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Beat the flu by working remotely

Free remote-access and video-chat services let you keep in touch with the office without risking—or spreading—infection.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Friday, October 9, that the H1N1 virus was widespread in 37 states. Fortunately, vaccines are on their way, and seasonal flu shots are currently available (the map on the site helps you find a vaccination center near you).

The best way to avoid bringing the flu bug home with you from the office is to stay out of the office. If you have the flu, do yourself and your coworkers a favor: stay home and rest! Not sure if you have the flu? Check the CDC site for a list and description of the symptoms of both H1N1 and seasonal flu. You'll also find information on the CDC site for taking care of people with the flu, prevention for people at high risk, and travel updates.

One of the best ways to track the flu's spread is via Google Flu Trends, an interactive map that indicates the frequency of flu-related search terms in various countries.

Google Flu Trends
The Google Flu Trends map tracks flu-related searches by country. Google

Additional information on flu trends is available for the U.S. and several other countries. For the U.S., you can compare yearly flu trends and view data for each state.

Google Flu Trends for U.S.
For several countries, Google provides more annual and regional flu data. Google

Link to your office PC for free
In many work situations, there's no substitute for being face to face. But every year it gets easier to get your office work done from outside the office. One way to do so is via Windows' Remote Desktop Connection component, which lets you link to a PC that's on an office network, but only if the machine's running XP Professional or Vista/Windows 7 Professional, Business, or Ultimate.

Microsoft's help and support sites provide more information about XP Pro's remote-access features and Vista's version of Remote Desktop Connection. The How-To Geek offers instructions for enabling Remote Desktop Connection in Windows 7 and Vista.

The Windows approach to remote access is severely limited, especially compared with the alternatives. One of the most popular is LogMeIn, which is available as a limited-feature free version and as a Professional version that costs $70 a year, and the Hamachi release that provides a virtual private network and comes in free and professional versions.

Another widely used remote-access program is RealVNC (Virtual Network Computing), which is also available in free and commercial releases, although the free version runs only on Windows XP. You download the server component to the system you want to access remotely and the client applet on the ex officio machine. Prices for the Personal Edition start at $30 per year for one PC.

Add video to your chat sessions
If you haven't yet used chat at work, you soon will. As timely and to-the-point as texting can be, there's nothing like video for making contact in real time. Nearly every IM service has added voice and video capabilities. For Gmail users, Google's free Gmail voice and video chat plug-in converts any two PCs with Webcams into a videoconferencing system.

For a more generic approach to video chat, the former SightSpeed service has become Logitech Vid, which is free for consumers. The SightSpeed Business version costs from $20 a month or $190 a year for a single seat.

Free videoconferencing services are also offered by Skype, OoVoo, Apple's iChat, and the totally Web-based Palbee beta.

I'll take a closer look at these free video systems in a future flu-season post. Right now, I have to go get myself vaccinated.