How to Not Sweat the Mobile Office

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I do a lot of work on the road, including setting up offices from scratch. What I’ve learnt—and the mistakes I’ve made—could fill a book, so maybe I’ll write one.

But here, for now, are some tips I’ve found useful about working on the road—especially if you’re on the road for any length of time, or setting up your stall in a new place, temporarily or permanently.

The first thing to do is to get a local SIM card asap. Roaming fees remain ruinous. More of that in a later column.

The other is to get a dongle. Nowadays, it’s really easy to get your laptop connected to something approaching a broadband Internet connection.

HSDPA is the prevailing technology for this—you don’t need to know what it stands for, because it’s already on the way out—via a SIM card inserted in a little thumb drive that slots into your USB port. More commonly known as a dongle.

Nowadays you can get these for very little, along with a prepaid account. You often have to buy the dongle, which might or might not be usable in a new country.

Either way, you’ve got connected.

If you’re setting up a whole new office then get your staff onto Google Apps.

This is a suit of online programs that is basically Microsoft Office–for free, and open to real time collaboration. (Recently Google souped it up a bit and added a tool for drawing.)

All you need is an Internet connection. (Google Apps can be used offline, but this is in the process of being changed, so it might not be working for a while.)

If you want to do it with a bit of style, install Google Apps on your own domain ( so all your new staff have email addresses that end in that domain; they can also then share all their contacts etc.

The non-domain version is called Google Docs and works fine. If you’ve all got Gmail accounts then it makes sense to stick with that.

Google have done a good job with this suite, but it’s not perfect. Don’t expect all the bells and whistles you’d usually get for spreadsheets and documents. But it’s fine for most needs.

Make sure staff get into the habit of saving documents with useful, consistent names and putting them in shared folders that others can find. Maintain a policy of limited documents and constant weeding so things don’t get lost or forgotten.

Hardware-wise, get people netbooks. They should be more than enough and this allows them to take them home to work/play on there. (Ensure they’ve all got antivirus on them, and tell them you’ll punish them severely if they install rubbish on them.)

And then wow them by buying an external monitor—Samsung, Philips and others do relatively small screens for about $100.

That doubles the amount of screen they’ve got to play with and wins you grateful looks from staff who’ve either never had two screens before or have them but never expected such an enlightened boss.

A tip: check the weight of the screen, as they vary widely. Some are light enough to carry with you between assignments. If not, you can always get a small 7” Mimo Monitor which gives you that extra bit of desktop. Mimo tell me they’re coming out with a larger one this month or next.

Printers are not an easy problem to resolve, but you should be able to get a scanner, printer, fax and copy machine, all in one, for about $120. You can either thread USB cables around your office or splash out on a wireless router that has a USB slot in the back.

(Wireless routers let you connect all your computers together via WiFi.)

This should, in theory, allow you to connect said scanner/printer/fax/copier into your network meaning anyone can use it. Expect a bit of pain here.

Other things I would buy to make your new mini-office more productive: decent mouse pads—nothing worse, or less productive, than staff sliding their mice across overly reflective desktops or books.

If they’re taking their netbooks home, then buy them the mains cable that sits between the netbook’s power adapter and the wall. This means they don’t have to dive under the desk to remove the power cable, and instead can just unplug the adapter as it sits behind their netbook.

Cost of cable: about $1.

I also buy headsets for landlines. These are cheap and save your staff’s necks.

And a non-stapler clipper, which uses reusable clips, saves you pulling staples out of paper and makes every document look snazzy. Cost: $1.50.

Lastly, buy a label printer. They may be a bit pricey—well, the labels are—but they make everything look so much better, and give your office a professional shine that will make your staff work harder and not want to go home in the evening.

Good for them. Now I’m off to the hotel pool.