Your Office Technology: Just Enough or Too Much?

As remote professionals, we are required to maintain a rather “high-tech” office with leading edge tech tools, programs and equipment. Often, we get “caught up” in our technology. If we are bitten by the tech bug, we can end up with a bundle of these tools that cost us more time than they save. Something as simple as buying a new cell phone requires research, time and sometimes hours of programming. Ditto for a new “land-line” phone system for a business.

How do you determine what’s “just enough” and what is “too much” where office and technology tools are concerned?

Needs Assessment

Once a year, you should assess your current “mission critical” programs and hardware to determine if you need to upgrade or replace them. It’s a good idea to do this before the end of your fiscal year, to expense out what you need on the old year, or to know that you need to hold it for the upcoming business year.

Remember that if you upgrade or replace, there will be a learning curve. Even what appear to be “simple” upgrades will impact your productivity and the amount of time required to turn around projects in the immediate future. Don’t replace mission critical software and hardware during your busy season. Schedule these changes when you will have time to acquaint yourself with your new gadgets and gizmos.

Software Purchase Considerations

First, you should only buy software (and hardware) you actually need to provide the services you offer. For example, don’t buy the latest version of “Dreamweaver” unless you already are a web designer/web programmer or you plan in the IMMEDIATE future to learn this new, complex software program.

Our industry is filled with the best intentions to learn new skills which require new tools. Don’t purchase until you have the time, the money and the desire to take on a big new educational leap and can honestly sacrifice the billable hours to do so. If you buy it now and it’s a few months before you can muster up the strength to begin learning it, your program will be the “old” version.

Alternative: Online Options

Consider lowering your investment in software by utilizing online alternatives like Google Docs or Backpackit, rather than purchasing and installing all the software you need.

  • Lower cost (usually free)
  • No installation or upgrades needed
  • Uses most common file formats
  • Most allow you to save your personal documents on your own computer
  • Storing them online means you can access your files from anywhere

Warning: Read the privacy policy carefully for any online service providers and beware of storing sensitive information online on someone else’s server.

Alternative: Open Source Options

Consider the plethora of open source options for paid software programs you currently use. I’ve found several extremely useful and high-performance open source programs: Gimp for image manipulation and Open Office for basic productivity programs and WordPress for my blogging engine. (These actually crash less often than the “big name” programs I used before.)

  • Cost is either low or free
  • Updates are also low or no-cost
  • Security on these “group effort” program are pretty good
  • Programs tend to be stable once they are listed as non-alpha/non-beta versions

Warning: Regular updates will have to be done on open source options and some (but not all) require a higher level of technical expertise than the commercial versions.

Hardware Purchase Considerations

When purchasing a new computer, resist the temptation to buy the “latest and greatest” model. Unless you are in a high-tech niche where the clients or the industry requires cutting edge equipment, you will save hundreds of dollars and many hours of your time each year if you drop back one (or more) steps from the top of the line.

Personally, I find the pricing “sweet spot” for a new computer at one or two generations back. This is usually a machine that has been on the market for a few weeks or even a few months and has been recently “trumped” by the next shiny model. The prices are cut to clear out the old and make way for the new and the only sacrifice is usually a tiny bit of CPU speed (which you probably won’t notice unless you are handling multimedia projects) and maybe a new flashy feature or two.

Going one or two steps back also retains the value of the computer for you as a user and prevents the need for a near-future replacement. I would not buy a computer model that is more than 7-8 months old, however. Technology becomes outdated too quickly to invest your time and energy into tweaking a new system with all your software and your personalized settings if you are going to be replacing it in less than a year or two.

Recognize that “one device to do it all” options are great, but are usually more expensive and will require more time to learn than simpler options. So, if you don’t need all of the extra bells and whistles, avoid the fancy stuff.

Maintain What You Use

Do not update your software to the latest version immediately. Do so only as you must to keep your security levels high and to stay in step with the version the majority of your clients are using. Deciding NOT to be on the cutting edge will save you money and it will save you time. It will also ensure that you don’t become one of the many unsuspecting and unpaid beta-testers for newly released (and usually extremely buggy) software.

  • Run regular diagnostics and maintenance programs on your computer
  • Update your adware/spyware/anti-virus programs and run full-system scans religiously
  • Create regular, timely backups (at least once a week — preferably daily)
  • Get critical security updates for your software and operating system
  • Use a firewall, use strong passwords, don’t share your business machine with family members

When working in our industry, a solid working system that’s a little older is much better than the latest and greatest that crashes in the middle of a project or makes you burn the midnight oil to figure it out before you can begin your next workday. Keep your perspective and remember that technology is supposed to serve you and simplify the way you work. If that’s not happening, you may want to re-evaluate your tech tools.

Technology is great fun for the geeks among us, but it can absorb big chunks of what SHOULD be billable time during your workday… so proceed with caution, consideration, and care.