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The SolarWinds Guide to Work From Home: Being Heard When You’re Not in the Room

Level 18

Following up on Clear Communication—where we addressed the importance of (and tips to maintain) conversations and communication which happened naturally in the office—we now want to address the tech side of communication now that it’s remote.

“Can you hear me now?” is funny until you’re in an important meeting and they really can’t hear you. A lot of problems with remote work—from meeting participation to accessing resources to “this is so darn slow”—can be overcome with a little bit of testing. Here are our tips and advice for dealing with signal issues and (minor)security touches.

  • For this document’s purposes, the term “Wi-Fi” refers to the internet connection in your house or apartment, and “cellular” means the connection (voice or internet) from your cell phone provider. BOTH will let you access the internet and even company resources like SharePoint, Teams, and email. But there are significant differences in speed, quality, and cost. For some folks living in areas with poor internet service, cellular service will be stronger and faster. For those living in areas where internet service is robust, however, it’s going to be the opposite case.
  • If you’re doing work on your cell phone (or tablet with a cellular data plan), make sure you know which you’re on before you run down your data plan (or run up your bill).
  • “Dowsing” for signal strength—both Wi-Fi and cellular signal varies in strength around your living space. The room with the best Wi-Fi may have the worst cell signal, or vice-versa. The easiest and cheapest way to check is to walk around each room with your devices (typically your laptop and cell phone). Stop in each place where you might want to work and sit for about 10 seconds. Then check the signal strength bars on your devices.
  • Wi-Fi calling—If you happen to live in a place where Wi-Fi is strong, but cell signal is weak, you can turn your phone’s “Wi-Fi calling” feature on. Then your cell calls will come over the internet and will have the same great signal strength your laptop has.
  • Repeaters and amplifiers—for both Wi-Fi and cell phone, another option is to purchase a device to boost the signal where you are. There are two basic options:
    • An amplifier (as the name implies) will take an existing signal and make it “louder” (i.e., stronger). Typically, you’d use this for your cell phone. An antenna goes outside where the cell signal is best, and a wire carries it to a box inside which rebroadcasts the cell signal inside the house for better reception.
    • A repeater is more commonly used for Wi-Fi. You place it (roughly) halfway between the Wi-Fi router and where you want to sit. It creates a much stronger, secondary Wi-Fi network for you to connect to.
  • It’s important to understand if you’re not on your corporate VPN, then you’re not protected by your company’s firewall rules and malware blocks. That’s OK in the sense that you haven’t violated any rules. This just means to be self-aware of your browsing and mixing personal with business. Healthy paranoia goes a long way. Do not forward content that seems “shady” to your IT staff or others, even to ask, “does this look OK?” It’s better to take a screenshot and forcibly stop your browser task. Then you can send the screenshot to your IT staff to have them evaluate the situation.

DIY Home Internet Repair

“Screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place.”
-John Bender, The Breakfast Club

Work from home and inevitably you’ll have a moment where things stop working as expected. Often, that moment comes approximately 15 – 30 minutes into your first day, right before your first meeting. In those moments (and all the other ones which will undoubtedly come after) there’s always your help desk. Don’t ever forget they’re there to do their job and help you out of a tight spot.

BUT… many of us—even those of us who wouldn’t consider ourselves particularly technical—would love to know if there were any actions we could take first, which might just clear up the problem and allow us to get on with our lives (and our work).

What follows is just such a list. Just to level set: at no time will the instructions tell you to “open up the command line and type ‘ping 127.0.0.01’ to see if your loopback adapter is working.” These are some initial steps any regular mortal can do.

  1. Try it from another device
    If you’re having trouble getting to a website or service, try it from a secondary device (a tablet, another computer, etc.). Just to be clear, it won’t fix the problem (although if it works, you have a solid “plan B” in case you can’t get the actual problem solved), but it will tell you whether the problem is limited to one device or not.
  2. Turn off the VPN and try again
    Sometimes the VPN can block things it shouldn’t. Turn it off and try again. If it works, you know.
    1. Conversely if the VPN is off, turn it on and try again.
      This is especially true for systems and services “inside” the company firewall.
  3. IsItDownRightNow.com
    If it’s an external site, you can test it using an online “is it down” tester. And yes, IsItDownRightNow.com is a real website.
  4. Go to a website you haven’t visited in a while, like AOL.com*
    This might sound weird, but sometimes a specific site gets “stuck” in your browser because of a thing called the cache. Going to a different site proves you can go SOMEWHERE. From there you still need to figure out what’s wrong with the site you needed.
  5. Turn it off and on again
    We know, we know. Everyone always says that. You know why? Because it works so darn often. Make sure you turn off both your Wi-Fi router and the box from your ISP (if you have two separate devices). Also make sure you wait a full 30 seconds. A lot of devices keep a short charge to protect against quick brownouts, so you need the device to be down for a bit longer than a quick on-off.
  6. Have a plan B (device, location, process, etc.)
    If all else fails and your home network is down hard, you should have a plan in place for what you’re going to do. Do you have a secondary location you can move to? (Hint: a coffee shop is a bad idea even when we’re not dealing with a pandemic.) If nothing else, maybe keep local copies of the documents you work with the most, so you can keep typing.
    1. This is where using a service like OneDrive is really worth it. Because ALL your shared documents can be stored locally, and when you reconnect, they’ll all synchronize back up to the cloud for you.

With the great influx of remote infrastructure now needing support by your IT help desk, try to remember the issue may be on your side and go through some troubleshooting before contacting them about signal and connectivity issues. A few simple steps for you could resolve your issue without waiting on the help desk to have the cycles to work with you. Also remember you can use the other type of signal to reach the internet to connect with others to do some simple troubleshooting steps as well, so if you’re having connectivity issues with your laptop on Wi-Fi, try your phone on cellular data.

In our next entry into the work from home series, we discuss the tech because Sometimes it IS About the Tech. What kind of tech are we talking? We have suggestions for quality of life while working at home, preventing fatigue, and improving your work experience, which include practical suggestions for all.

* If it HASN’T been a long time since you visited AOL.com, you have a problem and should seek help immediately. Yes, we just went there.

1 Comment
Level 14

Thanks for the article.  

About the Author
In my sordid career, I have been an actor, bug exterminator and wild-animal remover (nothing crazy like pumas or wildebeasts. Just skunks and raccoons.), electrician, carpenter, stage-combat instructor, American Sign Language interpreter, and Sunday school teacher. Oh, and I work with computers. Since 1989 (when you got a free copy of Windows 286 on twelve 5¼” floppies when you bought a copy of Excel 1.0) I have worked as a classroom instructor, courseware designer, desktop support tech, server support engineer, and software distribution expert. Then about 14 years ago I got involved with systems monitoring. I've worked with a wide range of tools: Tivoli, Nagios, Patrol, ZenOss, OpenView, SiteScope, and of course SolarWinds. I've designed solutions for companies that were extremely modest (~10 systems) to those that were mind-bogglingly large (250,000 systems in 5,000 locations). During that time, I've had to chance to learn about monitoring all types of systems – routers, switches, load-balancers, and SAN fabric as well as windows, linux, and unix servers running on physical and virtual platforms.