I hate laptop computers. If I had my druthers, all work-related computers would be desktops, and no one would take their PCs (and their work) home with them. Life on the help desk would be so much simpler if you didn’t have to answer calls from users who forget how to synchronize their e-mail accounts.

But in the real world, some employees travel and have to take a laptop everywhere they go. Recently, I had to join the legions of work-at-home users who tote their laptop machines between home and office. This week, I’d like to share some tips I came up with for providing better support to laptop users. Feel free to add your favorite tips to this list.

Provide a full-size keyboard and mouse
In most shops, laptop users plug their machines into docking stations when they’re in the office. The docking stations typically have built-in connectivity for a full-size keyboard and mouse. But what do those users do at home or on the road? Most of them put up with the smaller keyboards and the funky pointing devices that can be murder on the hands, forearms, shoulders, and eyes.

For example, I’m using a company-issued IBM ThinkPad. Its keyboard has a nice touch, but there’s no Windows key, so I have to use [Ctrl][Esc] to summon the Start menu from the keyboard. The useless [Fn] key is where I expect the [Ctrl] key to be on a full-size keyboard, and the [Insert], [Delete], [Home], [End], [Page Up], and [Page Down] keys are crowded together. Switching from the full-size keyboard and mouse to the laptop devices was driving me nuts.

I thought I was clever when I started packing a regular-size mouse in with the laptop case. At home, I plugged the mouse into the back of the laptop, and that made working from home a whole lot easier. There was no place to plug a full-size keyboard into the laptop, though. Then a friend of mine recommended a Dell USB keyboard. It was a lifesaver! It plugs into the USB port, and the full-size mouse plugs right into the top of the keyboard.

Now I drag the laptop home with me, but I boot up with the USB keyboard connected. No more pain in the arms from using a too-small keyboard! I like having a consistent feel to my keyboard at home and at work.

I bragged so much about how much I enjoy my new at-home configuration that a dozen of my coworkers called the help desk and requested their own USB keyboards and full-size mice. I recommend that we—the tech support team—provide a full-size keyboard and mouse for every user who wants to take that equipment home and have it available to plug into the laptop. These components are relatively cheap, so they won’t break the hardware budget.

Of course, that solution doesn’t help road warriors who are in and out of hotels. They don’t want to carry full-size keyboards everywhere they go, and who can blame them. However, for the user who really wants a full-size keyboard, you can buy folding keyboards that collapse to a reasonably small size for travel and then unfold to provide a full-size keyboard.

Provide extra batteries and instructions for rebooting
I recommend that the tech support team create documentation for all laptop users that covers the limitations of laptop batteries, the proper way to recharge or replace a battery, and how to reboot a laptop that freezes up.

I was working on a critical project at home when my laptop locked up. It was probably something I did wrong. Anyway, the darn thing wouldn’t reboot. Moreover, it wouldn’t power down, either. I unplugged the power, replugged the power, did a little dance on all the keys, and still nothing.

Imagine my embarrassment the next day when a coworker told me, “All you have to do is remove the battery and then put it back in.”

The laptop was still on and frozen when I pulled it out of the case. I popped out the battery and the screen went blank. With the battery still out, I plugged the machine into a wall outlet, and ba-da-boom, it restarted. To help your end users avoid the embarrassment I suffered from that little experience, I suggest that you document for them exactly what to do to troubleshoot a frozen laptop.

Provide written instructions for managing voice mail
Here’s a tip I think will come in handy for every IT shop and every employee who travels or periodically works out of the office. In most organizations where I’ve worked or consulted, the IT department supports the phone systems. So the responsibility for documenting the phone systems falls on the tech support team.

Here’s what happened. For over a year, I’ve been consulting in a shop with a Meridian phone system. I asked for, but never received, a cheat sheet showing me the shortcuts for deleting messages. I assumed, erroneously, that I had to listen to a message in its entirety before I could delete it. But no!

I was whining to one of my coworkers about having to listen to a bunch of five- and six-minute voice messages on which I had been copied. I said, “Man, I wish I could fast-forward to the end of these things and delete ’em.”

At that point, my coworker showed me exactly how to do it. I was elated, and my comment was, “Gee, do you know how much company time I’ve wasted in the last year because no one had ever told me how to do that?” The phone system had been around a long time, and all of the cheat sheets had disappeared. So the only way new employees learned the cool tricks was when they were passed along by word of mouth.

It made me wonder how many employees who travel or work from home were also wasting precious time by sitting and waiting on messages to play, just because they didn’t know how to speed them up or skip directly to the end.

I recommend that the tech support team create detailed instructions for managing voice mail messages and distribute them to all employees. Getting the word out will save time and money for all.

Supporting remote users

To comment on this Help Desk Advisor column, or to share your favorite support for remote users, post a comment or write to Jeff.