Home office helpers
Congratulations—you’re working from home! Now you just have to actually get to work. In the home office environment that isn’t always easy. While your employer has probably set you up with a phone and laptop, VPN access, and whatever software you need to actually get your job done, they might not have thought through how exactly you’re supposed to keep in touch with co-workers, collaborate on projects, and steer clear of distractions. Here are 10 apps, programs, and web services that can help to fill in the gaps.
As close to a standard for offsite communications as you’ll find, Skype has evolved from a cheap way to make international phone calls into an essential method for keeping in touch with just about everyone. Whether you need to dash off a quick text-based note, set up an audio conference call, or need a full one-on-one videoconference with a colleague, Skype makes it easy for both sides of the equation.
Free (international calls extra); Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry
Not everyone is a Skype user, but most folks tend to use at least one instant messaging tool from time to time, even if it’s something as unavoidable as Facebook’s chat system. Trillian takes a half-dozen IM tools and consolidates them under one umbrella, so you can use a single tool to communicate over Yahoo Instant Messenger with one colleague, Google Talk with another, and MSN Messenger with a third—all at the same time.
Free to $20/year; Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, BlackBerry, web
The flipside of Skype, you can use Google+ Hangouts as a straight one-on-one communications tool (with voice, video, or IM-style chats), or turn to what is arguably Hangouts’ most killer feature: Hangouts On Air, which you can use to broadcast your own webcast, homegrown TV show, or just a live feed of what’s going on in your home office that day.
Free (international calls extra); web, iOS, Android, Chrome
For the uninitiated, the Pomodoro technique is a simple productivity hack that encourages you to work in 25-minute bursts with a 5-minute break in between them. After four of these “pomodoros,” you get a longer break of 15 or so minutes. Focus Time (and countless apps like it) helps you manage the process. Many users find it a great way to keep productivity high throughout the workday by giving you easy-to-achieve goals and simple rewards for reaching them.
$5; iOS, Mac OS
Another time management tool and a nice companion to Focus Time, this app doesn’t just keep track of how much you’re working, it keeps tabs on what you’re actually working on. Did you spend the day writing emails or IMing with friends? Did you while your hours away on Excel or at Ebay? Alerts let you know if you’re wasting too much time on Twitter or Buzzfeed, and you can tell RescueTime to block websites if they’re becoming a problem.
Free to $9/month; Windows, Mac, Android, Linux
If Pomodoro-style motivation and RescueTime’s gentle reminders don’t keep your productivity level high, take the next step with SelfControl, which provides digital willpower where the physical version is lacking. Type in a list of productivity-sapping websites and applications and set the duration you’d like to block them (say, until lunchtime). It’s a true nuclear option: Once they’re disabled, there’s absolutely no way to get them back until the timer expires, leaving you no choice but to get to work.
Free; Mac OS
With no mailroom to drop off letters and packages, many home-based workers find they waste countless hours every week on trips to the post office to deal with shipping needs. With a Stamps.com account, your computer becomes package central, and the company even throws in a free USB postage scale when you sign up for service. The service isn’t free, but you do get access to commercial rates you wouldn’t normally receive as an individual mailer.
$16/month to $35/month; Windows
Dropbox is rapidly turning into more than just a way to store files in the cloud. It’s also a simple way to share those files with work colleagues and external clients alike. Create folders and store your documents within (keeping them safe from the dangers of fried hard drives and stolen laptops), then specify who can access them. Use Dropbox as a quick way to share files too big to email or as a home for the project files you use every day.
Free to $10/month; web, Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, BlackBerry
Dealing with social media is becoming an increasing part of many job descriptions, but managing accounts individually can be a massive time sink, particularly if you have to log in and out of Twitter, for example, to manage a multitude of handles. Hootsuite brings your Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ accounts under one umbrella so you can read messages and post your own in a fraction of the time.
Free to $9/month; web, iOS, Android
One of the things you can’t do with Skype is share your screen with other users. And what about remote control situations? Say you want to let the IT guy back at the office take the reins and fix a nagging problem on your PC—or you want to collaborate with someone on a sketch or work on another app in real time. The answer to all of these issues is Join.me, a dead simple screen sharing and shared control system that’s free for up to 10 users at a time.
Free to $19/user/month; web