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Trouble With Telecommuting? Technology May Be to Blame
 

Sure, working remotely requires extra effort for employees to feel connected. But there are plenty of apps and gadgets to help you do it.

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I've worked remotely for more than 12 years. I know I can work anywhere: at a coffee-shop, on a houseboat in Miami (as long as there's a good 3G connection), or in a co-working facility like NextSpace. All I need, other than Wi-Fi or 3G, is a reliable laptop with a webcam. For me, an office is an added luxury. It's where I keep my own coffeemaker and a few paper documents.

That's why I've been so interested in the debate over telecommuting, a practice now banned at Yahoo and Best Buy. Contrary to the prevailing viewpoint, I understand why these companies are trying to reduce the time employees work from a remote location. They want to create a close-knit community again. I get that.

The question that comes to my mind, though, is: Why can't they figure out how to do this with modern technology? In some ways, a failed remote worker policy speaks to a different problem: Your technology has failed you. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Tools of the Trade

In order for remote workers to feel like part of the team, you need a videoconferencing platform that actually works--something like Google Hangout. Everyone has a webcam on their laptop these days. Whatever you use should be a one- or two-click process: You start a "room" and others join. iMeet is another good option.

If iMeet or a Google Hangout clone are not sufficient, there's another option. The Beam telepresence bot can move around the office for you, speaking at meetings and engaging in conversations. There's something to be said for a physical presence at meetings and on teams, but the Beam bot accomplishes the main goal: better communication through words and gestures for better understanding.

Some might argue a remote worker will never be as engaged with colleagues as someone who's in the office. Books like Alone Together by Sherry Tuckle reinforce the idea that networking online instead of face to face "diminishes" us as humans, and maybe that's true. But there's also a widespread view that social networking--which includes business-oriented tools like Yammer and BranchOut--encourage better connectedness. In my workday, I'll have a running chat session going in Facebook, Gmail, or other platform that rivals, and sometimes beats, an in-person meeting.

Other Tricks for Staying Connected

I become even more productive with good mobile gadgets: I've been testing a Plantronics Voyager Legend headset that picks up my voice even in a crowded room. And, I use the Logitech Anywhere Mouse MX that works reliably on any surface, including a smudged counter at a restaurant. (A better alternative to a laptop trackpad.) I use cloud services like Freshbooks.com (for accounting) and Dropbox (for files).

When I need more social interactions, one of my favorite tools is SproutSocial.com. I keep Gmail and this social networking aggregator open at all times. I can post questions, links to my articles, and interact with other users in a way that seems as good or better than any office environment. These tools are not just handy for remote office work; they are my office.

What do you use to stay connected when you're working remotely?

IMAGE: rlopex/Flickr
Last updated: Apr 4, 2013

JOHN BRANDON is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.
@jmbrandonbb




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