12. The online, paperless office

Productivity is the holy grail

Wether you are a physician striving to be better in your specialty, giving better care to your patients or just trying to meet the demands of modern life - productivity is the one quality you are trying to increase. Or else you would still be using pen and a paper instead of your PC.

Computers are wonderful machines, capable of tasks we could only dream of even 15 years ago. The picture on the right is of an IBM hard drive being transported from an airplane, it's capacity is FIVE MEGABYTES (5mb). Now that's less than the memory of your digital watch. A common SD memory chip today isn't sold less than 2 gigabytes! Facts like these makes us understand the potential of our computers and why I am constantly preaching that you should give your self time to learn to master it so that you make use of this power!

Creative perhaps, not productive at all! (src: http://www.graphicmania.net/29-mind-blowing-3d-photorealistic-models) The office is the common workplace, the place where we think, produce, communicate and organize our professional and daily life. The old office may have been creative (at least when you look at these old photos!) but certainly not productive. How productive your office is today really depends on you and in this post I want to tell you about the "online office" concept.

Papers are thing of the past and will only slow you down, it is time to put all your documents to a virtual electronic data-stack to open up the powerful tools to work them and open up for the modern, mobile office. The modern office should be available anywhere, it's data well organized and searchable, invulnerable to data loss and finally it should have a rich set of tools, easy to use.

Nirvana for the minimalist

For me, the key to making all this work is minimalism. The less I have to take care of, the more I can make out of what I have. The poorer I feel the richer I am! My laptop is running a slim, yet powerful and highly configurable Linux operating system so that I have full control of my computer and minimal distractions from system messages, popup windows or other annoyances such as user interface decorations. Most applications I use are web-applications, freeing me from the hazzle of software updates or crashes. Finally, I use as few online services as possible to reduce the amount of login accounts to keep track of.

Available anywhere

Your productivity should not be limited to a physical location. When you have dead time at work, sitting on the bus or out jogging you want to learn by listening to podcasts, answer emails, write stuff or browse through previously read journal articles. The other day I had a complex patient with sudden vertigo, most likely of central origin, and I recalled having recently read an extensive article about HINTS. It took me only a few seconds to find it in Crocodoc and saved lots of time since I could tailor the work-up  to the suggestions of the article. Every now and then I use dead time at work for writing blogposts and my "Presentation" collection of 150 or so photos in Picasa is then available at my fingertips to decorate the posts. If I need to make any adjustments (crop, resize...) I have Pixlr, a free, online Photoshop mimic where this can be easily done through the web-browser. My office is truly omnipresent!

At work I rarely use the same computer and sometimes even several different ones in the same day as I wander around the hospital. The minimalistic approach makes it easy for me to launch my office from whatever computer I am sitting at since all I need is to login on a decent browser (or run Chrome as a portable app from USB if the dreaded Internet Explorer is the only one available). If there's no computer available I always have my Android, providing a mini-portal to my online office.

It's data well organized and easily searchable

Without documents there is no office, at most you can pick your nose and call your colleges to tell about it. Equally bad is an office with stack of unorganized documents and notes. You have to be able to find your documents in an instant whether you browse through them or search. With your data on your hard drive you might have folders within folders to accomplish that task but it is very easy to get lost as the folders grow fatter and count more.

Tagging (also called labeling) is the modern way of organizing data and essential skill for the online office. A document can have one or many tags, unlike the old fashioned folder arrangement it doesn't have to belong to any one tag. You can rename or even erase a tag and the belonging documents will not disappear, just not belong to this tag any more. By carefully tagging your documents they are much easier to access when browsing through them. Everyone knows the old problem of saving some document and then never finding it again, tagging will prevent this from happening again. So if you're still confused about what tagging is, check out this article explaining the concept.

As we will soon find out, tagging and searching is the one of the key features of my selection of the online office tools.

It's data invulnerable to loss and security breaches

Backing up your data is crucial, yet most people wake up it's importance when it's too late. You can read these people's stories and you will literally feel their pain.

Backups will be a problem of the past as you move your years of documents, notes, photoalbums, bookmarks,  etc to the data-cloud. Even if your house burns down at least your electronic data is still available. Surely the odds are low but the potential damage is trivial.

Just backing up the "my documents" folder is not enough. What about your email? Or your calendar and contact list? Besides, the traditional backup medias are not as safe as you thought, external hard drives do fail and even CDs and DVDs are overestimated (some DVDs for example will in only 2 years!). And what if your laptop is stolen - surely you have your data backed up but don't you feel a little uncomfortable knowing that all is now in the hands of some mischievous person?

The key here is using the data cloud and the best way to use the cloud is to use web-applications. The data cloud is a term that describes a huge network of online servers (data farms) storing your data instead. You should not have a single document on your hard-drive unless for a very good reason. A thought that might be pervasive at first but when you realize the comfort of not having to worry about if your data you will never look back again.

Check out my post "Backing up your data the modern way, power to the cloud".

OK, I got your idea - now what?

Install a decent browser

Using web-applications, your browser is the alpha and omega of your office, it is like the hud and steering wheel of your car. It has to be fast, secure and rich of features. I have tried all the major browsers and I always come back to Chrome, in my opinion the best there is currently. Read my post about it and the extensions which can make your office life so much easier.

Extend your office

As I've previously said, your office does not have to be bound to your personal room at home or work. Portable apps and smartphones are the keys to extending your office.

Chrome can be installed on it as a "portable app" so that you can open your office even on computers that don't allow installing additional software. You could even install it on your own USB stick for additional convenience (also see my above mentioned Chrome post for additional info on this).

If you decide to use the Google Apps you really should consider also using Android since it is from the same software maker. Surely there are some apps on the iPhone but with Android you can be sure they are always the best you can get (Gilette style).

Picking the tools in the toolbox

The Google Applications So I've explained the concept: all your documents online and use web-applications. So where to start from, what should I do? Well from now on I can only tell you how I have done it and thus I ask you to read my post abot Google Apps, the core component of my online office. You might have expected a lot of websites and online services to register to but the beauty of Google Apps is that they have most of the tools you will need and registration is free. The most important tools that Google Apps have are:
  • Gmail for secure and online email and contacts
  • Google Calendar for organizing your daily life and tasks
  • Google Docs for working with text documents, spreadsheets, presentations and even more
  • Google Music for your music, podcasts and audio books
  • Picasa for managing your photo albums
  • Blogger for my blogs
  • Google Sites for your managing your webpages
  • Google Groups for easy team communication
  • Google+ for your social networking experience

To introduce all of these if out of the scope of this blogpost, I just want to introduce you to the Google suite as it is the one most important ingredient of my online, mobile office, a true Swiss-army knife. I will be writing more about each and everyone very soon and emphasize how they work for me as an emergency physician.
In addition to the Google Apps, there are a few additional services (also free) I use to complement what GA doesn't have:
  • Crocodoc for my PDF collection (since GDocs misses highlighting feature for PDFs)
  • Pixlr for a free, online "Photoshop mimic"
  • Grooveshark for my discovering music
Though not strictly an office tool, I'd still like to mention Quora as it helps me a lot finding answers to my questions, a common office task. It's a professional Q & A community, sometimes giving me better answers than traditional search engines.

Learn some IT skills

The computer being so powerful, not only do you wan't to have the best components but also you want to know how to use your computer for maximum performance. Check out my posts on IT-skills: taming your computer!

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