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What do I need to work from home due to coronavirus?

Guardian Technology 19 Mar 2020 08:00

What do I need to work at home during the coronavirus outbreak? At this rate, we might all be working from home for a year! How will the broadband providers cope? Do we need a plan B? FranklySwiss

Everyone will need their own customised solution, but there are two things to think about. First, will you be working at home for two weeks or four months or possibly forever? I share the view that Covid-19 could cause a permanent shift towards home working.

Second, who is paying for homeworking equipment and services: you or your employer?

If you’ll only be working at home for a short time, you can probably get away with not buying much new equipment or signing up to remote working services. If you’re in for the long haul, try to match or preferably beat the equipment you would normally use in the office. If you can’t afford a ThinkPad T490s (£1,213.71), for example, get as close to the specification as possible.

If you are paying for your own kit, you may want to take an economical approach. But if the company is insisting that you work from home, ask for ergonomic equipment. This often costs more, but is worth it in the long run.

One of the IT department’s jobs is to make choices for tens or even tens of thousands of employees. You may not like their choices – I usually don’t – but letting everybody pick their own collaborative software, messaging app or video conferencing system doesn’t work. Of course, this doesn’t prevent people from setting up unofficial groups on WhatsApp or Facebook.

The bad news is that you have to set and stick to office routines without the external pressure to turn up on time, take regular meal breaks, and keep to a reasonable sleep schedule. Every company has early birds and night owls, so their work times are likely to diverge. However, you must overlap during some agreed office hours when everyone is always available.

Temporary office

If you will only be working at home for a short time, you won’t need much in the way of extra equipment. If you have your own laptop, you will only need an external USB keyboard and mouse, and you may already have those. After that, you can think about a separate monitor, an external hard drive for backup purposes, and either a powered four-port USB hub or a docking station to connect them all together.

Buy a docking station if you can. If you plug your laptop and all the peripherals into a docking station, you only need to unplug a single cable from the laptop to be able to take it somewhere else. That makes it easy to get a change of scene by working in another room or in the garden.

Otherwise, the supreme law for working from home is thou shalt not lose thy work. Make hitting Ctrl-S (for save) a reflex action. Save files to your local hard drive and to an online drive (OneDrive is built into Windows 10), and back them up to an external hard drive or USB thumb drive. Even if you are saving your work on a company server or in an online office suite – such as Microsoft, Google or Zoho – you may need a local copy if your comms link goes down.

If you can set up a home office in a disused room then it’s a lot easier to get a set up that suits your work, whether it’s an ergonomically organised laptop on a riser or a multi-screen command and control centre.
If you can set up a home office in a disused room then it’s a lot easier to get a set up that suits your work, whether it’s an ergonomically organised laptop on a riser or a multi-screen command and control centre. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Having dedicated office space means you can have a proper desk, an adjustable office chair, one or more large monitors and a desktop PC that will deliver more power than a laptop for less cost. You might even be tempted to buy a standing desk or a “desk riser” such as the Yo Yo Desk 90 (British) or the Varidesk Pro Plus 36. Sit-Stand.com has these and many other models.

That answer didn’t cover video conferencing, which will be important for many people pushed out of their corporate nests. Even if it’s not essential for meetings, it’s useful for quick video chats with colleagues. This fosters camaraderie, especially if you start to feel lonely working on your own. It’s also easy to do, thanks to software such as Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, TeamViewer and more.

If you won’t shell out for a webcam, at least get a headset with a microphone. Gamers love them so there are all kinds of models available at reasonable prices. You can also use them to listen to music, thus eliminating background household and traffic noises.

The UK’s broadband should be able to cope with everyone working from home, but it’s always wise to have a plan B in the shape of a portable hotspot or similar, which may be 5G if it has reached your area by now.
The UK’s broadband should be able to cope with everyone working from home, but it’s always wise to have a plan B in the shape of a portable hotspot or similar, which may be 5G if it has reached your area by now. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Either way, your plan B should include an alternative device – a smartphone or tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard, or a spare laptop – and an alternative way of connecting to the office, even if it means using a hotspot while parked outside a local coffee shop. Sort out all the log-in and connection details and test it before you actually need it. You probably won’t be able to do much work without an internet connection.

Almost every operating system supports multiple users, so set up a separate account for work. Make this account look as much like your office PC as possible, with the same wallpaper and the same icons in much the same places. That way, you won’t be distracted by whatever games, social media or entertainment services you use when not working.

Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com

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