The Future is Now! – Take Your Tech, Stay in Touch

There’s no reason to be chained to a desk these days. From smartphones to iPads to netbooks to an entire category of laptops called “Thin-and-Light” devices, there are very few reasons to be pinned to a desktop computer these days, and while I don’t necessarily advocate ditching all of your desktops for laptops instead, (unless you want to and none of those reasons fit you) I do think you can find ways to work and play creatively while still getting out from behind your desk and experiencing some of the world around you.

With the right gear, you can take your reading, your schoolwork, your gaming, your office work, your personal or professional projects, your surfing, and even your entertainment on the go with you and experience all of it just about anywhere in the world you may happen to roam.

To that point, in our first The Future is Now! column, where we’ll look at some of the ways where the tech in our lives enables us to live better, achieve our dreams, or is just outright awesome, let’s discuss some of the reasons why you should (or maybe you shouldn’t) take some of those “working from home” days and spend them at your favorite coffee shop instead of in your home office, and how you can go about doing that. Let’s also take a look at some of the tech that can enable you to do it without your boss caring that “working remotely” is actually “working from art museum.”

  • The Argument for the Anchor

    Let’s get this out of the way first – there are plenty of reasons to have a good, solid, stay-in-one-place beefy desktop computer. Are you an avid PC gamer? The price/performance breakdown between gaming desktops and gaming laptops simply doesn’t make buying a gaming laptop worthwhile, especially considering most of them are heavy, bulky with large screens and loaded down with peripherals, and generally pretty expensive for not being very portable.

    Are you a movie editor or spend a lot of time encoding audio? You’ll probably benefit from a standing desktop with higher-speed optical drives, additional drive bays for drive storage or additional optical drives, and the higher-end processors that are available in desktops to do that audio and video encoding. You’ll also want the largest Ray Ban outlet possible display to work with, and while that’s not really a prohibiting factor when it comes to working with a desktop versus a laptop, you can’t very well lug that 24″ display to the coffee shop and set up there to work, can you? (I know you CAN, but it doesn’t mean you SHOULD. We’re trying to show some class here.)

    Alternatively, maybe you just like the idea of having a workstation that’s on all of the time, remotely accessible, and stays in one place. All perfectly valid arguments – especially the remotely accessible part. Remember, it’s worthwhile to have a good place to keep backups of anything you have on your laptop – if that laptop should go missing, you don’t want to lose your entire music collection or all the photos you’ve ever taken along with it, do you?

    Personally? I’m a cross-platform, semi-portable fiend. My main system is a custom-built desktop that I use for gaming, multimedia, and most of my general use working, writing, surfing and computing at home.

    Even so, you can be sure I usually don’t leave the house without my trusty MacBook Pro in my messenger bag if I need computing power on the go, and that’s whether I’m traveling across the country or I’m travelling across town. I even use my laptop when I’m at home when I want to run apps that I can’t use my desktop for while it’s in use – like full-screen podcast watching while I work on my desktop, for example.

    I haven’t replaced my desktop with a portable machine yet, and I don’t think I will – but when I’m across town or staying with family and I don’t have my laptop, I definitely feel naked – and you will do, once you get used to having computing power with you wherever you go!

  • The Case for Portability

    Now that we’ve established that there are some things that you just can’t replace a desktop computer with a laptop for, and now that we’ve established that you don’t have to go into a laptop buying decision with the assumption that you’ll replace your desktop (instead, I’m a huge advocate of a laptop purchase that compliments your desktop experience unless you’re sure you want to – and your use habits allow you to – use a laptop as your primary, everyday computer oakley sunglasses cheap in any location) let’s talk about some of the ways you can take your computing power with you when you’re ready to work from the coffee shop down the street, or when you really want to take a day trip but you want to make sure you’re still in reasonable touch with the office.

    This is really what it’s all about though – making sure you’re carrying the right tech to keep you in touch with the goings on at the office even if you’re not there. Even if you’ve decided to take a day and “work” from a folding chair on the beach and take an “inverse lunch,” (where you spend an hour or so on the phone and the rest of the day only sporadically in touch) you can still do it with the right gear, assuming your type of work allows you to be present digitally but not present mentally or physically. These kinds of tech-empowered “working days” are perfect for recharging the mental and emotional batteries.

    Full disclosure – much of my work centers around information services, so I can get a full day’s work done by keeping on top of my inbox, responding promptly to requests for information, attending conference calls, and managing projects and issues from in front of a computer screen. Internet access is pretty much all I need to get my work done remotely. So these tips aren’t terribly helpful for someone who actually turns out a specific product at the end of a workday, or who needs a ton of specific apps to get their jobs done.

  • The Right Tech for the Right Remote Workday

    Now then, I’m a big fan of “working from bed” if you can get away with it. That is, making use of my smartphone, my laptop, or my iPod Touch to make sure I’m logged in to my email (either via Webmail or directly connected to the mail server) or at least available to my colleagues at the office while I’m catching a couple extra hours of sleep. You can go all out and keep your laptop plugged in and right next to the bed for situations like this, but that’s never good for the whole “roll over, check your messages, go back to sleep” operation.

    For times like this, a smartphone configured to snag your company’s email is a perfect thing to keep on the bedside table. Whether it’s an office-issued Blackberry or your iPhone, it doesn’t really matter, but the important thing is to be able to tell at a glance whether you’re missing something important, and if you’re not, to turn it off and go back to what you were doing – preferably sleeping.

    I’ve even considered getting an iPad for this – an iPad combined with a remote desktop app can drop you into your corporate network pretty quickly and let you work as though you’re actually in the office if your company supports that kind of remote access. Since mine does, it’s a perfect solution for a quick hop into the company network, fire up Outlook via terminal server to make sure I’m not missing any important messages or meetings, and then log back off.

    I’m only being partially facetious about working from bed – I’ve had several days where I’m working from home and allow myself to take a nap or sleep in a couple of hours, just making sure that I don’t miss anything by checking mail from my phone, or taking a conference call where I don’t need to be a leader or super-active participant from my phone under my covers. Yes, it’s slacking, but it’s also using the tech you likely already own to make it as clear and apparent as possible that you’re engaged, aware, and involved, even if what you’re really doing is recharging or relaxing.

    Where the right tech can really help you is if you’ve decided to take in a museum, chaperone your kid’s field trip, or even head out for a picnic or a nice long walk during the day. As long as you have cheap oakleys cellular signal and a smartphone, you’re in touch to some degree, but let’s take it to the next level and go back to the topic of laptops. With a laptop or netbook, you can snag a WiFi signal from your coffee shop or the open hotspot next door and log in to check your work e-mail. You can even replace your home office with a nice table by the window in your favorite cafe, or sit outside if you like and you think your battery will last.

    Alternatively, if you don’t have WiFi signal or you don’t want to pay for what are sometimes fee-based hotspots, you can consider tethering your smartphone to your laptop for cellular access, buying a 3G or 4G modem to connect to your laptop, or investing in a cellular-based personal wifi “bubble” like Verizon’s MiFi or Sprint’s Overdrive.

    All of these solutions make sure that your laptop, netbook, iPad, or any other device that’s WiFi capable stays connected no matter where you are. So if you’re at the top of a mountain after a long hike, you can still upload a photo to your friends at Twitter to let them know you’re having a great time (as long as no one from your office follows you) and then subsequently check in with the office to make sure that you haven’t missed anything critical while you’re away.

    The point I’m trying to get to without using too many specific cases is that if you use your technology effectively and intelligently, you can stay in touch with the office – since let’s be honest, we’re all overworked, underpaid, and never get a chance to take the time off that we really want to or know that we and our families deserve – and be away from your desk at the same time. There’s no reason with all of the gear that’s on the market and that I know you already love (or else you wouldn’t be here).

  • The Caveats and The Disclaimer

    Now, let’s get this out of the way though – just because you can stay in touch with the office while you’re traveling doesn’t mean you should. Consider this your disclaimer, but nothing ruins a vacation than obsessing over what’s happening at the office while you’re away, and nothing ruins a good day off than dragging yourself into the office – even virtually – just because you know something’s going on.

    I look at technology like this to help you define the line between being “off work” and “working remotely” and then straddle that line as closely as possible and as much as you can honestly and openly get away with where you work. Don’t take an hour-long conference call while you’re “working remotely” and visiting a museum – step outside for that 5 minute check-in, but don’t drone on for an hour while you look at paintings, or while you should be paying attention to your family.

    And remember, this is to help you live your life, work more effectively, and be happier while you do it. Be smart, and don’t let it go too far – don’t let your technology weigh you down and hold you to your work as much as your work already probably does. Don’t let your tech be a way for your work and responsibilities to needle their way into your private life, let it be a way for your private life to needle its way into your office in ways that you entirely control and are comfortable with.

    Whether you’re at a corner cafe loading up on espresso all day and working busily, enjoying your change of scenery and doing a little people watching or you’re lounging in bed with an iPad working in between naps and horrible daytime programming, the gear is here to enable good, positive habits that help you stay on top of your responsibilities without being chained by them.

    Be smart, and don’t let it go too far – don’t let your technology weigh you down and hold you to your work as much as your work already probably does. Don’t let your tech be a way for your work and responsibilities to needle their way into your private life, let it be a way for your private life to needle its way into your office in ways that you entirely control and are comfortable with.

images in this post courtesy of flickr users Johan Larsson (Macbook Pro in bed, titled Apple-esque) and Felix Montino (Droid by Motorola, titled Motorola Milestone)

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Alan Henry

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