Get Yourself Telecommuting!

gytImagine that your employer has just said you can work from home two days a week, or two weeks a month. That is, you can try such a work arrangement and later make it permanent if there aren’t any problems. What can you do to abet your chances of success?

You have two goals. The first is to show that you can be more productive than you are in the office. The second is to make your absence from the office as trouble free as possible. Coworkers should be able to reach you easily, and you should receive information and deliver work to the office without causing unusual disruptions of work patterns.

It will not be hard to show a productivity gain; since you’ll have fewer distractions, you’ll produce more. But trying to set up a smooth communications system has been my bane since I began telecommuting in 1985. It will probably be yours too. So whether you work from home on a full-time basis or telecommute part-time, here’s a rundown of products and services you should consider:

Two Business-Telephone Lines.

Since you’ll often want to send or receive a fax or computer file while you talk on the phone, you’ll need at least two phone lines. Some people might want three lines, one for a dedicated fax. I have one standard and one hunt line. That is, if I’m on one line, an incoming call bounces to the second line. I use the second line for fax and modem, as well as voice calls. After four rings, the fax machine picks up, so I or the answering machine must get it before then.

Ideally, your two work lines should be separate from your personal lines so that you won’t be interrupted by friends and relatives as you work, and business calls won’t bother your family. I’ve just installed two separate business lines.

Voice mail/call waiting. Even if you have a hunt line that will bounce a call to the second line, you still need call waiting or voice mail on the first line. At least that’s what I’ve concluded. There’s nothing worse for a caller than repeated busy signals; if you’re talking on line one and the fax is receiving on line two, that’s what the caller will get. With call waiting, you can at least acknowledge the caller and take a message. However, I’ve never met anyone who actually likes call waiting.

A voice-mail service from your local phone company is preferable to call waiting. if the phones are busy, the caller will get a recorded message and be asked to leave a message in one of several “mailboxes.” You punch in a code to retrieve your messages. The only drawback to voice mail is that you can’t screen incoming calls as you can with an answering machine.

I have call waiting on my first line (I don’t want it on the second since it interferes with modems and faxes) only because voice mail isn’t yet available in my area. The service costs me $2.85 a month, and I can disable it to avoid possible interruptions. When enabled, it will stop after two clicks if I don’t answer.

An alternative to voice mail, which I haven’t tried, is the Phone Mate Private Answering Machine ($130, available through the Hello Direct catalog; [800] 444-3556). You can connect up to three answering machines to your primary answering machine, which tells callers which key lo press to leave a message for which person. if you have more than one person in your home or office, this might be a good substitute for voice mail. This answering-machine system won’t combat the busy-signal problem but will give you the equivalent of voice mailboxes.

Phone headset or rubber cradle. Since you’ll spend more time on the phone than you ever thought possible, you’ll want to make your time as pleasant and efficient as possible. For me, that means being able to type easily while I talk, either to tike notes or to research names and facts on the computer. If I have to crook the phone receiver between my neck and shoulder, moving about becomes very uncomfortable. So I attached a rubber neck rest (available at most phone or electronics outlets for less than $10) to the phone handset.

My next move will be to buy a headset like telephone operators wear. Then I won’t have to cradle anything, and I’ll be able to wander away from the phone as I speak. Plantronics has a line of headsets ranging from $60 to $100. The Plantronics SP-02 ($60) allows you to answer the phone using just the headset.

The Hello Direct catalog offers a line of “HelloSets” that allow you a 30-day, free trial period. HelloSets range from $170 to $370 (for the cordless model).

I have resisted headsets until now because I’ve hesitated to introduce another wire or cord to my desk. The mouse and phone cords already get tangled. But everyone I know who uses a headset raves about it.

Fax/modem. You’ll need a modem if you want to use electronic mail, connect to office computers, or use a local-area network. For most file transfers, a 2400-bps modem will do, but if you plan on sending extremely large files (50K or larger) on a regular basis, consider a 9600-bps modem.

Nowadays, it doesn’t make sense to buy a plain 2400-bps modem; buy a fax/modem and give yourself the flexibility to send documents straight from your computer to a fax machine. Some fax/modems are send-only models and won’t receive faxes. You want the option to receive faxes in your computer even if you also own a stand-alone fax machine. (See “Faxing Power-It’s in the Cards, ” in the April issue.

Most fax/modems house a 2400-bps modem; however, the Global Village PowerPort (Global Village Communications) features a 9600-bps modem.

Fax machine. Why would you want a stand-alone fax machine even if you’ve got a fax/modem? Because you might not want to leave your computer on day and night to receive faxes when you’re not there; and if you receive a lot of faxes, the process could interrupt your work on the computer. Fax/ modems supposedly operate in the background, but unless you have a powerful microprocessor, that background could slip into the foreground.

How much and what kind of fax technology you need depends so much upon the type of work you do that it’s impossible to make concrete suggestions without detailed knowledge of an individual situation. However, since a home-office communications system is meant to make your remoteness from headquarters as painless as possible, you should make your system as flexible as possible. Any potential flaws will be exposed sooner rather than later, and that will only make your absence more conspicuous.That’s why you might want two fax options.

Remote LAN connection.

If your office headquarters has a local-area network (LAN), you may want to connect to it from your home office. You can use one of the many remote software products, such as Carbon Copy, which replicates activity on one computer (in the office) on a remote computer (in your home). However, this setup requires that a dedicated computer at the office be turned on all the time.

A smoother solution is to connect your computer directly to the office LAN, so that your computer behaves as one of many nodes on the network. If your office has an MS-DOS-based network, use a Shiva LanRover/L modem, which comes with software that ties you to the network. If your office uses an Appletalk network, use AppleTalk Remote, a software product that runs under System 7.0. In addition to the software, you’ll also need a 9600-bps modem, although a 2400-bps would also work. Once connected, your computer can access the main file server, exchange mail messages, and perform any task that computers physically connected to the LAN can. The only difference is that some activities may take longer to execute.

Laptop computer. When I occasionally spend a full day at the office, I sometimes feel stranded because I’ve left my computer at home. I carry a disk of important files, of course, but miss my calendar, contact list, and any files I forgot to pack. A laptop computer would solve this problem. If you’re setting up a telecommuting office from scratch, consider using a laptop as your primary computer. Then when you travel to headquarters, you can take your entire system with you.


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