Thanks to technological advancements over the past decade, starting a business in your home or maintaining a telecommuting relationship with an established small or mid-sized business has never been easier.
Broadband penetration in the U.S., for example, has made way for 'always on' e-mail and Web access in the home, and opened the doors for inexpensive Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls and videoconferencing via webcams.
Here are five essential technologies you need for the modern home office.
Reliable broadband Internet
Fast and reliable Internet access is one of the most important tools for a productive at-home worker, says Caroline Jones, a senior analyst at Gartner's Technology & Service Provider Research in the United Kingdom.
'The basics here would be secure, fixed broadband access which will give both access to the company network and applications via a VPN [Virtual Private Network], and also provide telephone contact, which is vital,' said Jones.
And while the popularity of wireless broadband networks in the home means you can work in more places – and un-tethered from the wall – it could pose as a security threat if not setup properly among telecommuters, advises Jones. 'Whilst it would be possible to use a wireless broadband solution, the potential security issues for a worker having relatively unrestricted access to company applications means that it is possible that a company would not support such a solution for someone who could just as easily use fixed access.
Laptop with docking station
A good quality mobile computer is another essential, but with a few accessories that can turn it into your full-time office computer, such as a full-screen monitor and wireless full-sized keyboard. 'It also makes far more sense to use a laptop with docking station and separate monitor, since the laptop can then be taken into the office for any meetings and upgrades necessary, but you also have the benefit of a more user-friendly screen,' Jones says.
Paul Edwards, who has co-authored 17 books with his wife, Sarah, including Home-Based Business for Dummies (Wiley), agrees a good computer and high-speed broadband connection is the 'heart' of a good home business today. 'But whether it's Windows or Mac, desktop or laptop, or perhaps a combination of the two with a docking station, all boils down to a matter of personal preference and work style' says Edwards.
'What we've found in one study, for instance, is having an exclusive area in the home works from a tax and organization standpoint' continues Edwards. 'But most people are integrators rather than segregators as they disperse their work throughout their home and throughout their day, with no discrete rooms or hours -- so for them, a notebook computer works well.'
Edwards says mobile computers and wireless communications means you 'can now work in the bleachers of a soccer stand, responding to eBay customers, if you like.' This is also possible with today's smartphones, such as BlackBerrys.
Communication tools -- phone, e-mail, IM
For those who spend a lot of time chatting with customers, clients or colleagues, a headset is a more comfortable (and ergonomic) choice compared to holding a handset up to one's ear -- with your neck. This is especially true for those who like to multitask, such as type on a computer while talking at the same time.
Acknowledging many telecommuters have young children, a 'mute button on the phone is a good idea, too,' adds Edwards.
The outgoing voicemail recording -- on a dedicated home office line -- should say the company's name instead of trying to balance both types of calls with one recording. You might opt to forward calls to a cell phone when you step away for a few minutes. On a related note, you should setup a business e-mail address, rather than use a personal one for work, and segregate these messages with custom folders in your e-mail program.
Jones says the phone, e-mail and instant messaging (IM) are all vital for a home worker today. 'You need to be able to maintain a ‘presence' both within your team and to any clients.' 'For example, IM can be used very effectively for brainstorming sessions between several colleagues and the results easily captured and sent to all.'
Edwards says webcams are an ideal and inexpensive purchase for face-to-face meetings.
For under $50 you can purchase a high-quality and color webcam with a built-in microphone for online video chats, though many choose to disable the integrated mic in favor of a headset, which usually offers better sounding audio (and with less echo).
Many popular IM programs -- such as AIM, Windows Live/MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and Skype -- all offer a video option along with text and audio chats.
Make sure you look professional when conducting online video chats with clients or customers. Yes, you can tell if you haven't shaved in three days or that you're wearing a stained t-shirt or baseball cap. Also be aware your messy office might be in plain sight, so clean up ahead of time.
Fax, printer, copier
Multipurpose home office products -- such as an all-in-one printer, scanner, copier, and sometimes a fax machine -- can be good space-saving technology. They're also a more affordable pick as it would cost more to purchase the items individually (same goes for consumables, such as ink and paper). It might also be less hassle for driver installation since it's only one disc (or download) instead of four, from potentially four different manufacturers.
'That said, individual products tend to do a better job on their own, and if one of them goes down they're not all down,' cautions Edwards.
And some tips…
When asked to share some at-home productivity tips, Edwards says it's much easier to organize everything when it's digital. 'Reduce the amount of paper you have -- digitize everything you possible can – as it's easier to organize and search and doesn't require the same level of maintenance as paper.'
For telecommuters, Jones says in order to be productive at home one should have: clear targets and objectives ('they and their boss know exactly what is expected of them and how their productivity is going to be measured'); regular phone contact with colleagues and occasional visits to the office for meetings and training; and access to collaboration tools such as NetMeeting to resolve complex issues and instant messaging for brainstorming.
Finally, a word to those whose employees want to telecommute: 'Managing remote workers is a real art, and not one to be taken lightly – i.e. without training -- since getting it wrong can damage morale and productivity and also cost a company dearly' advises Jones.