Digital survival tools for the challenge of working from home

Apps, streaming services and smart devices all help with remote working as well as play

Netflix, Disney+ and other video-streaming services may be one way to relieve the boredom.

Netflix, Disney+ and other video-streaming services may be one way to relieve the boredom.

 

The past three weeks have seen a sudden increase in the number of people working from home, as employers rush to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on their staff and their business.

But while the move is a necessary one from a public health point of view, it is thrusting many employees into unknown territory. There are some of us who are familiar with the idea of a home office, but if your company thrives on presenteeism, the sudden realisation that it is possible to work outside the office and still be productive is one that’s likely to have an impact on the workplace long after this crisis is over.

But it also creates problems of its own. Regardless of who you live with – if anyone – the current situation is out of the ordinary. There are no gym classes, lunches or nights out for a change of scenery. The good-natured interactions with your colleagues are now WhatsApp messages or in a Slack channel. Our worlds have suddenly become a lot smaller.

Entertainment

Tablets and smartphones may be your sole source of entertainment, with streaming video services or podcasts at your fingertips.

Favourite podcasts around here – apart from our own Irish Times-produced ones, of course – are Gimlet Media’s Science Vs, Crooked Media’s Pod Save the World, As Me with Sinéad and the Global Citizen/Hozier collaboration Cry Power. It’s a big podcast world out there though,

One thing that may save your sanity while working from home is the ability to block out the background noise. While usually that would trigger recommendation of noise-cancelling headphones – the Sony WH-1000XM3 are both budget-friendly(ish) and excellent at eliminating most noise, while those who prefer ear buds may opt for Apple’s AirPods Pro instead – we can’t exactly pop to the shop at the moment. And much as we may think being able to work from home in a quiet environment is a necessity, it probably doesn’t come under the heading of “necessary travel”.

With that in mind, we need alternatives. The Bear Focus Timer is an app that aims to keep you on track. It uses something called the pomodoro technique, a time-management method that divides tasks into equally-timed chunks – usually 25 minutes – with a short break in between and a long break after four “pomodoros”.

Turn the phone over and the timer starts. It has white noise to block out the background noise – a choice of a stream, wind, train tracks, night noise, rainfall, a crackling fire – to keep you on track. And all for €2.29, significantly cheaper than a set of noise-cancelling headphones.

Other white noise apps out there worth checking out are White Noise Generator, and Calm also has some white noise on its meditation app.

Go big screen

Netflix, Disney+ and other video-streaming services may be one way to relieve the boredom, but you may not be keen on the idea of a small screen. But there are ways to get your content on the big screen with varying degrees of effort on your part.

The simplest way is if you have a smart television. Both LG and Samsung offer apps on their smart TV platforms for video-streaming services such as Amazon’s Prime and Netflix. But if your TV either lacks the smarts or the necessary app, you have options.

Using Chromecast, Apple TV or a Roku streaming stick, you can stream content from your phone to your TV. The simplest and cheapest of these is the Chromecast. All you need is a broadband network and some compatible apps. The Chromecast itself has no apps on it; it is simply a way for you to stream content from your device to the TV. You need to connect the Chromecast to your home network, and compatible apps will have a cast button that will connect your phone or tablet to the Chromecast device. It works with Apple devices as well as Android, although the latter is obviously more seamless.

For example, if you are using an app that doesn’t support casting, you may be able to get around that by casting your phone’s entire screen to the TV. One caveat: if you are mirroring your screen, remember that everything will show up – including notifications and message previews. So if you want to retain some semblance of privacy, remember to switch those off before you do.

The Roku streaming stick is the next step up. It allows you to subscribe to channels and apps such as Netflix, and it comes with its own remote control and menu on the TV screen. In fact, if you’ve used Now TV’s streaming stick, then you’ve used a Roku device.

If you are an Apple user, however, Apple TV is probably the option to go for. The box allows you to install apps such as Prime video, Netflix, DisneyLife (or Disney+, as the service is now known as, as of March 24th) along with fitness app from Boxx, Adidas and Glo Yoga, kids apps such as Cosmic Kids Yoga, and games. You can also play content from your phone on the TV the box is connected to – provided the app owner allows it.

Another option is to hook up your laptop to your TV. For that, you’ll need a HDMI cable that is compatible with your computer, depending on whether your laptop has a full-size HDMI a micro HDMI or mini HDMI port that can be found on tablets and other thinner devices. Plug one end of the HDMI cable into your TV’s spare HDMI In port, and the other into your laptop’s HDMI connection. If your laptop has no HDMI connection but has a USB C port, you may be able to buy a compatible adapter that will give you a HDMI connection on your device.

If you have an older laptop or flatscreen TV you may have VGA connections, in which case you’ll need a VGA cable for the picture, and a 3.5mm stereo cable for audio.

Small screens, big possibilities

We may bemoan the amount of time we spend on smartphones, but these days they are our link to the outside world. If there is one thing that technology has done for us, it is to give us the tools to keep in touch. We may not want them around the clock, but they’re there.

If you need some human contact, a phone call may not be enough.

Step forward, video calling. The idea of video chatting with your loved ones would once have given us all the absolute horrors, but in 2020 it’s probably the only way you can speak to your mother. There are plenty of apps out there –- free of charge – that will allow you to get some much-needed face time with your friends and family.

WhatsApp is probably the easiest, because lots of people use it already, and it isn’t dependent on one particular platform. It’s available for both Apple and Android devices, and you can also use it on your Windows and Mac laptops. It’s not officially available for Chromebooks, but if you have the patience and are feeling brave enough to risk installing it from outside the official channels, you can install it from software packages you can find on the web.

To set up a group call you have two options. If you already have a WhatsApp group, you simply go into that group chat, tap the new call icon in the corner and you can choose which contacts to add, and whether it is a voice call or a video chat.

If you don’t have a group already in mind, you open the calls tab on WhatsApp, tap the new call icon in the top right corner, and select ‘new group call’ at the top of your list of contacts. Then you can choose your participants and start the call.

The caveat: you can only have four people in a group call, including the person who initiates it.

If you want something with a bit more flexibility, you can try Zoom. Currently the hot favourite among educators and fitness trainers alike, Zoom gives you up to 100 participants at once for up to 40 minutes at a time on the basic free package. One-on-one chats are unlimited.

You can invite people to your “meeting” – it is a business tool, hence the slightly formal language – through sending them a link over text message or email, and that will take you through everything you need to do to get into the meeting. You can use Zoom on iOS, Android, Mac and Windows, so it covers all the major bases. We’ve done Zoom calls on an iPad Pro (very big) and on a smartphone (not so big); it works well across all platforms and screen sizes, plus you can put it into gallery view so you can see everyone at once, or set it so the active speaker gets prime position on the screen. There are privacy concerns, such as the ability to record meetings if you have a paid Zoom business plan without the knowledge of other participants, so it is worth reading up on the service and what it does with your data before signing up.

There are other options – Facetime, Duo, Hangouts – but it’s all down to personal preference, and what devices people are using. Whereby is one service that offers an easier way to connect people to video calls, as it can be run in your web browser without the need to install any extra apps or browser extensions. However, it is limited to four participants.

Take a course

You don’t have to spend your time in isolation binge-watching on Netflix, although we’re certainly not judging anyone who does.

Brit+Co are offering free access to their courses – everything from nailing the job interview for your dream job, to digital lettering on the iPad to how to crochet a small basket – with the code ‘selfcare’ for the next couple of weeks. It may not be something that will change the world but it will certainly keep you occupied when you’ve exhausted your current Netflix wishlist.

The Khan Academy is another online learning platform you can access for free – it is always so – offering you everything from coding classes to lessons on how to be an entrepreneur. There is a kids’ section with its own app, Khan Kids, aimed at two- to seven-year-olds.

If you are looking for something a little more heavyweight, Trinity College offers a number of online learning courses for free through a partnership with Futurelearn. They cover everything from history and culture to sustainable development and women’s health. Another option is Open University’s OpenLearn free courses. There are a fair few to choose from here, of varying lengths, from an introduction to languages such as Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Latin, to science, technology, maths and engineering. The courses are also a step into a proper distance-learning course offered by Open University.

Brush up on your gaming skills

The Nintendo Switch is definitely coming into its own these days. While everyone thought the handheld games console was coming to an end, beaten back by the advances in smartphones, Nintendo created a games device that doubles as both handheld and a living-room console. The Switch has some great games to choose from, including the ever-popular Mario titles. But the current favourite around here is Untitled Goose Game. You get to cause havoc as one of the bird world’s least charming inhabitants, with the sole objective of not getting caught. It appeals to the anarchist in us all.

Animal Crossing is also proving a popular way to connect with people while maintaining a respectable social distance.

There are other games that are a little more thoughtful, such as #Selfcare, which is conducted entirely in a bedroom and is designed to make the player more aware of how selfcare works by interacting with different elements in the bedroom to encourage relaxation, such as deep breathing, or practising massage.

It’s also worth considering that e-sports is becoming a well-paid career choice for the more talented gamers. If you fancy a career change, that is.