Answering 7 questions about remote work

By Byron Patrick, CPA/CITP, CGMA

Months after COVID-19 forced most accountants to work remotely, I'm still getting questions on how to optimize working conditions at home. Let's provide some answers.

Q. It seems like every time I'm in a Zoom meeting, my wife or kids yell at me from downstairs, something like, "Babe, did you put pickles on the grocery list last night?" or "Dad, can I play 'Call of Duty'?" If I'm speaking on the call, everyone can hear that. Is there an efficient way to let my family know I'm in a meeting?

A. Here's what has worked for me. I wired up my house with Wemo smart devices, so I installed a Wemo smart plug in an easily visible location. I then connected a nightlight to the smart plug. When I jump on a call, I fire up the Wemo app on my phone and turn on the nightlight. When I am off the call, I turn off the light. Now, before my family yells out to ask me if we bought more toilet paper, they can check the light to see if it's safe.

Full disclaimer, this method doesn't work on your pets!

Q. I don't miss the traffic on my commute, but I do miss using that time to get mentally prepared for the day. Any way to simulate that at home?

A. A few apps can create a morning commute of sorts from the bedroom to the home office.

  • Step count app: I use my Samsung Health app to track my steps for the day. My morning commute requires I achieve a minimum of 1,500 steps before I can "go to work." I get mine in doing chores on my farm, but a simple walk around the neighborhood works, too. Adjust the steps to fit your personal goals.
  • Podcast app: I use Spotify for listening to podcasts. "Subscribe" to a solid rotation of podcasts, and listen while getting ready for the day.
  • Audiobook app: Audible provides an unlimited supply of audiobooks that are great for the "morning commute." I rotate between fiction and nonfiction to mix things up depending on my day.

Q. I have a big desk in my home office, but my three monitors don't leave much room for anything else. What should I do?

A. Monitors can take up quite a bit of desk space. A monitor stand (or stands) can help recover most of this space while providing a better setup to prevent a sore neck or back muscles from poor positioning.

I recommend taking the monitor stand one additional step and upgrading to a standing desk monitor stand. If you are like me and have a desk you like but want the ability to stand while you work, invest in a standing desk that sits on top of your existing desk.

Q. I like to use virtual backgrounds on Zoom because I work in the dining room, but it seems like my computer runs slower. Am I imagining that?

A. It's not just your imagination. The use of a virtual background comes at the cost of crucial RAM and processing power on your computer as it tries to make decisions every second to separate the foreground from the background.

A simple green screen sitting behind your chair, or possibly attached to your chair, is a cheap and simple way to reduce the resource requirements on your computer. With a green screen, the computer no longer needs to figure out where to apply the virtual background. This leads to an improved experience and better video quality.

Q. My internet is a lot slower lately. How do I figure out what's causing the problem?

A. Many factors affect the performance of your internet connection. Here are a few steps you should take before calling your internet provider (or screaming at your kids for streaming Netflix):

1. Check your connection speed to determine if the issue is in fact the internet and not your computer. SpeedTest.net is my favorite tool since it's not affiliated with an internet service provider. If your performance is terrible, but the speed is good, you will need to troubleshoot your computer.

2. If the internet speed is slow and you are using Wi-Fi, you need to check the speed while plugged into the internet router with a network cable. If the internet is still slow, it's time to call your internet provider. If the speed improves when your computer is plugged into the router, you need to test the internet speed on another Wi-Fi-enabled device. If the other device has speed issues as well, the issue is likely related to your router and you need to contact your internet provider or whoever manages your router.

3. If your internet speed is better on a second device, it's time to start troubleshooting your computer's Wi-Fi connection. Test the Wi-Fi from different locations in your house. You might need to adjust the physical location of your Wi-Fi router or invest in a mesh Wi-Fi strategy.

The troubleshooting steps won't necessarily apply to all scenarios. Each home network is unique. However, these steps are a good place to start for most.

Q. I am usually in meetings most of the day but have had to reschedule due to internet or power outages. What's the best way to avoid that?

A. Working from home also comes with the challenges of unpredictable power and internet outages. A couple of simple steps can spare you the need to reschedule a meeting due to an outage:

  • Have a battery backup ready to go. A portable battery that includes a standard AC output plug can be used to keep phones, laptops, and even USB lights up and running in case of a power outage.
  • Make sure the mobile hotspot service is available on your phone. If you have a good cellphone connection in your house, enabling the mobile hotspot could provide you just enough internet to keep you productive when the internet connection is down.

Q. One of the worst things about working at home is being unable to just walk to a colleague's office with a quick question that's easier to describe face-to-face than over email or even chat. I don't want to drag people into more video meetings but am sick of email. Got any suggestions?

A. Mix things up a bit and simply shoot a quick video sharing your message or update, rather than typing up an impersonal email. Tools like Camtasia and Loom (among others) make it super simple to record and share a video.

In addition to a simple video note, if you need to put together instructions on how to do something, record a video and share it. Rather than spending an hour typing up instructions, taking screenshots, editing, and circulating, a quick video can be an effective timesaver for everyone.


About the author

Byron Patrick, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is vice president of growth and success at Botkeeper.

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