Hopefully by now you’ve gotten your “home office legs” and have settled into a semblance of normalcy. If you’ve not worked from home before on a regular basis, you probably had to gin up some quick fixes and stop-gap solutions early on into this creeping crisis, but now that we are a month in, some of those hacks are probably not holding up. Like last week, I’ll be recommending products with Amazon links but I do not receive any sort of compensation or consideration for recommending these products.
Workarounds for Home Office Challenges
- Need a better webcam? The popular webcams are still sold out everywhere so if you need something quickly, you might be able to use an “action cam” like a GoPro or Akaso plugged directly into your PC as a decent substitute. Keep in mind not all models have this capability; older models may require some extra software or firmware to work as a webcam. I’m using an Akaso EK7000 as my current webcam with a desk-mounted clamp and arm to position it. Bonus – it can be used as an action cam once normality resumes!
- Using your phone as your videoconferencing device? If you are solving the webcam issue by using your smart phone, you can position it better using an adjustable arm. It’s also great for keeping your phone handy, even when not being used as camera. If the arm is too bulky, you clip it to the top of your monitor (if it’s thin enough) with a clamp like this. Make sure you check the thickness of your monitor, and if it doesn’t have a bezel, know that the clip may obscure part of your screen or even damage the screen. Pad accordingly!
- WiFi signal not great? You can hard-wire your home office workstation without running cable by using Ethernet over AC devices like this one. Install is pretty easy, but keep in mind that electrical wiring in older and/or larger (+2500 sq/ft) houses may not be well suited to this use, depending on where the two endpoints are installed. With these types of devices, the higher-priced models equal better performance, so budget accordingly, and make sure you keep your receipts in case you have to return them.
- Where’s the dang charger? In our house, we have at least a dozen mobile devices, and never enough USB chargers. I fixed this by setting everyone up with magnetic cables. This way, the cables work for all devices, and with some strategically placed chargers and cables, everyone can be sure there is something nearby that they can use. Keep in mind that these are for charging only – they do not transmit data. The little magnetic bits will usually fit most devices, including things like Bluetooth headphones, but may not work with some cases or unusually placed USB ports.
- Videoconferencing background NSFW? A lot of us have set up to work in areas of our home that can create less-than-professional moments for videoconferencing. While I don’t have a gadget for creating a private office for you in your home, you can use a pop-up, chair-mounted screen to keep your background safe for work. A rolling garment rack and sheet will also work great, and can be set up and broken down quickly for repeated use. Bonus – it can be pressed into regular laundry-day usage when not helping you with your internet close-ups!
Image by thedarknut from Pixabay
In case you haven’t already figured it out, the pandemic isn’t going anywhere, and as infections and deaths continue to rise in the US, you can probably count on having to work from home for at least another month, possibly longer. If you’ve been thinking about your home office situation as temporary, it may benefit you (and whoever you are living with at the moment) to instead think of it as a worthwhile investment to improve your well being and productivity.
Equipping your home office
We are working at home specifically for health reasons, so we should not be ignoring other facets of our well being especially when it’s relatively easy to maintain. Here are some products that I am confident will improve your home office setup, especially in the ergonomics department. Normally, I wouldn’t hesitate to provide you Amazon links to these items, but I’m doing so now with the caveat that if you purchase anything from them that you spend at least a few minutes providing some feedback to them on treating their workers better.
Note: I don’t receive any compensation from any of the links I provide below.
- If you had a standing desk at work, or are looking to try one out, there are a lot of options out there, but if you’d rather not spend an arm and a leg, take a look at Autonomous.ai. I use the SmartDesk 2 Premium model all day long. Putting one together might take two people, but I love it, and it’s inexpensive enough that if you decide standing isn’t for you, it’s still a great sitting desk. Ikea sells a cheaper, hand-cranked version if you don’t mind applying elbow grease to move it up and down. If you’ve already got a desk that’s not going anywhere, but still want to give standing a try, have a look at something like a desktop version of the standing desk. Keep in mind that most traditional desks aren’t suited for modern day keyboard ergonomics to start, so these types of solutions, when in “sit mode,” raise your keyboard and mouse an additional inch, which may result in aggravating any existing discomfort or injuries.
- Thanks to mass adoption of computers in the work place and monitors continuing to become lighter, bigger and cheaper, monitor arms have become very popular and affordable. I’ve used a number of different models, but the Amazon Basics models are dependable, sturdy and priced modestly for their quality. Keep in mind that your monitors must have VESA-compatible mounting holes on the back for most monitor arms to work properly. Make sure you pay attention to the mounting requirements – most models require some sort of lip to clamp onto, or a hole through the desk itself, and make sure your actual desk construction can withstand the concentrated weight of the stand and monitor. Hollow or lightweight desks may bend or even crack from the force. You can get stands that use a heavy base instead of clamps or holes, but they don’t offer as much stability or flexibility in placement.
- If you are using a laptop and the built-in screen as your primary home office computer, you can (literally) elevate your whole computing experience by standing the laptop up on one of these devices. If you regularly move around, get a folding, portable one like this. Bringing your laptop screen closer to eye level is critical for proper ergonomics, but if you go this route, you should NOT be using the built-in keyboard and mouse, so make sure you account for that in your decision. See the next item for a solution to that problem.
- Most laptop keyboards and trackpads aren’t built for long-term use, at least for most normal-sized humans. The keys are typically smaller and spaced closer together, and trackpad will give you RSI if you rely on mousing at all throughout your day. Treat yourself to a full-sized keyboard and separate mouse. Logitech’s wireless entry-level combo is surprisingly affordable, and will leave you money to get a decent wrist-rest. I use a full-length model like this all day long, and you know how much time I spend at my keyboard.
- If you are using an older, smaller monitor, consider something newer and larger, especially if the bulk of your day is spent working on screen. The minimum I recommend is 20″ and it should have a resolution of at least 1920 X 1080. You don’t need to go 4K unless you have the eyes of a hawk or job functions that require that level of resolution, and buying something with a diagonal larger than 27″ may not work ergonomically with your home office setup, especially if space is at a premium. Not all monitors are created equal, and generally cheaper monitors may not be as crisp or as bright as you might want, so check the reviews carefully. Generally, my clients have been served well by Acers’ moderately priced monitors, like this 20″ model, but if your budget is more robust, the Dell Ultrasharp 24″ monitor is eye-poppingly gorgeous and highly recommended.
When discussing investments in your home office technology, I like to remind folks that equipping your home office should hold a similar level of consideration to that of choosing a mattress. You are going to be spending a lot of time on it, so why not spend accordingly?
Image by thedarknut from Pixabay
The majority of our clients are now in the midst of the third week of California’s shelter at home mandate. For the most part everyone seems to be settling into a semblance of routine, and our residential internet services seem to be holding up better than I expected – I’m happy to be wrong about my predictions in that regard. However, not all of you are comfortable or as productive as you would like to be. In case you haven’t heard this from someone else already, let me be the 38th person to reiterate: “It’s OK to be less productive than you were in the office.” However, let me tack on my own special slant: Take advantage of your new home office and specifically, one of its core technologies to regain some joy during these stressful times.
The overlooked benefits of videoconferencing
Though I find no small amount of professional satisfaction in solving your technology issues on a daily basis, a recent experience reminded me just how important and powerful something like videoconferencing can be to everyone, not just business professionals. One my older clients was struggling with getting a popular videoconferencing platform running on his PC. Once we had discovered where his webcam was (it had fallen down behind the desk but, fortunately, was still attached) and got it re-situated properly at his desk, I was delighted to discover why he was so desperate to get it working – he was scheduled to attend a Sunday dinner with his family. When he logged into the meeting, he was greeted with cheers and celebration from literally dozens of family members, arrayed on his screen like the opening credits of the Brady Bunch. He was so overwhelmed he completely forgot about me on the phone, and if there is ever a time when I am glad to be forgotten, it would be for moments like these.
The following day, while meeting with some fellow consultants and business owners for our monthly networking meeting (via videoconference, of course!), one of our members who works with clients primarily via videoconferencing shared how she has also been using that same platform to socialize with family and friends by playing a trivia game together, like you might at a bar. This was both ridiculously obvious and revelatory, and it occurred to all of us that our clients might be missing this overlooked usage of videoconferencing.
Obviously, if you aren’t the bill-payer for your work videconferencing account, please make sure it’s OK to use it for non-work related activities. If the account is shared, this may affect your co-workers ability to conduct business, or you might have an unexpected guest show up in your recreational meeting. Most services like Zoom, Join.Me and GotoMeeting offer free accounts if you need or want to keep it separate, but there are limitations in the free offerings, usually in meeting duration and number of people that can attend. That being said, the costs for a paid account are relatively modest, and once you get a taste for what’s possible, you may ask why you hadn’t done it sooner.
Thing you might consider trying over videoconferencing:
- Sunday Dinner – this one is surprisingly popular and actually pretty common, even before the pandemic. Set up a laptop at one end of the table, hopefully positioned so everyone can see and be seen. Turn up the volume and pass the mashed potatoes!
- Virtual Coffee/Lunch/Drinks – get together with your co-workers or clients, but here’s the catch: talk about anything except work!
- Virtual Exercise – my wife just did yoga with her friends over the weekend, and we also took a walk around our neighborhood while videoconferencing with a friend in San Diego.
- Take Music/Dance /Art Lessons – there are a ton of folks out there who make their living exclusively by teaching other via the internet. Why not spend a few hours each week learning something new!
- Go through your photos together – I know you’re thinking, “Ugh, virtual vacation slideshow? No thanks!” but how about spending some time sifting through family photos with distant relatives and sharing stories and memories that the photos evoke.
- Play a videogame together – if you haven’t played a game with or against someone via the internet, you are missing out on something really fun. It doesn’t have to be Fortnite or Call of Duty or something requiring the reflexes of a teenager – why not virtual Mahjong or Bridge or a 6-hour marathon of Dungeons & Dragons!
Keep in mind some of your less, tech-savvy family members or friends may be challenged the first time around, but it will be worth the effort in the end. Don’t let physical isolation and some solvable technology issues keep you from connecting with most important people in your life.
Image by thedarknut from Pixabay
With the governor declaring essentially a state-wide shutdown of traditional workspaces, almost all of you are transitioning to some form of remote operations, up to a full shutdown of your physical office spaces and sending all of your employees home to work. While I consider myself a work-at-home veteran – this will be my eighth year running C2 from a home office – I can definitely say two things: firstly, none of us in IT have ever seen anything like this (though I did write a plan for EY during the SARS epidemic), and secondly, the IT world is mostly ready for this, technology-wise. But that doesn’t mean everyone else was ready for the Tele-pocalypse.
Many of you will be working from home, long-term, for the first time in your professional lives.
Whether you are a principal, manager or staff, everyone will be facing many of the same challenges:
- Residential internet is not business-class internet. Some of you may not have broadband because you’ve never really needed it. Even if you have broadband, it’s shared with everyone in your neighborhood, all working, attending classes, or just trying to enjoy a little entertainment. This may result in poor VPN connectivity, spotty VOIP phone calls, unreliable remote access connections, and general internet slowness. I know the ISP’s are trying to address this, but I’m not sure how much urgency they are putting into their effort, at least at the leadership levels. If you’ve been relying on DSL or your phone’s hotspot, it’s time to check to see if broadband is available. Get at least 25MB down and 5MB up per person in the house hold.
- Residential-class WiFi may not be reliable enough for your work. Judging by how many calls I received even before the Tele-pocalypse hit, most residential WiFi is weak and unreliable. This will be bad now with the increased traffic, and possibly may get even worse if you live in high-density buildings like apartments. WiFi signals don’t abide walls, and if your neighbor decides to put in a high-powered WiFi router or mesh system, it could step all over your weaker Wifi, changing your normally reliable wireless network into a troubleshooter’s nightmare. If WiFi is your only option, try to sit closer to the router, or if you can, get wired with an Ethernet cable.
- Most of you don’t have good monitors or computers at home. Currently there is a bit of supply-chain issue inhibiting everyone from gearing up with quality technology, mostly due to the rush on store shelves of people anticipating the Tele-pocalypse, but also due to a long-standing tariff battle with China, the largest supplier of technology to the United States. Also, you may have no idea if what is available is what you actually need. If you are shopping, get a 24″ monitor (maybe 2 if you are used to using dual-screens), a comfortable, ergo-correct chair, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and a computer in the $400-600 range at minimum. Refurbs are OK as long as you get a warranty and it was made in the last 4 years. Don’t go any older.
- Using a home PC to remote into your office computer is disorienting if you’ve never done it before. It will take some time to acclimate, and whether you wanted to or not, you’ve now doubled the potential for technology issues, malware infections and what I affectionately call “general tech orneriness”. Stuff is going to stop working, or start behaving strangely, and it will slow you down. A coworker is not likely to be nearby to give you a hand, and IT may not call for several hours. You’ll get more comfortable as time goes on and you get familiar with remote technology quirks. IT will stamp out the big bugs. It may never get back to the old normal, but it will get better.
Image by thedarknut from Pixabay
As many of you might have guessed, C2 is drinking from a proverbial fire hose this week, and I know for a fact that just about all of my clients are worried about how this will impact their organizations. It’s still too early for me to have any real insights on how this pandemic will transform workplace technology, but you can be sure none of us will emerge unchanged.
What I’ve seen so far:
It’s quite apparent that our national data networks are going to be severely challenged by a widespread shifting of work load away from business districts. A great many of us are served by shared broadband architecture built around suburban grids and population densities from the 1990’s which haven’t been substantially upgraded since they were first built. Residential broadband was designed around raw download speeds and comparatively anemic upload speeds, which is perfect for Netflix and YouTube, but not as great for neighborhoods full of business folks trying to upload gigabytes of data and host videoconferences, on top of kids attending online classes. I’m certain no one thought what is happening now would ever happen on their data networks.
One positive thing I see this week is a lot of very conservative work environments being forced to consider the fact that their operations don’t necessarily require everyone cramming into a big box of glass and steel for 10 hours a day. Unfortunately, that change is going to come with a lot of pain, especially for companies that have relied on older infrastructure and put off upgrades for a rainy day, only to have to deal with trying to purchase and install technology during a national emergency. Not impossible (yet), but this like switching your business “difficulty setting” to “high”.
Last observation for this week: we’re already seeing a HUGE spike in phishing emails exploiting everyone’s insatiable appetite for information on the pandemic. Please exercise caution on every email, just as before. Don’t open attachments, don’t click links, and for goodness sake, if an attachment asks for you to log in to view it, stop, back away from the keyboard, and…go wash your hands. And delete that email.
Aside from a huge spike in personal hygiene, if there is any other glimmer of a silver lining from the Corona Virus pandemic, one of them is assuredly that a lot of employers are going to need to re-evaluate their telecommuting stances. After working for more than 20 years in corporate offices, some of which had reasonably flexible telecommuting policies, I have now been running C2 from the comfort and convenience of our home for over eight years and I can honestly say I don’t miss working in corporate office at all. That being said, jumping straight into becoming a full-time telecommuter is not just a matter of grabbing your laptop and making a bee-line for home.
It can’t be that hard, can it?
- I.T? You’re it! Sadly, unless you happen to live with an tech-savvy family member you’ll likely be the hands-on technician when things go wrong. As companies spread out, that lone office technician is going to be spending more time in the car and less time helping you, if corporate even lets them service home offices, and most can’t/won’t for a variety of reasons. You can be sure in a quarantine situation no one is going to be making house calls. Being a telecommuter means you will have to become familiar with and responsible for a lot of technology that you never had to worry about previously.
- Is your home internet up to snuff? While broadband has largely become readily available and mostly affordable in larger metropolitan areas, I still encounter plenty of residential neighborhoods, even here in Los Angeles, where the internet provider choices are slim, slow and expensive. Before you raise your hand to work from home, make sure your internet can handle it.
- Do you have space for an office? Just because you don’t have your own office at corporate doesn’t mean you can work long term at the dining room table at home. Even if you live alone you should try to keep your work and home environments separate for many reasons: noise, privacy, organization, and most of all, work-life balance. Make sure it’s close to the router if you can manage it, because…
- WiFi may not be enough. Though it probably works great for enjoying music or movies around the house, home WiFi is often sub-par compared to the reliability of office networks, especially if you’ll be using a VPN or a VOIP phone, or participating in video-conference calls. At minimum, you’ll want to be as close as possible to your WiFi router to guarantee a strong, reliable signal or even a direct Ethernet connection to eliminate the unpredictable nature of WiFi altogether.
- You’re going to need a better chair. Having been in numerous home offices, I can confidently say that most of you do not have the same quality office furniture as even the most humbly outfitted company office. That dining room chair with the worn-out seat cushion will put you in traction quicker than a car accident, especially if it’s paired with a makeshift desk built for a middle-schooler. I’m looking at you, Ikea. Pay attention to ergonomics – a sofa built for Netflix watching is going to wreck your back if you spend eight hours (or more) a day working from it.
- Is corporate actually ready to go virtual? Even if you check all the boxes off on this list, your company may not actually be ready to go virtual, especially if they are being forced into it. Deploying a large chunk of your workforce into the field requires some planning and investment into proper infrastructure and training, both for the workers, staff IT and the leadership of the company. Don’t be surprised if everything doesn’t work like it used to when you were all in the same building. If your company has only dabbled in telecommuting, going full virtual and staying at 100% productivity isn’t something that happens overnight, even for the most nimble
In case you haven’t already seen what Deepfakes are all about, here’s a relatively harmless and entertaining demonstration of what our dark future holds:
The deepfake technology first surfaced in 2017 and even at the time of its first appearance, nearly every pundit paying even minuscule amounts of attention predicted they would have significant political ramifications. Late last year, sophisticated deepfake videos made enough of an impact that legislators and business leaders both called for regulation of the technology.
Deepfake Videos Deployed in Indian Election Campaigns
Though it wasn’t the first politically motivated deepfake video, India has the dubious distinction of being one of the first countries to see a series of deepfake videos distributed by a political party as part of their official campaign. The videos, which feature the opposition party BJP president fluently criticizing the incumbent government in multiple languages he does not speak, went viral on WhatsApp, reaching as many as 15 million people. While party officials and the communications firm behind the videos describes them as “positive campaigns,” watchdogs and fact-checkers are alarmed to the point of dubbing it a growing crisis.
As we approach our own 2020 elections and the battle over “fake news” and “alternate facts” become pivotal to voters, it has become painfully obvious why everyone is raising red flags on this issue. Skillful and almost imperceptible image and audio manipulation have been around for decades now. Coupled with the lightning spread of information the internet provides, spreading fakes has become so commonplace that every picture and recording is doubted as a matter of course, leaving the average human with very unsure footing. Once video is undermined as a reliable record, we are literally left with only trusting what we see and experience in person, making our global worldview tragically smaller and provincial, which is the exact opposite of what technology was supposed to do in the first place.
Despite what Hollywood, Apple, Amazon and Google might want you to believe, accessing and securing our technology lives still takes more than scanning various body parts and shouting at inanimate objects. These fancy biometric gateways are still powered by the clumsy password mechanism that has been around for decades and will probably exist for a while longer. Despite much effort from the industry to innovate ourselves beyond this particular security mechanism, we’ve only managed to make it somewhat easier to keep track of the growing number of passwords we are required to maintain just to be a part of modern society.
Post-it notes won’t do anymore
Even though password management platforms like LastPass, 1Password and Dashlane have been around for several years now, the majority of my clients still manage their passwords manually, either via bits of sticky paper, a spreadsheet or a little black book. Even though very insecure, this was at least somewhat do-able when all you had to keep track of was a dozen or so passwords. According to a 2017 report written by password manager LastPass (full disclosure: C2 uses LastPass to manage passwords), the average business user has to keep track of nearly 200 passwords, and I am certain that this number has only grown over the intervening 3 years. Unless you are incredibly disciplined and well organized, managing that many passwords manually is just not practical. If you need to share these passwords with co-workers or family, that system just became wildly unmanageable and very insecure.
Password management platforms are designed to step in to replace the notes, spreadsheets and little black books, and they can add other perks as well. Most will provide browser plugins and mobile device apps that can, once unlocked, automatically enter tracked passwords into your websites and apps as needed, as well as tracking and updating your password database whenever one is changed. These same platforms will also see when you create new passwords and offer to save them, and some, like 1Password and Google will even warn you if you are using a known compromised password. Several of these systems can also be upgraded to allow you to safely and securely share passwords with other people.
While the above-mentioned platforms typically have a subscription fee, there are several no-cost alternatives that are still better than the analog equivalents. Google’s password management service is cloud-based and can help you retrieve passwords across multiple devices, as is Apple’s iCloud-powered Keychain. Firefox also has a password management function if you create a Firefox account.
Ironically, using any of these password management platforms does require yet another password, and on top of that, most will also require some form of 2-factor authorization on top of the complex password you should memorize and never write down. The advantage here is that you only have to keep track of a single password instead of 200+, which should allow you to use your brain for more important things like birthdays, anniversaries and where you put those dang car keys.
Most of my clients are surprised to learned that we spend a large percentage of our troubleshooting time on password issues, and within that particular category of issues, the majority of that time is spent on recovering or resetting lost passwords. They also worry that they are unusually bad at this aspect of their professional life, and are somewhat comforted to know that this is something that everyone, including C2, struggles with on a daily basis. Passwords are like the life insurance of technology usage – nobody wants it, but everyone needs it. I’ve yet to meet someone who was excited or pleased because they’ve been presented with a password prompt. It’s a chore, but you shouldn’t make it more work than it needs to be by leaving the management of it to a stack of sticky-notes, unsecured Excel spreadsheet or little black book that is safely tucked in a drawer of your desk, but unfortunately unreadable from your hotel room half way around the world.
Passwords aren’t going away any time soon
By now, you’ve probably realized that writing down, let alone memorizing passwords in today’s world is a losing proposition. Everything is internet connected, not just work technology – your doorbell, your fitness tracker, your thermostat, your car – everything has a password, and if you are doing it right, they all have unique, hard-to-guess passwords, right? Riiiight. Most of these types of services and devices rarely require you to enter the password, meaning you probably won’t remember them, or even realize they have a password that needs to be written down. But when it comes time to troubleshoot or access the service, you don’t want to be scrambling to find that password, or worse, wasting precious time resetting it.
Once you convince yourself that your current method of (barely) managing passwords isn’t going to be sustainable there is also the fear of letting someone else keep track of them for you. My clients’ biggest concern is, “What if my password management platform gets hacked?” which is a fair concern given that it seems like everyone and everything is getting hacked these days. There are no guarantees out there – hackers are clever and humans, as a rule, are careless enough that this combination results in security that is as flawed as we are. What I always tell my clients is that they don’t need to be perfectly secure – they just need to be more secure than the average person to improve their defenses significantly. I also remind them that they are more likely to be successfully hacked than a business whose primary mission is to protect your data. If there is one thing that criminals do not want to do is waste time chasing difficult marks. So make sure you’re not an easy target by upping your password game.
Next week – showing those passwords who’s boss
Image courtesy of Graphics Mouse from FreeDigitalPhotos.net
In my not so humble opinion, there is no lower form of life than those who take advantage of disasters and tragedy to spread misinformation, fear and hate, either for profit, political gain, or even worse, for their own entertainment. Sadly, the internet, as I have written about previously, is amazingly efficient at spreading information paired with the unfortunate inability to provide any differentiation between truth and lies. Ideally, this is how the internet is supposed to work – no one should have the ability to censor any of the information shared on the internet, but this double-edged sword cuts both ways.
Who can you trust for news?
The outbreak of the Corona Virus has dominated the news headlines lately, so it’s only natural to expect a lot of buzz in social media about the illness, and because the internet is a target-rich environment for anyone looking to spread misinformation, either for profit or general mayhem, naturally all sorts of crackpot miracle cures, conspiracy theories and racist stereotypes are finding audiences starved for information about the disease. It doesn’t help that the outbreak is happening in China, a nation with a history of other deadly viral outbreaks and a notorious lack of transparency, on top of having a bit of a human-rights image problem at the moment.
Unfortunately for us, most of the major social media outlets are already struggling to combat “fake news” and general distrust of scientific procedure and evidence on a wide variety of topics. While some have prevaricated on politics, most of them seem to have their heads on straight when it comes to medical matters, especially when misinformation can lead to significant health issues. Even though they have fact checking organizations publishing corrections, algorithms downgrading inaccurate posts, and moderators cracking down on pseudo-science discussion groups, plenty of misinformation continues to spread.
The “signal to noise” ratio on the internet is not getting any better, which only it makes it harder for those of us who are trying to make sure the information we receive not only confirms our beliefs, but is also backed by facts and scientific rigor. Here are a list of trusted organizations that can help us all separate fact from fiction online:
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net