In-Depth

Work in the Time of Coronavirus: Top Tips and Tools for Remote Work

New to working remotely? Here are pointers for setting up your new workspace for teleconferencing, managing your time when your office is also your home, and how not to be a VPN hog.

This week has been a heck of a year. The COVID-19 virus has thrust most of the world into a well-meaning state of panic, and most workers (not just technology workers) have been shifted into a new model of working remotely.

For many consultants and freelancers, this is something we have been doing for years, whether it's working from a plane, hotel room or a home office. However, with schools closed nearly everywhere, this upcoming week will bring the added burden of managing your children in addition to your job.

With so many folks being thrown into remote work so suddenly, I thought it would be a good idea to share some of my top tips with readers -- especially those who are unused to it. If you have any advice of your own that you would like to share, feel free to chime in down in the comments.

With that all said, let's talk about my favorite tools and techniques for working remotely.

The Essentials

Audio
If you weren't already doing a lot of teleconferences, working remotely will thrust you into the world of conference calls. You don't want to be the person who has an echo or random background noises, or who sounds like they are trapped inside a ship.

I have a few different tools that I use for audio. The mic in your laptop is usually pretty bad, especially if you have your laptop closed to project to an external monitor. My favorite (and probably the best all-around) solution is a good set of noise-cancelling headphones. However, you don't need to go out and spend $300 on headphones; the headphones that came with your cellphone are likely up to the task. And since all the popular conference apps have mobile support, you can consider using your phone for meetings. (And yes, I realize the irony of using your phone as a phone).

At my home office, I mainly use a hockey puck-sized mic/speaker combo that was a gift from a vendor. It's commercially available from Jabra and it provides excellent audio quality.

One final audio note: Learn the keyboard shortcuts for muting/unmuting in your teleconference tool, especially if your kids are home. You should be muted unless talking.

Video: A Contentious Topic
Scott Hanselman, who works at Microsoft in all things developer, started a mini-Twitter controversy a couple of weeks ago by suggesting that all meetings should use video in addition to audio.

There are a lot of benefits to using video for meetings. It lets you see the engagement of the people attending and allows for some human feelings and feedback that we don't get from audio alone. While I don't agree that all meetings need to have video, I think that it's good especially for one-on-one boss-employee meetings, and for meetings that require high levels of engagement, like a daily standup.

I have a Logitech webcam that I got a few years ago. I should probably upgrade, but no one has complained. Honestly, your camera in your laptop/phone is fine for video conferencing.

KVM: Keyboard, Video, Mouse
I do a lot of work from the road, so I have gotten very used to operating on a single screen, with a laptop touchpad and keyboard. You can do it, but as I write this column, I'm at my desk with two large monitors, a keyboard and a mouse (and a touchpad in case the mouse goes out).

[Click on image for larger view.] Joey's home office setup.

At a bare minimum, I would recommend getting a keyboard and mouse. You can potentially hook your laptop to an HDMI TV if you want a second screen and you can't get a monitor in place.

Time Management, Kids and Working from Home
One of my colleagues, a program manager at Microsoft, has a somewhat ingenious home office setup. She has her laptop, monitor and desk all set up in a closet in her house. When her day is done, she simply closes the closet door and calls it a day. It's important to have a separate office space, so establish these boundaries.

As for kids being home from school, when I talked to my colleagues who have children, the common theme was that you kind of need to put your kids on a schedule to align to yours. This is going to be challenging but it is the new reality for the time being.

There are some benefits, though -- since you don't have a commute, your day can be a little longer if you need it to be or you can keep the same hours you do in the office. Either way, it's important to take breaks and get away from your computer. In fact, one of my favorite things about working remotely is the ability to take a break during down periods and go for a walk or a bike ride (if that's still legally permitted in your area). If you can't get outside, take 30 minutes to do some exercise that you can do in your residence. I don't have any scientific evidence for this, but oxygenated blood going to my brain always lets me think about work problems better than staring at a keyboard.

It's also important to have some social time with your workmates. I know people think of water-cooler and pre-meeting chatter as being nonproductive, but it can really be helpful to chat with teammates to counter the loneliness of working from home.

Understand Your VPN
One problem many companies are having right now is concurrency and bandwidth limits on their VPN appliances. Last week, Facebook's VPN IP address was banned from food delivery app DoorDash because so many remote users were trying to order food while connected to the Facebook corporate network.

I've seen anecdotal reports from friends that they've been having VPN capacity problems. I have a couple of recommendations here. If you are performing tasks that don't require you to be connected to VPN, disconnect to release that connection to someone who might need it.

Also, even though you are working from home, treat your VPN connection just like you're at work and assume all of that traffic is monitored. Don't be the person streaming Netflix and attracting the ire of your network admins.

This is a trying time for all of us, and it's unique in that the nearly the entire world is going through this together. Social distancing through remote work is difficult, but allows us to help prevent the spread of this virus and keep the population healthier. Who knows -- your organization may see the value in remote work and allow you to keep doing it after this is all done.

About the Author

Joseph D'Antoni is an Architect and SQL Server MVP with over a decade of experience working in both Fortune 500 and smaller firms. He is currently Principal Consultant for Denny Cherry and Associates Consulting. He holds a BS in Computer Information Systems from Louisiana Tech University and an MBA from North Carolina State University. Joey is the co-president of the Philadelphia SQL Server Users Group . He is a frequent speaker at PASS Summit, TechEd, Code Camps, and SQLSaturday events.

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