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How to Adapt to a Virtual Workplace

Virtual Workplace Tools
A good laptop and headset can help you turn a bench at the beach into your virtual workplace. Just don't get sand in your keyboard!
A good laptop and headset can help you turn a bench at the beach into your virtual workplace. Just don't get sand in your keyboard!

There are a few essential things you'll need to set up your virtual workplace. Start by selecting the physical space itself. You could work in a coffee shop, on your porch or even in bed. To make your teleworking a success, though, be sure to select a place where you'll be comfortable, productive and free from distractions throughout your workday. Once you have your space picked out, it's time to set up the tools you need for the job.

The two most essential components in your virtual workplace are your computer and your Internet connection. These components create the command center for your job: It's where you can send and receive data and keep in touch with your co-workers. If the work itself also requires the computer and Internet, such as for researching or computer programming, it's essential that you have the hardware, software and network speed necessary to maximize your efficiency on the job. Your employer might provide the computer for you and might even pay for your Internet connection, too. If not, you can make these purchases and deduct the expenses on your income tax forms.

While a computer and Internet create the command center for your virtual workplace, you shouldn't be without a phone. Even after decades of innovation, the telephone is still one of the most common ways for a teleworker to keep in touch with the office. Rather than a landline telephone tethered to a wall in your house, though, you'll probably want to use a mobile phone or "soft phone" software on your computer. Your employer may ask you to call in regularly, or to be part of conference calls where several callers dial into a single number and have a meeting by phone.

Phones may be paired with other technology for more productive conference calls. For example, you may have video conferences in which callers use webcams for video interaction. Also, you may have software that lets you share your screen with other callers, allowing you to show them a presentation or demonstrate how something works. In some cases, you can even allow other callers to interact with your screen remotely from their own computers.

From here, the tools you'll use will vary depending on the tools and corporate culture of your employer. E-mail might be your most common means of exchanging messages when you're not on the phone, and it may be paired with a shared calendar system that's useful for scheduling meetings. Your employer might also have chat rooms, instant messengers, or even 3-D virtual environments like Second Life. For example, Ken VanDine, Ubuntu Desktop Integration Engineer with Canonical, uses Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to keep in touch with his co-workers in real time throughout the day [source: VanDine].

From your virtual workplace, you'll need to be ready to collaborate with co-workers on projects. There's a wide range of collaboration software tools your employer might ask you to use. The following are some common types of collaboration software:

  • A content management system (CMS) is a database for organizing documents and other files, sometimes ensuring that only one person can edit a file at a time. The CMS tracks information about who edited a file and when, and it can tell you who currently has the file checked out or open for editing. Examples include Web content management systems Drupal and Joomla, and document management system KnowledgeTree.
  • A version control system (also called a revision control system) is similar to a CMS, but it's designed so that multiple people can "check out" and edit the same files at the same time. Used mostly by computer programmers, version control systems let you merge your changes with others' to the same text-based file. You can also compare two edits of the same file side-by-side, line-by-line to see where changes were made. Examples include CVS, Subversion and Mercurial.
  • A wiki is a simplified version of a CMS limited to the proprietary markup language and Web format of the wiki software. This author has used wikis both as a public Web resource for customer documentation and as a private intranet resource to share confidential information with co-workers. Examples include MediaWiki and Confluence.
  • Collaborative platforms focus not only on collaboration between users, but also on reusing the same content across several different media such as Web sites, CMSs, wikis, messaging programs, search engines and blogs. Examples include Novell GroupWise, Microsoft SharePoint and Google Apps.