Tips and tricks: Work smarter, not harder when working remotely

Mobile technology makes it possible for some folks to regularly exit the cubicle and work outside the office. It's not the same as desk work, so be smart and make it more productive.

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(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

The office environment has changed over the years and many folks now work at home or on the road. Working remotely presents different challenges from working in a cubicle, but these can be insignificant with a little thought.

The tips shared below are things that can turn almost any remote work session into a productive, trouble-free effort. Some of them are common sense, and all of them are based on years of successfully working outside the office.

Smaller can be better

The gear that remote workers use can go a long way towards keeping things productive. The mobile market offers a wide variety of choices in laptops and tablets; the latter can be paired with keyboards or not, depending on user preference.

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ThinkPad 10 with keyboard dock (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

A key factor for working outside the office is portability. Many will find a small laptop or tablet to be the proper choice. Individual preferences vary, but for most a device with the smaller screen can end up being more practical then a big screen option, and without compromise.

Some may need a big screen for their work and that's OK. There is no magical screen size that fits everyone. Others who believe bigger is better may find that isn't the case with very little effort. Most OSes offer good tricks for being as productive on a smaller display as with a large one. These will be covered later in the article.

To make sure a smaller system works optimally, get one with a touch screen. Tablets all have integrated touch, and many laptops do too.

Use what is familiar

To work as productively as possible no matter where you are it is important to use the OS that is familiar. Windows, OS X, iOS, Chrome OS, and Android are all good foundations for decent mobile systems for remote working. Each has features that make using a small display a productive effort.

Trying to use an unfamiliar OS can be an exercise in frustration when you are under the gun, so stick with what you know. Even if you pick up a different platform's operation quickly, chances are you won't be familiar with the apps that may be better suited to your needs. Don't reinvent the wheel, use the one you have better.

Battery is king

Working on the road can mean long hours away from a power outlet. Murphy's Law dictates that your laptop or tablet battery will run dry when the deadline draws near. It is a good idea to get a work system with the longest battery life possible.

This is easier to do today than in the past, but there are still some laptops that only get about five hours on a charge out of the box. These devices are usually the cheaper ones, and while the temptation to save some bucks is strong, in the long run it's better to spend a little extra for improved battery life.

With few exceptions, mobile systems have batteries sealed into the device and thus are inaccessible to the owner. Buying a second battery and swapping it in when the other one runs dry is largely a thing of the past, so be aware that's not a common option.

Don't skimp on memory

The sealed nature of mobile devices also impacts deciding how much memory you get when you buy one. It is not possible to upgrade the internals of most mobile systems after purchase, so configure your device at purchase time with as much system memory as possible. The improved performance you get with more memory will ensure your new laptop or tablet will run as smoothly as possible.

The same philosophy applies to the second type of memory in these systems: internal storage. This is where work files will be stored and even with the growing use of the cloud it is still necessary to occasionally store files on the device. This is especially true when offline so get the most internal storage you can.

Buying a laptop or tablet with a lot of memory can increase the cost of a device purchase. In the long term you'll be glad you spent the extra cash so if you can afford it, do it.

Maximize the small screen

Those on the fence about going with a smaller display on the laptop or tablet should be aware that most OSes have features designed to make using them practical. Properly used, a device with the smaller display can be a better option than carrying a giant laptop everywhere just to be able to have lots of windows open at the same time.

Both Windows and OS X have features that come into play when apps are run full screen. Using apps displaying on the whole screen makes sure you see the most information on the display as possible, which optimizes use of a smaller screen (eg 13 inches and smaller).

Windows allows swiping in from the left edge of the screen to make the last app used take over the whole display. This facilitates jumping betwen two apps very quickly. Once this becomes second nature it eliminates the need to have two apps onscreen simultaneously. You can also swipe just a little way to the right from the left side of the display to see a strip showing all running apps, if you need to get to one in particular.

See related: How to get the most out of the trackpad on the MacBook

MacBooks have a similar feature using the trackpad. Once you have your apps running in full screen mode (by tapping the green button in the top left of each app's window), you can swipe left or right using three fingers to scroll among running apps. If you need to see all running apps, swiping up with four fingers from the bottom of the trackpad will launch Mission Control to see them all. Just select the one you want and go to that app's full screen window.

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Swipe to launch Mission Control on MacBook (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

The iPad runs all apps in full screen mode, and has similar touch gestures for quickly switching between apps. Swipe left or right with four fingers and switch between the next or last app in sequence. You can also swipe up with four fingers and instantly get to the task switcher to choose any app. These gestures make working with multiple apps very easy, even though all but the current one is out of sight. Note that multi-gesture support must be turned on in iOS settings.

Chrome OS makes it productive to work with web apps and web pages in full screen mode. Right-clicking on an app's icon lets you set it to run in a window rather than in a browser tab. Once that's done you can jump between running apps by swiping up on the trackpad with three fingers. This fires up a graphical app manager where switching apps is just a tap away.

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Chromebook task switching (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Switching among running apps can be done on Android tablets, but how you do it depends on the version of Android and the particular device. Android tablet makers put their own spin on how this works on a given tablet, but with a little effort owners can do it like on other platforms.

Go small or go home

The tips for maximizing productivity while working remotely aren't written in stone and they aren't for everyone. Many will find that following these guidelines will make working anywhere a productive effort, and without frustration.

When choosing mobile gear, stick with the familiar. If your existing laptop or tablet is working well for you don't replace it. Using apps running in full screen with the tips presented here may be all you need to do.

Using mobile gear shouldn't be about compromise, it should be a pleasant and productive experience. That usually means if you can't go smaller than the big gear you use on the desktop, perhaps you might as well stay in the home office.

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