Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Outfit your home office for maximum productivity

August 24, 2013

Many of us have dreamed of having a home office, of having a commute measured in steps and not miles, or of emailing while dressed in pajamas or a favorite Hawaiian shirt. Thanks to modern gadgetry like virtual private networks and high-speed Internet, more of us are moving home. It’s a great deal for employers who save on office expenses and for the employee who saves on gas and frustration.

However, working from home raises some technological considerations. Many home-workers are able to simply set up shop in an unused bedroom, with a card table for a desk, a single laptop, and maybe a garage-sale printer.

But others of us (like yours truly) need a bit more. I have two computers running in my office, two printers, two monitors, two cell phones and occasionally some other stuff when I need it. All the computer equipment is networked together and it all exits the house through a gateway and a DSL phone line. In addition, there is supplemental lighting for my old, tired eyes. My home office definitely isn’t “stock.” It’s been heavily modified from its residential origins.

If your needs are similar to mine, let me offer you advice before you’re stranded in a space you can’t profitably use.

First, make sure your Internet connection is reliable and fast. A DSL (digital subscriber line) may be available for less money than a cable hookup, but most places don’t have DSL available. Some locations are moving from coaxial cable to fiber, which should be fast assuming you buy a plan that comes with high speed. But sometimes the real speed comes nowhere near the published speed. If you upload or download big files, you need to make sure your speeds are adequate. For equipment, you’ll need a gateway (often called a “router”) that hooks up to the cable or DSL, and you’ll need to put it where it’s easy to get to.

Then, how do you get all that speed from the gateway/router to your equipment? I prefer to use copper cable and Ethernet myself. WiFi isn’t fast enough, is too easily compromised, and if you’re working with sensitive materials, it might not be secure enough. I recommend running a single Ethernet cable to your office and then splitting it with a hub. That keeps down the number of cable runs.

Next is power. Home offices today don’t use as much electricity as they once did, but you may find yourself with greater needs than you anticipated. A big home office may need its own air conditioner, for example. And big offices just beg to be equipped with coffee makers, microwaves, small refrigerators and other niceties. One 15-ampere circuit, like the ones you often find in older homes, won’t be enough. You’ll also need to make sure you have several outlets. Some home offices make do with one outlet and a bunch of extension cords, but that’s not recommended.

Speaking of power, if you’re working on a laptop, an uninterruptible power supply may not be necessary, as the laptop will automatically fail over to its battery if the home power drops, but if you have a desktop unit, a UPS can be a great comfort. A small one won’t let you keep working for long, but it will let you methodically shut down or weather the periodic short power sags that often afflict residential neighborhoods. As a bonus, a UPS filters the line power so that spikes are less likely to blow out your computer’s circuit boards.

On to phones. In the old days, we would have a second phone line run into a home office. You can still do that, but nowadays most home-workers rely on cell phones. If you’re using a cell phone and DSL for your data, you’ll need some “pigtail” filters in addition to the gateway/router to keep the data frequencies and the voice frequencies apart. If you’re on cable, you’ll just need the gateway with no filters involved.

Last, there is security. If you’re working on sensitive matters, you should have a door to your office that locks, and your computer should be password-protected to keep curious guests out of your business and thieves out of your files. Keep computer gear away from windows, patio doors, and the like, where would-be housebreakers can see it. Use a laptop lock to secure it to a solid table or other unyielding point. Keep secondary storage like backups off-premises, in case of fire.

Your boss and IT administrators won’t be worrying about this for you at home. It’s up to you to protect both your equipment and your data.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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