Monday Mornings with Madison

Essential Tools for Today’s Mobile Workers

Millions of professionals worldwide spend a huge part of their work life traveling.  Salespeople are constantly driving from place to place, meeting with clients or potential clients or visiting job sites.  Service professionals and consultants often go to their customers’ locations to provide support.  Couriers and logistics companies constantly have their employees on the road.   Even many dentists and doctors have multiple offices or hospitals to which they drive daily.   It is not unusual for busy execs to be ‘on the road’ half of their work week or more.

Working in a car is tough, even if it is only for part of each day.  Mobile workers need to stay in touch all day. That’s not easy to do when constantly on the move.  Staying connected is key to remaining productive.   That means having power, connectivity, and the ability to create, send, receive and print information… all from or in a car.  Thankfully, technology has done a lot to make it easier than ever before to get online, dialed in, and powered up while on the road.   Here’s how.

1. Power

Few cell phones or laptops can get through an entire day of serious work without being plugged in and recharged at some point along the way. Fortunately, a car is a mobile electricity generator.  But what is the best way to get power out of a vehicle and into a gadget?  There are simple adapters that allow one to use a car’s battery to charge a smartphone or tablet.  And many of today’s automobiles feature USB ports, which are fine for recharging a phone. But to charge a laptop or even most tablets will require more juice. There are two options that provide a standard A/C adapter via a 12-volt cigarette lighter socket.

  1. A small adapter can provide a self-contained three-prong outlet (and sometimes a bonus USB port, too). These adapters can put out 100 to 200 watts of power, enough for almost any laptop, at a price of $20 or less.  Keep a spare on hand in case the adapter fails or breaks. That said, remember that higher-power devices, such as printers, can be a huge drain on a car’s electrical system, causing it to blow fuses.
  2. For higher-power devices, connect an industrial-strength inverter directly to a car’s battery, as the cigarette lighter typically maxes out at around 200 watts.  There are options that deliver up to 2400 watts, but require a custom installer for proper installation. Prices for that can range up to $500 or more.

Another option is to buy a portable laptop supercharger.  Those come in different sizes/strengths but can provide another full charge to a laptop.  They can run from $99-$159, depending on the laptop.

Of course, how much juice one can get from a laptop or tablet battery will depend on how it is being used.  For example, checking emails requires much less juice than streaming a video.  Also, the life of a battery generally lasts longer on newer laptops, with some lasting up to 11 hours for simple use.

2. Connectivity

Interconnectivity is at the heart of the digital universe.  Staying connected is key to remaining productive, especially when on the road.  But since one never knows where the road leads, it is hard to know how much connectivity will be available.  Smart road warriors rely on multiple sources for connectivity.

The first step is to try to find free Wi-Fi. This is faster and more reliable than a cellular connection, and will prevent the expensive consumption of gigabytes from a phone data plan.   Fast food restaurant parking lots are a good source of free Wi-Fi. Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A and Starbucks have pretty strong parking-lot Wi-Fi service.  For longer road trips, most hotels, rest stops, airports, and even RV parks have Wi-Fi.  Just realize that there’s a lot that can go wrong with Wi-Fi.  It can be on the fritz or there can be issues with signing in, or it doesn’t reach out to the parking lot or too many others are using it and it is too slow.

There are other choices.  Try a mobile hotspot.  A mobile wireless router uses a cellular connection to keep several devices connected to the Web. Every cellular provider offers one, nominally priced ($50 or less) with a data contract. The typical mobile router will last for six to ten hours on a charge, connects five to ten Wi-Fi devices, and recharges via USB.  Since it can be used with any Wi-Fi capable device, it is one-stop shopping for getting connected.

Having a backup is also a good idea. A smartphone is an obvious one.  A data plan that allows tethering can work in a pinch. Those in spotty signal areas can also consider a small USB modem from a different carrier than the mobile router discussed.  If at zero bars with AT&T, there’s a chance Verizon will deliver a signal instead.  While it adds to the monthly expense, the backup support is well worth it.

It is also smart to carry a signal booster in case of traveling far from a cell tower. This basically amounts to a large external antenna that attaches to a handset via a cradle, providing much stronger reception. These devices range in price from $100 to $200.

3. Navigation

Any road warrior worth his mileage log already has a competent GPS system mounted to the windshield.  New cars have GPS built into the dash.  Some just prefer to use GPS from their console-mounted smartphone.  And most GPS are perfectly capable to direct a road warrior to clients or other locations via marked roads.  But that’s not all that GPS systems can do now.

For example, some GPS devices can track travels for easy record-keeping.  It can help those who bill clients based on mileage.   It also offers a bird’s-eye look of all travels from that day.  A map of travels over time can help plan where local marketing efforts should be focused, or give a sense of the parts of town where untapped opportunities lie.

4. Work Space

Getting online in the car is one thing.   Typing is another.  Anyone who has ever tried to type on a laptop while sitting behind the wheel knows that actually using devices while wedged into the driver’s seat is a challenge.  Cars were not designed with computer users’ ergonomics in mind.  But there are solutions.

First, there is something called the steering wheel desk.  Obviously, it is not something that was meant to be used while driving, but it installs just below a steering wheel like an airplane tray and provides a small shelf on which a laptop can sit.  Other models attach to the top of the steering wheel and are angled down, which are useful for tablets and phones with touchscreens.  They cost anywhere between $20 and $30.

Another option is to mount tablets and phones at a more usable height either on the dashboard or the A/C vents.

A third option is to abandon the constricted front seat and head to the back seat.  The headrest mount can be used to put a tablet at more of a heads-up height, similar to how it is used as an entertainment system for kids. Multiple designs exist to hang a device from there.

Another consideration to make the workspace more ergo-friendly is a keyboard.  Text entry is a big part of most workdays.  That can be a challenge if using a tablet instead of a laptop, even though tablets are lighter, have a longer battery life and are easier to carry.  For many, a good old qwerty keyboard is the best way to write text that entails more than a few sentences.  For that, consider a Bluetooth keyboard for a tablet.  Some models can even be incorporated into the tablet’s case for ease of use.

5. Cloud-based storage and file sharing

For a mobile traveler, being able to store, back up, access, and share files on the cloud can make life so much easier.  There are a variety of different apps that can help for backup, storage and file sharing.  Google Drive is great for collaborative documents as well as documents created or edited on a tablet.  Dropbox, which is more of a file sharing site but also offers cloud storage, reproduces work files from one computer to another and makes them accessible from any device instantly. Evernote does the same with notes and web pages.

6. Printing and Scanning

One of the biggest challenges to road warriors and mobile workers is to print documents while in a car.  With a peak power draw of 800 watts or more, the typical laser printer can blow out fuses and leave no equipment operating.  So there has been no better time to go paperless.  But if paperless is not feasible, there are some options.

With a power draw of just 10 watts, an inkjet like the HP Deskjet can comfortably work from any 12-volt adapter. This model even has an onboard wireless network adapter. If using a mobile router, there is no need to even run a cable to the computer to print.  Just put the printer in the back seat or the trunk (or wherever there is a power outlet.  It even offers built-in scanning.

Battery-powered printers are also a possibility, but their performance can be iffy.

Another option, if the printed pages aren’t needed immediately, is to use a remote printing service.  With these services, print to a compatible printer from anywhere, using a smartphone or tablet app or by forwarding a document to a custom email address.  Then print from the road and pick up the documents at the end of the day.

For those who only need to scan but not print items such as receipts, there is now Turboscan, an app that allows documents to be photographed, converted instantly to PDFs or other file types, and emailed or sent various different ways instantly.  Receipts can be stored quickly and then used when preparing expense reports at month-end.

7.  Miscellaneous

A mobile worker can never be too prepared.  There are a number of tools that are useful to have “just in case.”  One such tool is an Eton hand-cranked charger which is a combo phone charger, AM/FM and NOAA weather radio, and a flashlight.  When all goes wrong and even the car battery is dead, this nifty tool can provide at least enough juice to get a cell phone to work in order to request a tow truck.

Given how many employees now are on the road for a good part of their work life, having the right tools can make the grind a lot less painful.  Being on the road for work may be tough, but that’s the road that leads to success.

Quote of the Week

“The road to success is not easy to navigate, but with hard work, drive and passion, it’s possible to achieve the American dream.” Tommy Hilfiger

 

© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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