a standalone monitor or a notebook screen — should be at roughly eye level so you are not craning your neck uncomfortably downward.
Much of this can be a challenge at home with a lack of office furniture. One possible solution: Sweet-talk your boss into allowing you to take a chair or more home (temporarily, of course)!
Another option: Work on a computer in a standing position. That’s where a “standing desk” comes in.
Telecommuting isn’t possible without a robust Internet connection. Key factors to consider include:
Do you have the right provider? If you have more than one Internet service provider in your neighborhood, compare what each has to offer.
Lose the cap: ISPs often impose a limit on how much data you can use a month, after which you are throttled to a lower speed, cut off, or charged overage fees.
Are you paying too much? If a friend or colleague is paying less for the same service you have, don’t be shy about asking for a price match. You’ll probably get it.
Update your broadband gear. ISPs equip their users with routers but are not always as interested in swapping out gear that goes out of date. If you are not sure, ask your provider to check. This is extra-vital if your broadband router is also a Wi-Fi router.
Time to update your Wi-Fi gear? If you’re making do with an old wireless router that does not provide good coverage everywhere (and the ones provided by ISPs may not always be that great either), consider a mesh system. Such kits have multiple devices that work together to bathe a residence in bandwidth.
Harness web tools
Work in our society is increasingly being done on the Internet with tools that can be pulled up in a web browser anywhere with a reliable Internet connection. Now, with so many more people working at home, it’s a good time to lean more heavily into this trend.
My workplace is a good example of this. We’ve relied somewhat on Google web-based productivity tools for years. Gmail is our communication tool, and Sheets spreadsheets have been helpful for scheduling and other sorts of planning. Now, we’re making heavier use of Docs documents and Google Drive storage for information and file dissemination. Google Remote Desktop is letting me and other co-workers log in to our PCs at work from our computers at home.
If you’ve long used Microsoft software such as Word and Excel on your PC at your office, it is a great time to get acquainted with the versions of such apps for the web as well as for mobile devices. Microsoft recently released an all-in-one Office app that blends Word, Excel and PowerPoint functions (but it’s not tailored to work on tablet screens).
The Google and Microsoft suites of web tools have collaboration features so multiple people can work on the same document or spreadsheet at the same time — I would recommend going with Google, which I think has an edge in this regard.
Maybe in-person meetings have been your main way to interact with colleagues under ordinary circumstances. Now, with your team scattered hither and yon, it’s time to look for ways to meet virtually.
Video conferencing tools will get you part of the way there. Your options include Zoom, Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Skype (or its Skype for Business counterpart), Google Duo, Google Hangouts (or its Hangouts Meet business counterpart), Cisco’s WebEx, GoToMeeting and BigBlueButton.
Regardless of the video-conferencing tool, make sure the device you are using to video-connect is in a properly lit and reasonably quiet location.
Nonstop video conferencing can be a great way to tank productivity. So, look for team tools to communicate using the keyboard. The obvious ones include Slack and Microsoft Teams. Slack is the go-to communication tool for me and others at TidBITS, an Apple-focused news website. And, when face-to-face interaction is needed, Slack and Teams have integrated video chat.