Flexible working: tools to free you from the office

The office environment is a changin’. The introduction of flexible working practices and the advancement of technology mean that today’s work spaces are vastly different to those even five years ago. Lancaster University’s Work Foundation predict that over half of all organisations in the UK will have adopted flexible working practices by 2017, and over 70% by 2020.

Flexible working defines:

  • how you work – whether you’re full-time or part-time
  • when you work – the traditional 9 to 5, flexi-time, shift work or compressed hours
  • where you work – one person – one desk, hot-desking, remote working or a mixture of each.

I work a compressed week at Edinburgh Napier, spreading five days worth of hours over four, and also work as a freelancer. Before compressing my week for childcare purposes I worked a five day week, with one of those days based at home.

The Edinburgh Napier Web Team is split over three campuses so each member needs to work flexibly. With most dividing their time across two campuses each week, it is vital to be able to access files and software wherever they are that day. To facilitate this we have several hot desks available in different offices. Networked computers allow us to login at any location and access our personal and shared drives.

As my work tends to require specialist software like Photoshop and Illustrator, I prefer to access my own PC if working away from the office. I use Microsoft’s Remote Desktop feature to achieve this, setting up a secure VPN connection with Cisco Anytime Connect, one of the services made available by our Information Services department. For every other aspect of my job I like to use tools that don’t require Remote Desktop to access.

Criteria for flexible working tools

There are four main criteria that I look for in the tools I use.

  1. I must be able to access them quickly wherever I am.
  2. They must be seamless, allowing me to switch between devices and instantly pick up work where I left off.
  3. They should offer a degree of collaboration, allowing for quick sharing of documents or concurrent working on projects with others.
  4. A native mobile app should be available so that work can continue on the go.

Five tools for flexible working

These are the tools I use most often in both my Edinburgh Napier and awdesign work. They cover different aspects such as word processing, team communication, task management, coding and cloud-based file storage.

Google Docs

Google Docs is Google’s equivalent to Microsoft’s Office suite (Word, Excel and PowerPoint). Like other Google products it is browser-based so doesn’t require software to be installed. It is also free, requiring only a Google account.

Each application allows documents to be shared with others, either as co-collaborators or guests. Multiple people can work on a document at the same time, and those logged in are able to see live edits as people type.

Google Docs screenshot
Google Docs editor

While not as feature-rich as Microsoft’s packages, they have all the tools that I use regularly. They also allow for documents to be downloaded in more common formats such as Word and PDF if needed offline.

As a regular user of Google Analytics, Tag Manager and Data Studio, Docs is a natural extension that provides the familiarity of function common across the entire suite of products. A premium version is available but I’ve always found the free versions more than satisfactory for my needs.

Alternatives: Office 365, iWork

Slack

Slack is an instant messenger type communication tool for teams and groups. Being less formal than email, it allows for quick discussions to take place around specific projects or topics. It is also a useful forum when brainstorming for ideas.

Slack supports public and private communication through channels and direct messages. Channels can be set up related to specific subject areas and custom notifications can be set for the channels users want updated on. Users are also notified when messages are received or when they’ve been mentioned in posts.

Slack channels
Slack channels

Slack integrates with a range of apps covering areas from analytics to productivity and design to project management. Notifications from these apps can appear within Slack, while Slack can also effect changes in other apps, such as adding tasks to Asana. It also has built in voice and video call functionality, similar to Skype, which makes it easy to switch from typing to talking when required.

Paid subscriptions are available for business users. The free version is able to store the 10,000 most recent messages, which fills up very quickly when used in a large team. While it doesn’t replace email as a form of communication entirely, it certainly helps to chop down the number being received.

Alternatives: Anywhere Works, WhatsApp, Facebook Groups

Asana

Asana is a cloud-based project tracking tool. Teams can set up workspaces where they can add projects. Within projects they can add tasks where users can add comments or subtasks. All tasks and subtasks can be assigned to different users.

Each user has a landing page called “My tasks”. On here, tasks can be dragged and dropped into an order of priority. I find it useful to add subheadings, categorising tasks into “in progress”, “awaiting feedback” and, in the case of emails received by the Web Team at Edinburgh Napier, “web requests”.

Asana task including subtasks
Asana task including subtasks

Asana supports team conversations and integrates with apps like Dropbox and Google Drive. Those either assigned to or following tasks receive updates about changes to tasks in their inbox. Up to 15 members can be added to a team in the free version and subscriptions can be purchased for those wishing to add premium features.

Alternatives: Trello, Things (Mac)

Codeanywhere

Codeanywhere is a coding tool accessible via a web browser. It supports a wide range of programming languages including PHP, Python and Ruby, as well as standard HTML.

It integrates with storage tools like Dropbox and Google Drive, enabling users to access and edit files wherever they are. Users can also set up FTP or Git connections to distribute content online. Projects can be set up and shared with other users. As with Google Docs, multiple users can edit a file concurrently, with live updates visible for all those logged in.

I use Codeanywhere when developing Facebook apps and working on collaborative projects.

Codeanywhere interface
Codeanywhere interface for #DestinationEdinburgh Facebook app

I worked with WebTastic on the development of a power meter for Harlaw Hydro, a community-based, crowd-funded hydro electric scheme located in Balerno on the outskirts of Edinburgh. On one occasion during the project I worked on the dashboard display using my iPhone while travelling to Belfast. Codeanywhere is a tool that truly lives up to its name!

Alternatives: Dreamweaver, WordPress, Brackets

Dropbox

Dropbox is a file hosting service which allows files to be synced across multiple devices. Individual folders can be shared with other users, either by email invitation or using a public link.

To sync files on a desktop computer, users need to install the Dropbox application. Files can also be added via a web browser or mobile app and are accessible anywhere via those portals. Files can be made available offline on mobile devices, allowing them to be accessed when a network connection is unavailable.

Dropbox web interface
Dropbox web interface

The free service offers users 2GB of space which can be upgraded to 16GB through referrals. Paid plans are available for those needing more space. 1TB of hosting space costs £7.99/month (or the equivalent of £6.58/month if paid annually).

I use Dropbox to share design files and sermon audio files from Airdrie Baptist which I then upload to SoundCloud. As mentioned earlier, Dropbox can integrate with other tools like Asana and Codeanywhere.

Alternative: Google Drive

Summary

The ability to access files on the go and on any device is a must in my line of work. If meeting clients, it helps to take notes on my phone that then sync with my desktop or laptop computers. The ability to access a task manager like Asana during consultations is even better. Each of these products lets me work wherever I am; in an office, coffee shop or on public transport. When combined, the productivity these tools offer is boundless.

Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

3 Replies to “Flexible working: tools to free you from the office”

  1. I love the flexibility of being able to work away from your desk. Even helpful if you need space to think and we are lucky to have an amazing library too where you can go to get peace to work on things! I also love that the hot desks there have the heat vents under them, keeps you warm

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