Home working, IT Hints and Tips

Published: | Updated: | by Julian Knight Reading time ~9 min.
📖 Posts | 📎 IT | 🔖 Home Working

The COVID-19 crisis has meant many more people working from home. From long experience with this kind of working, here are some hints and tips to help.

This is taken from an article I wrote for work. Some of it is a little Microsoft-centric I’m afraid but most of it is generally applicable.

I really hope you find something useful in here. If you have other ideas, hints and tips, please do share them in the comments.

Non-IT πŸ”—︎

First let’s say that working from home is great for some and horrible for others. There is no right or wrong. Here are a few thoughts about it in general and some ideas, especially for those people who don’t work well when isolated.

  • You don’t have to be alone!

    The many IT tools for social interaction can be a real distraction but in this case, they can be a boon. Find other people who also need more interaction and use social media tools or video conferencing to keep in touch.

    Maybe try to find a friend or family member (or household) that would be prepared to sometimes share their evening meal time with you and arrange to have screens at your respective tables so that you can eat “together”. Something like Skype is ideal for that.

  • Set boundaries and rhythms.

    Most people really need some structure to life and you can easily loose sight of this when working from home. Set your own boundaries and create a rhythm to your work life. It may not need to be as rigid as working in an office (which is nice) but consider some of these:

    • Have your own private “dress code” that reminds you you are working
    • Try to have some set times to get up and stretch or exercise
    • Work, play, socialise. You need all three. Balance your time accordingly.

    You also need to set boundaries with other people. Children especially but even pets! Make it clear when you are working and when you are not. Consider having some kind of signal (a note, flag, certain cloths, anything really) that shows you are working and that people (and pets) should not be disturbing you.

    If younger children are around however, also consider their view of the world. They will not understand you having to work solidly for hours on end. If your job allows it, consider breaking work up more into 1 hour slots for example and spending some time with them in-between.

Now, onto more IT related matters.

Wi-Fi πŸ”—︎

  • Get a reliable connection - Wi-Fi signals drop off quite rapidly, especially with cheaper home routers. You may also experience interference from microwaves, cordless phones, baby monitors, and neighbours Wi-Fi. All of these may slow down your connection.Β 
  • If you know how and have a router that supports it, try to use a 5ghz Wi-Fi connection. It may have less interference, and can be faster. However, it will have less range. If you need the internet to pass through several walls / doors, then 2.4ghz Wi-Fi may be better.
  • If you have a poor signal from your preferred working position, try moving the laptop a couple of CM in either direction, reflections from walls can sometimes reduce or enhance signals. Try to minimise obstructions between your working area and the Wi-Fi aerials.
  • Getting the best from your Wi-Fi can be a bit of an art, especially if you are trying to make it reach the whole house. Some routers support a “mesh” arrangement using additional devices, if so that is worth investing in if you are having difficulties in certain areas. Generally recommended to stay away from Wi-Fi “Repeaters” or “Range Extenders” as these sometimes do not work reliably, if you already have one though, by all means try it.
  • If you cannot use wired connections and are having ongoing problems with Wi-Fi, consider investing in a dedicated “Access Point” and turn off the Wi-Fi on your router. AP’s such as those from Ubituiti’s Unify rangeΒ (there are plenty of others) will always provide a better signal than one built into a domestic router.

Alternatives to Wi-Fi πŸ”—︎

If you cannot get a good and reliable Wi-Fi signal:

  • You can plug into your router using a wired connection if your work area is not too far away - that’s what the little network dongle was for when they gave you your laptop. You may find this better than Wi-Fi.Β 
  • If you have a fixed home office desk, you might also consider investing in a USB Dock. This will give you a network connection and sockets to plug into external monitors. If you have a USB-C capable laptop, try to get a USB-C dock but the older (and possibly cheaper) USB docks will also work.
  • Powerline networking is also useful if you want a wired connection but cannot be situated near your router. For about Β£40, you can create a connection to anywhere you have a plug socket. You will need a pair of units, one of which must be near your router. You will need 2 network cables (check if the Powerline devices come with them). Again, you will need the network dongle for your laptop or a USB Dock.

Other Network Considerations πŸ”—︎

  • You may well have other people, including children, around at home and it is all too easy for them to absorb a lot of network bandwidth leaving you with a slow and unreliable connection, especially for conference calls. It is sensible to set early ground-rules. There may be times you need people to avoid Netflix in HD and Skype or intensive online games.
  • Remember that most home broadband connections are asynchronous. That is to say that you have a higher download (into the house) speed than upload (out of the house). If a document took 2 minutes to download, it may take several times that to send back to the servers when you save it. Generally, you don’t have to think about that except if you are in a hurry to save something, grab the laptop and go somewhere. It is possible to disconnect before the updated document has been fully synchronised back to the servers.
  • Saving to SharePoint may be quicker than saving to a shared drive since the data doesn’t have to go via the central servers and then back to the Internet, it goes direct to Microsoft’s cloud servers. Also, don’t forget that, for quick and simple edits, you may be able to do this in the browser which saves having to synchronise everything.

General Hints and Tips πŸ”—︎

  • Reboot or shut-down from time-to-time. Always reboot as soon as feasible when asked to.
  • If your laptop seems to be running slowly, try closing some applications or browser tabs/windows. Possibly try rebooting. Especially be mindful if viewing/editing large, complex spreadsheets.
  • Chromium-based browsers (new Edge, Brave, Vivaldi, Chrome, etc) are currently best for the majority of sites. Only use Internet Explorer (IE) if you really need to (for a legacy app).
  • Make use of browser shortcuts and bookmarks. Try creating some bookmark folders for a project or for common files or locations. It can save a lot of time.
  • If Microsoft Outlook is being problematic, you can probably access your email via the browser.
  • If you can, set aside space and a desk with a decent chair in a room apart from the rest of your household, you will find working from home a lot easier.
  • If you cannot set aside a separate room, consider having some kind of signal (a note or light maybe?) that lets people know that you are working and shouldn’t be disturbed.
  • Be realistic about other family members expectations, especially children. You will probably need to be more flexible about work periods. Consider setting aside some time each hour or two to spend with younger children.

Collaborative working tips πŸ”—︎

  • There are many collaborative working tools available. Many organisations will probably have some tools already available for you.
  • If you are an independent worker, you may need to use what your customers use or find something for yourself.
  • Google G-Suite is easy to setup and good for small organisations. Larger organisations will gain benefit from Microsoft Office 365 with Teams, Yammer, Exchange and SharePoint amongst other powerful tools
  • Decide what features are important to you and how much you can afford to pay. Then try a few tools, making sure that you test the features you’ve decided are important.

Remote Conferencing πŸ”—︎

When working remotely, many people will have to spend hours on conference/video calls.

  • Use a good headset. A good headset ensures good sound for other listeners by eliminating background noise. It protects the wearer’s hearing by keeping to sound levels appropriate for long-term use. It covers both ears which allows your brain to process the sounds in both halves which reduces fatigue and increases comprehension.

  • Do not use your laptop’s microphone and speakers. These will cause noise in the meeting, may cause feedback and will be distracting and tiring for everyone.

  • Do use video, at least to begin with and with new people. We still need to see each other. Many people don’t like seeing themselves on video but remember this is for other people, not for you.

  • When using video, make sure:Β 

    • The backdrop is as plain as possible – this is easier for other people
    • There is never movement behind you – this is distracting to other attendees and increases bandwidth use significantly
    • There isn’t an exposed window behind you - which puts your face in shadow.
  • Try to pay attention and not be distracted by emails or other work. If it is worth having a meeting, it should be worth attention. If not possibly reconsider whether the meeting or your attendance is necessary.

  • Set expectations with other family members who may be at home. Consider having a note on the door if you are in a separate room.

  • If/when your meeting audio and video starts to break up or stutter, consider turning off your video. You can also turn off incoming video. Also let others on the meeting know, they may wish to do the same.

  • When sharing content or a screen/window from a laptop, this uses quite a lot of bandwidth. You may need to turn off video to compensate.Β 

  • Sharing an individual application window takes less bandwidth than sharing a whole screen.

  • Try to start meetings 5 minutes early. This gives time for everyone to get their equipment working. Better still, start 10 minutes early and give people a few minutes to chat and socialise.

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