What are the Best Tools for Telecommuting?


Telecommuting tools will vary by job, but there are a few things all telecommuters will need.

First of all, your telecommuting tools must include the right hardware.  At a minimum, this means a computer with internet access and a cell phone.  Your telecommuting tools should also include the right software.  In addition, you will need furniture, no matter where you work.  Finally, you will need the right skills for the job.

Keep reading to learn more about the telecommuting tools you will need to succeed!

Telecommuting Tools – Hardware

You will need some of the telecommuting tools listed below for any job.  Others are nice to have, and may increase your productivity when working.  Still others are job-specific for certain professionals.  Here are a few things to consider as you gather your telecommuting hardware.

Computer or Tablet

If you only need word processing and file organization, almost any computer will do.  Sometimes, you need a more powerful computer.  For example, a software engineer running a memory-intensive program needs a more powerful machine.  Also, certain applications work better on a PC versus a Mac.  Ask your boss or IT department before you invest in a computer!

While we are on the topic of computers, it might not hurt to have a spare laptop battery.  Make sure to fully charge the backup battery.  If you ever lose power, you can continue working for a few hours, and then switch batteries and keep going.  That way, you won’t miss out on an important meeting, or blow an important deadline.

If you use a USB mouse and keyboard, then you can also use a monitor stand.  This allows you to setup your monitor or laptop screen at the proper height for your eyes.  Depending on how hardcore your work is, you might consider a cooling pad so that your computer does not overheat!

Another item that you might need is a tablet.  For some jobs, like graphic design, you might want to draw freehand with a stylus, instead of using a mouse.  You might also want the flexibility of a smaller, lighter device when you travel.

Internet Access

You will also need internet access to keep in touch with your boss and coworkers.  Using email will require only the most basic internet connection.  However, videoconferencing software will require a faster internet speed.  Again, ask your boss or IT department, and upgrade your internet as needed.  Your coworkers will thank you!

Helpful Hint

Thinking about using videoconferencing software, such as Skype?  High-definition calls will require internet upload and download speeds of 1.2 Megabits per second.  If you want to add more people to a call, you will need faster speeds.  You can read more about Skype here.

Finally, have a backup plan in mind, if you ever lose internet access at home.  It is a good idea to have more than one fallback, just in case.

Example

For your first internet backup, you plan on going to the local cafe or coffee shop with internet access.

If that fails, you can call your friend, who also works remotely, and work at his house for a while.

If all else fails, you can go to a family member’s house.  Just make sure you have a key, and the password for the internet!

Cell Phone

You need a cell phone to make or take calls from home.  If you use your home landline, you might get business calls at strange hours.  Your employer may provide a cell phone, or you may need to buy your own.  Ask your boss about this!  Make sure that you have enough data and minutes for all of the calls you need to make.

Example

Imagine that you telecommute full-time in a customer service job.  You might be on the phone for 8 hours per day, 5 days per week.  This is 40 hours per week, or around 160 hours per month.  In that case, you need almost 10,000 minutes per month!  At that point, you should get a phone plan with unlimited minutes.

One other thing to consider is ergonomics.  Holding the phone all day can make your hands, arms, or neck tired and sore.

I would suggest getting a headset that lets you take calls without holding anything.  The cost of such a headset is probably less than you would pay for one session of physical therapy.

Helpful Hint

Are you an independent contractor?   If so, you can deduct the cost of your cell phone, data plan, and ergonomic tools on your taxes.  This applies if you use the tools for your job/business, and your boss does not pay for these expenses.  If you receive Form 1099 from your employer at year end, that makes you an independent contractor.  If you do not know for sure, just ask your boss or HR department!

Headset

As mentioned above, a headset can help to resolve ergonomic problems if you use the phone often.  It is also essential if your job requires video conference calls.  I would suggest a wireless headset with a rechargeable battery.  Then you can charge the headset when it is not in use.

You can also avoid spending a fortune on batteries.  In a pinch, you can plug in the power cord and use the headset indefinitely.  The only drawback: a short cord will keep you close to the computer.

USB Mouse

You may like the “touchpad” mouse on your laptop.  However, too much use can cause hand, wrist, or other pain.  A USB mouse with an ergonomic design might save you some pain and lost work time.  These can run from $30 to over $300.  I think you get what you pay for with an ergonomic mouse.

Your best bet is to try each mouse at Best Buy, if possible.  If not, ask friends and family if they know anyone who has the mouse.  You can then try it for a while before you buy it.

USB Keyboard

I would offer advice similar to the USB Mouse above.  These can run from $40 to over $600.  With a little research, you can find a good ergonomic keyboard.  This will mean less pain from typing in the long run.  Below, I have included a picture of my workstation:

Printer, Scanner, Copier, Fax

You may never need these if you telecommute all the time.  However, if you go into the office, you might need to have printed copies for an early meeting.  Also, scanning and emailing or faxing a sketch, flowchart, or mock-up that you drew by hand might make sense.

Webcam

Since most computers have a webcam built in, this might qualify as overkill.  However, if your computer’s webcam is low quality or broken, a separate webcam can save the day.  A separate webcam also gives you more control over the camera angle without sacrificing ergonomics.

Dedicated Microphone

A dedicated microphone is useful if you want crystal-clear audio quality on conference calls.  It can also help to give a more professional-sounding voice on client or customer calls.  In addition, a dedicated microphone is useful for recording high-quality audio or video for training purposes.

If you work as an online teacher or tutor, a dedicated microphone might be a good investment.  Your students will be able to hear you more easily, and you can record lessons with great audio.  A couple other interesting jobs that require good audio equipment: voice-over artist, YouTuber, and Podcaster!

USB Drive

There are several good reasons to buy a few USB drives.  If your work requires tons of memory, your computer might fill its memory and then slow down.  This is especially true if you work with lots of video in your job.  A USB drive gives you extra storage space, in addition to your computer’s available memory.

Another reason to have a USB drive is to store proprietary or sensitive information.  In this case, you should not store your data on the cloud.   Instead, keep your data close, and your enemies closer.  Stores like Best Buy have USB drives available.  If security is a concern, you can buy a USB drive with encryption to add an extra layer of protection.

USB Multiport

Since I have recommended so many hardware items, you might wonder how you will connect them all to your computer.  The answer is a USB Multiport!  This device will allow you to “split” one USB port on your computer into two, three, or more USB ports.  There are even USB multiports that split one USB port into 10 ports!

Some of these USB multiports double as charging hubs, so you might look for that capability as well.

Telecommuting Tools – Software

Now that you have the right hardware, you should think about the right software to go with it.  Most professionals will need at least some of these software tools.

Office Productivity Software

You will almost certainly need some type of software for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations.  Microsoft Office offers all of these (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint – ever heard of them?).

In addition, Office offers Access, which is a database creation and management program.  Access works well with Excel, and you may need it if you work in data analysis.  Microsoft VBA (Visual Basic Advanced) allows you to automate file and data management in Office programs.

If you dislike Microsoft, Google Docs has you covered for word processing and spreadsheets.  Simply sign in to your Google email account (Gmail) and you can use Google docs.  If you do not have a Gmail account, you can sign up for one here.

Video Conferencing Software

Skype is one of the most well-known solutions for video conferencing.  I use it all the time for tutoring and teaching online.  You can install Skype easily from their website.  I like it for several reasons.  First, you can use Skype with or without video (like a phone with video option!).

Also, you can mute your microphone to avoid static and background noise.  In addition, you can “instant message” other Skype users, whether you are in a call with them or not.  On top of that, you can use the message feature to send files in Skype.

Finally, Skype offers a helpful “screen sharing” feature.  This allows for troubleshooting between two call participants.  It also allows for real-time collaboration on a project that you or a coworker has on screen.

Slack is another collaboration tool, which you can use to make video calls.  Slack is compatible with Google Hangouts, so that you can call people on those services through Slack.

Anti-Virus Software

You need this if your company processes sensitive personal information, such as credit card or social security numbers.  If a hacker uses a virus to get remote access to your computer, he can copy the sensitive personal information.  Then, he can restore control to you, as if nothing ever happened.  You might never even know that he stole the information!

In addition to preventing identity theft and fraud, anti-virus software can prevent the loss of proprietary information.  Someone may want to learn about a company’s plans to leak or use the information.  The perfect target is an employee who takes poor cybersecurity measures.

Finally, some hackers who create viruses just want to watch the world burn.  They don’t care about money or information.  All they want to do is crash your computer!  Installing anti-virus software will help you to avoid this fate.

Cloud Storage Software

Storing your data “on the cloud” means that you are storing the data remotely, not on your computer.  There are many different companies that offer this service.

One example is DropBox, which allows you to store all kinds of files online.  Dropbox also allows you to give access to those files only to certain people.

A DropBox basic account is free, offering 2GB of storage space.  Paid accounts offer your more storage space.  To learn more, check out the Dropbox website.

Another example is Google Drive, discussed in more detail below.

Google Account

A google account means that you have access to several useful tools.  These include:

  • Gmail (Google email service)
  • Drive (Google cloud service)
  • Calendar (Schedule Meetings and Synchronize across time zones
  • Docs (Create and Edit documents, like resumes and reports, similar to Microsoft Word)
  • Sheets (Spreadsheets, similar to Microsoft Excel)
  • Slides (Slideshows, similar to Microsoft PowerPoint)
  • Photos (Store and Organize your photos)

There is another benefit to using a Google account and the associated services.  It means that you can save a lot of money on expensive private software solutions!  It also means that you can connect and collaborate easily with others who have a Google account.

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A VPN allows a company’s employees to communicate securely over a “company private network”.  This is especially important if you send sensitive information to your boss or colleagues.  This includes proprietary or customer information.  You may not need this for your job, but your boss will likely let you know.

Telecommuting Tools – Furniture

Now that you have your hardware and software set up, it’s time to style your office with the finest furniture!  Or, maybe you want to furnish your office on a budget.  Either way is fine – the following lists a few must-haves.

Desk or Table

Do you want to sit on the floor and type while hunched over your computer?  Me neither.  Before buying a desk or table, decide on whether you want to sit, stand, or both.

I would recommend a height adjustable desk.  That way, if you decide to always sit or always stand, you have no problem.  If you decide to mix it up, you have no problem!

I do not want to sound like an ergonomics weirdo.  However, I like you guys, so I want to make sure everyone is safe from injury.  First, make sure to adjust the desk to the proper height for your computer.

Next, your keyboard and mouse belong at elbow level when you hold your arms straight down.  Then, make sure that the top of your screen is around eye level, possibly a bit above eye level.  Ignore these tips at your peril!

Finally, don’t let anyone touch your setup!  A difference of an inch on any of these can cause severe pain.  This goes double for people who have had issues in the past.  Once you find the perfect setup, take pictures, take notes, and never lose them!

Filing Cabinet

A filing cabinet is helpful to have at your home office, so that you can store any printed documents.  You can store anything in there you want – staples, paper clips, scrap paper, or receipts.  I like to use these instead of keeping everything on my desk, since I enjoy a clean workspace.

Floor Mat

This only applies if you want to stand for part of the day.  I choose to stand all day at the computer, without shoes.  The floor is hard, so a floor mat helps to reduce the wear and tear on my feet.  If you get a yoga mat, it can double as a mat to stand on!

Chair

This only applies if you want to sit for part of the day.  Make sure that your chair is adjustable.  Sitting in the same position for hours, days, weeks, months, and years can take its toll on your body.

Lamp

Buy one or two, unless you want to bask only in the warm, blue glow of your computer screen.  Besides, you might want to read a printout or book the old-fashioned way – with the computer off!  Buy a lamp.  Use a light bulb.  Thomas Edison would be so proud.

Telecommuting Tools – Skills

At last, your hardware, software, and furniture are good to go.  Now, you need to make sure you have the skills for the task at hand!  I can’t help you to get these skills, but I can tell you a little about them.

Time Management

To me, this includes a few different things.  First of all, time management means making the most of your available time.  If your creativity peaks in the morning, do your creative work early.  Leave the mundane work of answering emails for the afternoon.

Also, time management means not wasting your available time.  You know your own “time-vices” better than I do.  Identify them and eliminate them!

Example

I gave up Facebook over a year ago, and I do not regret the decision at all.  In fact, when I think back on the time I wasted on Facebook, I cringe.  Honestly, truly, sincerely, give it up, along with anything else that does not add value to your life.

Finally, time management means knowing when to say “no”.  You must be prudent with regards to work.  You cannot say no to too many requests from your boss.  It might be better to renegotiate those.  On the other hand, you cannot review every file that a coworker produces, so know your limits.

In addition, you must often say “no” to people who think you are “free all day” because you telecommute.  Tell your unemployed friend that you can go to the movies tonight, or this weekend, not during your work hours.

Self-Discipline

As a telecommuter, you will not have a boss watching you all day.  You need to force yourself to start working, and see tasks through to the end without an external push.  Whenever I start to lose momentum, I take a break for brief exercise.  This could mean 25 pushups or jumping jacks.  It only takes a minute.  No need to hit the gym!

You can also grab a glass of water or a quick snack during a break.  The key is to segment your time.  Take a break at break time.  Work during work time.

Example

When I work, I set my phone alarm to go off every 15 minutes.  When it goes off, I spend a minute doing jumping jacks or pushups.  This way, I stay fresh and focused, and I only lose 4 minutes per hour.

Task Prioritization

To prioritize tasks, ask your boss and coworkers about the most important tasks and projects.  If you know their timelines, you can adjust your own to match.  You should also know the order of your tasks.  If you need Project A to complete Project B, then you know what you need to do first.

Communication

If you communicate well, you will know what your boss expects each day.  You can also let your boss know if you finish early.  This will win you major points, especially if you can get an early start on another project!  Speaking of which, you should communicate your accomplishments to your boss daily, or at least weekly.  This will increase your chance of getting a raise or promotion.

In addition, you should communicate well with coworkers.  Make a note of what works best with each person.  Some will respond best to phone calls, instant messages, or email.  Make sure to thank a coworker if they assist you with a task or project.  Also offer to help with their tasks.  This will build up rapport with your coworker, and make it easier to work together in the future.

Technical Support Skills

If there is a technology snafu, you might need to troubleshoot it yourself!  This could involve Googling potential solutions, and experimenting until you find something that works.  It could also involve contacting tech support at a software service provider and finding out how to solve your problem.

In either case, it helps to know the basics about computer and internet technologies.  You will find solutions more quickly.  You will also understand solutions when someone else explains them to you.  Finally, you will be able to easily share what you have learned with your colleagues.

Job-Specific

Software engineers need to know programming languages.  Actuaries need to know how to process data and make predictions.  Graphic designers need to know how to work with Photoshop or other software packages.

Creativity is another important skill for some jobs, especially those involving art or writing.  However, some jobs frown upon creativity – accounting comes to mind.

If you have your eye on a telecommuting job, check the list of requirements.  When you see a skill you do not have, learn it in your spare time!  If you see a skill you do have, improve on it.  Even a few hours a week will add up to a larger paycheck in the long term.

Recommendations

If you want to learn more about the tools I use as a telecommuter, you can check out my Resources page.

Final Thoughts on Telecommuting Tools

When searching for your first telecommuting job, learning the required skills should dominate your time.  Once you find a job, you can set up your home office with the right furniture.  After you become comfortable in the job, you can try different software and hardware to see what works best.

If you find a tool that works well, tell your boss and coworkers.  You could end up the star of the group if you save everyone time and effort every week!  I hope this will answer your questions about telecommuting tools.  If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below.

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