Ask LH: What Tools Should I Include In My Work-From-Home Toolkit?

Ask LH: What Tools Should I Include In My Work-From-Home Toolkit?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m going to start telecommuting next month. I’m looking forward to working from home, but I’m clueless about how to best collaborate with my team at the office. What tools can I use to work closely with them while I work from home? Sincerely, Free From The OfficePhoto by Logan Ignalis.

Dear Free From The Office,

Congratulations on convincing your boss to let you telecommute! Now that you’ve convinced your manager that you can be more productive when working remotely, it’s time to make good on that promise.

Luckily, working from home doesn’t mean you have to be isolated or out of touch with your colleagues at the office. With a few simple tools and the discipline to use them, your colleagues at the office may not even know you’re gone.

Before You Begin
The first thing to remember is that working from home is still working. It may not feel that way all the time, but make sure you have some space that you can go to that feels like “work”. Otherwise you’ll get “work” and “home” confused and it’ll be difficult to separate the two. Even if you don’t have room for a home office, cordon off a part of your desk for work, and make a point to “leave” it behind at the end of the day. Your sanity will thank you.

Also, make sure your colleagues at the office and your manager know how to get a hold of you at all times. Depending on the type of job you have, you may need to set boundaries with them so they know when you’re “in the office” versus “out for the day”. Communication is the most important part of successfully telecommuting.

The Tools
Most companies have standard utilities their remote or travelling employees use to work while on the road. Make sure to ask your IT department what they support before you and your team reinvent the wheel. For example, many companies use tools like WebEx, GoToMeeting or Adobe Acrobat Connect to share desktops, collaborate on documents, and video conference. If your company is already licensed for one of these tools, you can just leverage that.

If your company doesn’t have a standard for remote work, there are free tools that will do the same thing. You can always get some face time with your colleagues at the office by using Skype or Google Talk if you all have webcams, but if you don’t, using Google Talk to stay in touch with your coworkers via instant message is a great way to make sure you’re all on the same page.

If you need to collaborate on documents, Google Docs or Zoho Docs both offer easy ways to share documents, spreadsheets, or slideshows, and you can watch your coworkers review and make changes to them as they go. If you absolutely have to share screens with a coworker though, check out a conferencing service like previously mentioned or LogMeIn. Both services allow you to chat with your colleagues in the office while you walk them through your work.

The Disclipline
These tools are great, but it’s equally important to remember to make use of them and be proactive when communicating with your colleagues. After all, your manager trusts you to be productive and available while you work from home, so make sure to check in with them periodically and let them know how things are going. Don’t go dark and leave them wondering what you’re doing — by the time they call you to ask, they’ll already be irritated with you.

Make sure to draw the bright line between home and work when you’re telecommuting, but also err on the side of being available. If you need to hunker down and work, put up an away message in your IM client that says you’re busy and when you’ll be available again. Make sure to keep your calendar up to date so your colleagues can see when you’re free and when you’re in meetings. Be proactive and let your coworkers know when you’re around and when you’re busy so they don’t have to wonder.

In the end, collaboration tools are only part of the telecommuting picture. A lot of it has to do with dispelling the notion that working from home is the same as taking it easy, and keeping an open line of communication with the people at the office that need you.

If you can master the art of staying available while being productive, telecommuting can be the best way to get more done without the distractions of the office.


PS: We know a number of you also work from home or telecommute occasionally. What are some of your best suggestions for staying in touch with the office without sacrificing your productivity? Share your tips in the comments.


  • SOHO or business grade DSL or wireless broadband as backup Internet access is a good idea.

    Also, dress for work to help get your mindset right. If you are lounging around in your PJs you could easily slack off. Plus it won’t look good on the video conference :-p

  • Here we have a lot of remote workers, and we use a weird mix of vpn, public webmail, MS terminal server, and blackberry/iphone (for one database mobile interface, email, and bbm).

    In the next month or so I’m going to be gradually retiring those clients who still use the vpn and moving them to our new terminal server instead, to make everything simpler – much less client config that way.

    I’ve been looking for an excuse for ages to integrate an openfire server for IM, but everybody seems perfectly happy with mobile email and phonecalls.

    Relatedly: we have a logmein rescue account for remote tech support, whether on work or client computers. It was chosen in the end because it works fine for windows and mac and ran the best over slow connections, getting through firewalls, etc.

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