Rick on the Road

Lots of my colleagues know I’m the remote working girl and tip me off when they see a really great article, Web site or blog.

A colleague of mine pointed me to On the Road a few weeks back and it brought a smile to my face. Here was a guy doing exactly the sort of stuff many of us would love to do – travelling and working and using solar to power it all. OK the solar hasn’t worked that well so far but there is always next year…

Anyway Rick Hurst didn’t take much arm twisting and has kindly agreed to write a guest blog post on his experiences.

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My name is Rick Hurst and I’m a freelance web developer from Bristol, UK. My freelance work is a combination of on-site work at web design agencies and direct client projects which I work on from home, cafes or rented desk space. I work with graphic designers and other programmers, sometimes face to face and other times using tools such as skype, unfuddle and dropbox, to collaborate with people thousands of miles away. I also work as Online Operations Director for Kudos Business Technologies, an “officeless” business (selling LED lighting and other emerging technology) which is run almost entirely online, by distributed staff.

This summer I spent six weeks touring france in a VW bug with my wife and six year old son, working from campsites as I went, to keep existing clients happy and to earn money to justify taking such a long trip. This was a bit of an experiment, to see if it was workable and sustainable. I’ve always talked about how nice it is that, in theory, as long as I have a laptop and an internet connection I could do my job from just about anywhere, so this was an opportunity to test out that theory. We travelled about three and a half thousand miles in all – starting from Bristol, through the channel tunnel, down through western France and (briefly) over the border into northern Spain. We stayed on ten campsites, some as overnight stopovers – we tried not to spend more than a few hours driving on a single day – and a few extended stays when we found somewhere nice.

Our ridiculously impractical car was packed up with camping gear (mostly on the roof), and half a boot full of technology – my main laptop (an old apple macbook), a netbook (as backup, should something bad happen to the macbook), a 12 volt powerpack (the kind sold for jump starting cars), spare laptop battery, mains and 12 volt chargers. I also took a number of solar chargers to evaluate (Kudos are hoping to start selling solar products through www.lightplanet.co.uk), to see if it was possible to work without relying on mains electricity. The solar chargers, a “solar gorilla” and “power gorilla” combo, and another solar panel/ battery combo called a SolarSupra, both work on the basis that it can be difficult to charge or power a laptop directly from a small solar panel in europe, but the panels can be used to charge a battery pack, which you can then use to power/charge the laptop.

My experiments showed that these devices could be used to charge up a laptop for occasional use (i.e. enough juice to work for about an hour a day), but not to sustainably power a laptop for full working days. Doing that would require a more elaborate setup, with larger panels and one or more large leisure batteries. This would require me to give up the bug for a camper van, something which I would like to do one day, but don’t have the funds right now!

So reluctantly, I had to admit defeat on the solar charging and found myself mainly working from campsite bars where I could plug into the mains. Although most of the sites we went to had electric hook-up, there was a surcharge to pay if you used it. There was also a better choice of pitches if you didn’t need electricity – this was particularly important for us when we turned up in peak season without booking. The other reason to head to the bar to work was to use the campsite wifi. Whether by accident or design, it seems that campsite wifi reception rarely stretches further than the bar and terrace. Some campsites had free wifi, others you had to pay. The paid options varied from workable (i.e. unlimited use for a day/week/month for 6/10/20 euros), to virtually unworkable (6 euros for an hours use!). In addition to wifi, I also had a roaming data bundle with t-mobile – a 200megabyte/ 30 day deal for £40, which came in really handy for checking email on my phone, and the occasional bit of web browsing, either on the phone or with the phone tethered to the laptop. I was surprised to find that I had come nowhere near using up the data allowance when the credit expired. This was probably because I never got a reliable 3G signal, so I was relying on GPRS, which is painfully slow.

My experience of working from campsite bars varied – some bar staff were more than happy for me to plug in and work all day even though I only bought a few coffees, others didn’t seem so keen, although no-one actually stopped me from working. I had to put up with cheesy europop piped music, persistent flies and even flying glass at one point! But despite that, I did manage to work, and it was really nice to know that I was earning enough money to cover us for the campsite fees we were racking up.

The most difficult challenge turned out to be managing the work/ holiday balance. When we were stopping for only one or two nights it was difficult to settle into any work, and on the longer stays we had to work out which days, or part days I would be working and which I would be, ..err, holiday. I found it difficult to switch between work and holiday mode, would find myself stressing about work that I needed to do when an agreed non-work day fell at a crucial part of a project. Other times it worked fine – some of my work is maintenance work, where I have a list of things that need adding to or fixing on websites, and it was easy to dip into these bits and pieces of work when a convenient moment arose.

All in all I would say that it was a success, and would love to do the same again or attempt something longer term (my son’s schooling would be the main barrier to that). We’ve become expert campers, we explored some wonderful French villages and countryside, my son made loads of new friends, my wife has a suntan and learned some french, and i’m still in business! If we do the same again, I will make sure that we have at least one long stay at somewhere that I know I can work, and probably designate the rest of the time as holiday with “emergencies only” work. However, being freelance this would depend on the type, quantity and quality of work I have on at the time – I don’t always get to set the schedules! The trip was also only possible because my wife is freelance (TV research/production – less portable than web development) and the timing worked with her contracts, so hopefully that will work out again – or even provide an opportunity to try working from another country.

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Remote Worker Returns

So I’m back safe from my trip to Vienna for iPres 2010. I’d say safe and well but I seem to have had a cold since my return and have now lost my voice too! Travel – good for your mind, bad for your health?
😉

For those interested in digital preservation I’ve written a trip report on how the conference went: Moving out of the e-Fridge: iPres 2010.

For those not so interested in digital preservation but more interested in remote working I promised an update on how I got on (in response to The Remote Worker Abroad).

I have to say I’m not quite sure what I was so worried about. The flights were fine and I even managed to get myself a free upgrade on the way out there – I was travelling on BMI so nothing to write home about but still good to see what it’s like on the other side of the curtain nonetheless. I kept all my electrical equipment with me and apart from a bit of a palaver having to get everything out at the security desk this wasn’t a problem. iPres gave us huge conference bags so I was a bit worried they were going to stop me taking two pieces of hand luggage through on the way back but it was fine.

Both the conference and my hotel room had excellent wifi facilities with user-friendly security. I used both my laptop and iPod touch throughout the conference depending on which had any battery life. The conference only had extension leads in the main lecture theatre so when I attended sessions in the other lecture theatre I just had to use up battery power. The only thing I wish I’d had is another plug adapter as every night I had to make a decision on what needed charging the most!

Ringing a landline on Skype using an iPod touch

I managed to phone my home landline using Skype on the first night (you get one free Skype to landline call with your account) and after that I just rang my home computer. I rang my home once using my mobile, there were no problems connecting – I had rung them in advance of my trip to check it would be OK, and have been charged just over a £1 for this. If I did do a lot of travelling abroad I would look into a mobile roaming/international data package. From talking to people these vary wildly in price depending on which phone network you use and which country you are based in.

Apps wise I installed a Guide to Vienna app and also used Google Maps, National Rail Enquiries, TweetDeck and Facebook to keep myself sorted. The other apps I’ve got were just to distract me from the actual flying!

All in all a very successful trip! Enjoy the photos of Vienna!

Are public bodies gambling with Smart Working?

I’ve been following Don Cooke on Twitter on @enhanced_teams for a while now and he posts a lot of useful links on distributed/dispersed team working. This makes sense, he is the founder and co-owner of CAL, the smart working team specialists working with clients in the public and private sector to raise team performance and lower operating costs through the introduction of smarter works of working. They help organisations ask “how good are we as a team and could we be better?” The company practice what they preach and use ‘best of breed’ software and analytics tools internally. They have also produced a smarter-Working Costs CALculator which uses industry gathered data to use stats such as sickness absence and travel costs to show organisation could be saving if their staff started working remotely.

CAL has had worked with clients from the public sector, both within academia and local government, including Coventry University, Southampton Solent University (working on The Digital Enterprise Programme), Hampshire County Council, Sussex County Council and the city of Westminster. Don regularly talks to audiences on the effective use of remote and mobile technologies in today’s business world and he’s written a blog post for us asking Are public bodies gambling with Smart Working?

Don lives with his wife and four children in West Sussex and blogs at http://remote-aspect.blogspot.com/.

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Many public bodies already have or are considering the introduction of smarter working teams with the goal of reducing office and accommodation costs, even more so in the light of cuts, but are some organisations gambling on it being a success?

My organisation, CAL has been involved in Smarter working teams for over twenty years and have been involved in many successful projects to create the right team accommodation to support and encourage Smarter working. But many organisations take a chance at their success by not undertaking initial work to understand how the teams work and how this will change as the team becomes smarter about how they deliver services.

I want to look at what the crucial factors are in getting smarter working teams and how you can adopt these simple steps into your project or at your organisation.

What do you want to achieve?
Now this may sound a silly question, but very often different managers, departments or directors can want different things, so it is important that this is understood. For example a manager may just want to keep his team area as near as possible to what they have, as they see it as an attack on their team, to be resisted at the expense of others. A department may want to explore different ways of working, encourage part-time working or job share. A director is likely to be looking at the bottom line savings, which the board have agreed to the project based upon making these savings, so it’s all about ROI.

What do your teams think?
We often find that the team members have not been consulted and a feeling of ‘This is a stupid change that will result in no benefit to me and I will lose my desk!’ can set in. Of course this is never the aim of Smart working teams, but any organisation failing to engage fully with their teams will miss the major benefits and an opportunity to create new and dynamic teams, working more effectively.

Setting goals and objectives

We have lost count of the number meetings we have attend, where the first question is; why are we not seeing the savings we predicted from the introduction of smart working? This is usually followed by a catalogue of the above mistakes, where stakeholders have different ideas of what they thought they were buying and engagement at team level has been poorly communicated. The result is there are no real objectives or goals relevant and measurable. So always understand what you want to achieve and the goals that need to be set at every level, from director to team member. Also make sure you understand them all, not just the lowering of accommodation costs.

Measuring on going success
If you can’t measure it you can’t achieve it. The most frequently asked question we get is ‘How can you measure such an indefinable benefit, as Smart team working?’ The answer is looking at the benefits and aligning with costs, such as higher occupancy of a building for the full day, not just at the peaks of the day. Reduction in service delivery times, because teams are working dynamically and the old static team’s boundaries have been removed. Obviously these are just examples and each organisation will be different in how these are found. But by tracking the savings on-going you will start to see savings building month by month, then when the question is asked, ‘What have we saved?’ a comprehensive answer can be given.

Hopefully these pointers will help you avoid the pitfalls before you embark of your smart working journey. If you have any questions about smarter working practices just contact me.

VenueGen: The 3D virtual meeting platform

In the past I’ve talked quite a bit about virtual meetings. However at the moment the public sector is just not playing in the same field as the commercial sector when it comes to facilities and programmes. Last year I wrote about how the University of Bath virtual meeting room was underused and sadly needing a little TLC (Reviving Video Conferencing). However it’s likely that cuts in the sector will mean a significant reduction in travel for staff, which might possibly result in a real virtual meeting revival. The public sector will have to start thinking more like commercial companies and trying to make remote business and meetings work.

There are some interesting innovations in this area if you look around the corporate arena. One of these is VenueGen, a browser-based 3D immersive internet meeting platform. It’s almost like a cross between SecondLife and a virtual meeting, a 3D virtual meeting platform:

It’s a place where business colleagues meet, collaborate, share and present information in board rooms, training rooms, and meeting halls. Users simply select a meeting room, upload their content, and instantly enter a virtual room with directional voice where they can hear colleagues around the room! Engaged, active and immersed attendees communicate, make decisions, learn faster, and are more productive than with online alternatives. No more boring conference calls, no more travel, and no more expensive, complex video conference systems. VenueGen is “Business Ready”.

VenueGen have passed on a Q&A with their CEO David Gardner. The interview helps give a feeling for what VenueGen means for online meetings in general and the next generation of business use for Second Life concepts in the future.

1. Is VenueGen the death of the webinar?

David Gardner: Not necessarily. Different modalities are good for different uses. Well, the Internet certainly has revolutionized the way people consume media. The Internet is interactive, and so is the VenueGen virtual meetings platform. Virtual meetings are used for three things: everyday meetings, training, and events. Meetings and trainings are highly collaborative, and VenueGen provides a highly collaborative platform to meet this need, whereas webinars have been utilized largely for passive events, like watching TV. So, in short, if companies want Webinars where audiences are passive listeners, they can select a passive platform. If companies want a virtual meeting that encourages participation, then they can select an interactive platform. Our view is that webinars and events will become highly interactive – that’s where it’s all heading.

2. How do 3D meetings work? How is VenueGen different from other webconferencing programs?

David Gardner: VenueGen creates a TelePresence-like experience while running in your browser. No video equipment, no cameras, no special rooms – no big expense. In VenueGen, the online meeting’s hosts select one of our virtual venues and invite others to join, which is similar to joining a WebEx meeting, only you appear in a 3D environment as an avatar. You hear sound directionally and you can turn you head by dragging your mouse around to see others and to interact with content. It is very simple and easy to use.

3. Who needs virtual meetings?

David Gardner: Anyone meeting, collaborating or learning online needs VenueGen. It is extremely similar to the real-world experience of sharing a physical space together. Meeting hosts who want to create more engaging, personal and productive events online will try VenueGen and will never go back to flat 2D screen-sharing technology.

4. MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford already offer online education—there are even classes on iTunes. Will VenueGen “classrooms” with student & professor avatars holding discussions and writing on blackboards lead to a new kind of academic campus?

David Gardner: Yes. There is nothing in education as powerful as a skilled teacher facilitating a class full of engaged learners. As instructor-led distance learning continues to grow the 3D modality will become the standard. There’s tons of great research on this showing that learners immersed in a 3D environment show dramatic improvements in participation and retention over those using 2D online platforms. We currently run a pilot with Duke University.

5. Can folks without broadband still participate?

David Gardner: VenueGen’s core functionality requires minimal bandwidth because only highly optimized positioning data is being sent and received. However, some features of VenueGen such as real-time screen sharing may not work well in low bandwidth settings. That said, unlike any web conferencing tool on the market today, VenueGen has the ability to pre-distribute content to online attendees and then simply control that content running locally. This model requires almost no bandwidth and makes VenueGen a viable option where screen sharing-only tools cannot work.

6. Will your children even know what a webinar was?

David Gardner: They will probably call it television. In the not-so-distant future, the 3D web will be very commonplace. There are certain internet activities such as online learning, collaboration and social networking that will be performed almost exclusively in 3D. Other asynchronous and individual activities will remain 2D. Anything involving interacting in real-time with other people on the web that is not in 3D will start to look like the black and white television, or radio—not very appealing or interactive.

7. How does VenueGen change the playing field for unified communications?

David Gardner: Unified communications involves the convergence and integration of many meeting and communication modalities. 3D will be the least common denominator for UC because everyone can use it and other modalities such as VoIP, video feeds, chat, etc. can be brought directly into the 3D environment. Although 3D is only one of these modalities, I believe VenueGen will become the presentation layer or central HUB for UC platforms. 3D environments don’t required special hardware or cameras or lots of bandwidth like video applications do. This makes 3D the richest experience with the least barriers.

8. Second Life has exited the enterprise virtual meeting space. How does VenueGen see this as an opportunity?

David Gardner: SL leaving the enterprise space was not a surprise to anyone. SL was designed as a consumer’s virtual world and never really understood the needs of the enterprise. A company and technology has to focus like a laser to solve a business problem. SL never had that focus and unfortunately SL is the only 3D experience most enterprises ever piloted. I’d have to say that SL’s entry and exit of the enterprise space has done more to hurt the adoption of serious 3D modalities than anything to date. Second Life required customers to spend hours learning the platform – no one has time to do that today. Customers who experience VenueGen indicate a remarkably different experience. The platform was built with enterprise in mind. It takes a few minutes to get up and running. Users are immediately productive and running effective 3D meetings and training events.

9. When will you bring VenueGen to the iPod and Android?

The iPad and iPhone will be our first mobile deployments because we already have a version of our client 3D engine that runs on these. Eventually VenueGen will run on most mobile computing devices.

10. Is there anything else you would like to share?

David Gardner: All of the analysts have said something similar but Forrester said it best, “The Internet is on the verge of its next major evolution.” 3D is coming and as with all new technologies, early adopters will gain competitive advantage and differentiation. Anyone who has had the VenueGen experience understands what I’m saying and will never go back to using legacy web conferencing tools. Companies considering videoconferencing, spending hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, they find that their workforce is distributed and mobile and can’t physically get to these rooms. They might be better served by considering VenueGen as an online virtual meeting platform.

The Remote Worker Abroad

I used to be a well travelled girl. I’ve worked in quite a few foreign countries and have visited a fair few more. Three children and eight years down the line and travelling is very much a thing of my past. Add in a recently acquired fear of flying, concerns about the environment and childcare problems and it’s a recipe for a UK bound home worker. The furthest afield I’ve been in a long while is the Isle of Wight!!

However it looks like I didn’t come up with enough excuses 😉 because this time next week I’ll be in Vienna at the iPres conference. I’m presenting a paper on Approaches To Archiving Professional Blogs Hosted In The Cloud and a poster on Twitter Archiving Using Twapper Keeper.

So I’m a little scared, not just about the flying, finding the hotel and presenting at a big international conference, but about being clued up on the technologies I’ll need. Things have moved on significantly since my last work trip abroad and we are now expected to be in touch all the time; where ever we are. Not only that but I’ve talked the talk about mobile working and remoter remote working on this blog – I really should know what I’m doing!

So what do I need to take with me and what do I need to know?

My tower of technology

John Kirriemuir’s guest blog post on a Travelling Kit for a Remote Worker is a good place to start.

So far on my list I have:

  • A travel plug adaptor
  • My ipod touch
  • My laptop
  • A Flip camera – for possible videos
  • My phone (Nokia 5800 – not great but it has a camera)
  • A couple of memory sticks for my presentations and other stuff

I also want to add a few apps to my ipod touch that are good for currency and flight information. Obviously I’ll only be able to use these when I’m connected to the wifi.

Some questions…

  • Am I better off putting all my electrical equipment in my cargo-luggage or hand-luggage? Should I put half in each?
  • What happens if any of it gets stolen (as happened to Brian Kelly on his recent trip to Spain). I know I’m insured through work but what do I do while I’m there? How can I connect? Should I have some sort of laptop security advice with me?
  • What about wifi? Will I be able to connect as easily as I do in the UK? Is this any different in a foreign country?
  • What about wifi when I’m not working? I could try looking for a wifi hot spot. I actually wrote an article about this a while back, looks like any major fast food chain is my best bet. Oh great!
  • What about phone calls home? I’ve never used my phone abroad and I’m concerned about the charges. The O2 site has some information about travelling to Austria, but it’s a little tricky to know what it really means in pounds and pence. Maybe I’m better off buying a card to ring home? Another option is to take a head set and try Skyping home.

There’s probably a lot more I should be asking but if anyone does have any tips they’d like to share with me please do!

Amplifying Events from Santander

Brian Kelly is still over in Spain and today gave a keynote plenary talk on “Embedding and Sustaining University 2.0” at the University 2.0: the Extended University conference held at the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo.

Unfortunately due to the hour difference I missed most of the talk but once again the event amplification was interesting.

The event was streamed on UIMP-TV, the streaming channel for the event. Although you could hear Brian in the background there was a translator talking over the top. A little difficult to watch if you don’t speak Spanish!

Brian Kelly giving his talk at the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo - in UIMP-TV

For those of us watching the talk whose Spanish is sadly lacking (hey I got GCSE Spanish!) there was an Elluminate session just in English. I’ve used Elluminate several times before but this is the first time I’ve seen video used as well as slides. The video wasn’t particularly good quality but it gave a rough idea of how what the presenter was up to, which makes it feel a little more like you are there.

Brian Kelly giving his talk at the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo - in Elluminate

Once again there was lots of Twitter action on the #uimpuni20 hashtag and live blogging from Kirsty.

Brian’s slides are available from Slideshare and embedded below.

Passing on the Crown

Last Thursday Shirley Pickford, from Oakenholt in Flintshire was announced as the 2010 winner of The Microsoft Remote Worker Award at Remote Employment Remote Worker Awards held at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London.

James McCarthy from Microsoft and Paula Wynne from Remote Employment (right) celebrate with Shirley Pickford after she won The Microsoft Remote Worker Award.

Many of you will know that to my surprise I won this award in 2009. Winning the award has significantly improved the profile of my remote worker work and has helped me spread the word, the prizes weren’t bad either! 😉

Shirley is a very worthy successor. She is a university lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University (based in Cambridge and Chelmsford) but she never actually meets her students. Shirley’s desk is in Oakenholt, Flint, and she tutors undergraduates using the Internet. All the students are in work, so the course is designed to fit around their working lives. Shirley uses the flexibility of remote work to combine a challenging profession with family commitments, mirroring the experience of her students.

A typical working day for Shirley starts by greeting colleagues in an online forum. Morning coffee is enjoyed with a phone call to remote lecturers in Liverpool, Spain or Newry to discuss issues raised by students. There are video conferences with university staff based on campus. Shirley advises students in web-based discussions.

Remote working has been a particular advantage for Shirley and for her employers during a difficult year. Swine flu struck in the first weeks of the academic year and although Shirley needed a few days off work, she did not need to worry about passing it on to colleagues or students. She was also able to care for a sister frail with cancer who needed companionship by working from home. A major project to deliver new courses was largely uninterrupted by domestic events and student feedback at the end of the academic year has demonstrated success.

Shirley explains on the Remote Employment Web site: “I’ve enjoyed working remotely as a lecturer, keeping in touch with students through online discussions and using everything from blogs to wikis to publish journeys in learning. I can set up an office anywhere by opening my laptop. Everybody wins in managing projects – me, my students, colleagues and my employer.”

The Judges were impressed with the benefits remote working gives to both her and her employer, Anglia Ruskin University. Exploring the use of new technologies and social media to work with staff and students has increased Shirley’s productive work time. Remote lecturing has its rewards communicating and collaborating with people, regardless of geographical location. The support of Anglia Ruskin University has been crucial in developing an approach that is successful for Shirley and her students.

Shirley said: “It’s thrilling to gain recognition of developments in remote working for myself and for Anglia Ruskin University. I am so excited to be credited for the new innovative ways in which remote working contributes to my student’s well being and learning.

Congratulations to Shirley and hope you enjoy holding the crown as much as I did!