In today's wired world, many employers are finding that telecommuting--when set up correctly--improves productivity and morale, as well as helping to attract and retain top talent.

Instant messaging, e-mail, telephone and fax can keep any telecommuter in touch. In theory, the minutes or hours wasted on the morning drive turn into productive time.

So I decided to put myself in the place of someone who works at home one or two days a week and see what kind of software and hardware might help.

The first step is to design a suitable office environment at home. My recommendation is to set aside an area where you will do nothing but work. The ideal home office has a door that can close, but almost any area will do so long as it is dedicated to work. It's best to keep the office away from bedrooms, though. Nobody wants to be awakened in the middle of the night by an incoming fax.

Once the real estate is configured, stock it with the tools to get your job done. Here you will run into some expense, though probably less than you might expect. Check whether your employer will subsidize your costs.

The main items you will need are a computer with a modem, a telephone and an answering machine. Some people also want a fax machine. Even though the PC can be configured to send and receive faxes, I prefer a dedicated fax machine. The computer will need its own phone line in most cases. The fax machine and telephone can share a line.

The PC should have a Pentium II or Pentium III processor. A Celeron system might be adequate as long as you don't do heavy multitasking. Make sure you have at least 64 megabytes of RAM, although 128 would be better. You also need a decent video card with 8 megabytes of video RAM--about the minimum available today and adequate for most office work. You'll want at least an 8-gigabyte hard drive; 10 gigabytes or more is advisable if your office plans to migrate to Microsoft Windows 2000.

Windows NT is a reliable and powerful operating system, but since you will probably have to do your own technical support at home, Windows 98 is adequate.

You'll need a CD-ROM drive, of course, and you might want to look into either an Iomega Corp. Zip drive or an Imation Corp. SuperDisk drive if you have one on your workplace PC. That way, you won't have to e-mail yourself those 50-megabyte files or 50 different files. Simply carry your work back and forth on the high-capacity disks.

Most PC makers have computers specifically designed for home offices, and buying direct can save considerable money. Expect to pay $1,500 to $2,000 for a good system. Consider investing in a technical support contract--usually around $100 for three years--in case your employer offers no telecommuter support.

Once your system is in place, buy a utility suite to keep things running smoothly. Two good ones are Fix-It Utilities 99 from Mijenix Corp. of Boulder, Colo., and Norton System Works from Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif.

The second most important decision, after the computer, is how to connect to the rest of the world and link back to your office. For most people the answer will be a standard 56K modem. Almost every computer sold today incorporates one, and it will be more than adequate for standard tasks such as sending e-mail, browsing the Web and downloading small files.

If your PC has a USB (universal serial bus) port, consider buying the 56K MultiModem USB modem from Multi-Tech Systems Inc. of Mounds View, Minn. It's tiny and plugs easily into a notebook computer for use on the road, too.

A 56K modem has two disadvantages for telecommuters, however. Compared with alternatives, it's slow. People who regularly download 10MB or larger files will find a lot of the workday eaten up by downloads. Also, it requires a second phone line at home.

Two higher-speed options are cable modem and digital subscriber line. Many areas offer both, but the cost can vary wildly. In my Maryland county, a one-way cable modem costs $85 a month; in the next county, people have two-way service for $50. I can get DSL for $50 a month, although a co-worker in Northern Virginia cannot.

You might need a 10/100-Mbps network adapter for either DSL or a cable connection. Some companies provide the card for free when you subscribe, but look into having a card installed when you buy a new PC. It will be cheaper than paying $50 or more later. Get a good-quality card, such as those made by 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.

You also should buy virus protection for your home system, especially if you interface with many other users over the Internet. A good choice is Symantec's Norton AntiVirus, which constantly updates your virus profiles.

Once your computer is hooked up to the Internet, configure your second phone line to take calls and faxes and act as your default voice mail. Surprisingly, this is easy to do by daisy-chaining the devices together with phone cables.

Plug your fax machine into the phone wall jack at the front of the chain. Connect the answering machine to the auxiliary-out connection on the fax machine. Then plug a phone into the answering machine, and you should be all set.

You can connect about four devices this way before the signal becomes too weak, or unless you have a device without an auxiliary-out connection. Most fax machines sold today can detect a voice call and roll it back to subsequent devices on the chain. Some even come with a built-in phone, saving you a step in the daisy chain.

Increasing numbers of home users are purchasing multifunction devices that can print, scan letters, fax and make copies, such as the Hewlett-Packard Co. OfficeJet 720, which costs about $430.

If you don't need that much functionality but want a good, inexpensive printer, try the Epson America Inc. Stylus Color 640, which does near-laser-quality printing in full color, for about $200. It turns out four pages per minute in color or five in black and white.

As for telecommuting software, Symantec's pcAnywhere includes tools for daisy chaining and utilities such as a contact recorder, so you can let your boss know whom you are talking with and what you are working on.

Make sure to install any programs that you normally use at the office, such as a word processor or spreadsheet. If your office has standardized on Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect, you'll want it at home for compatibility.

Some software lets you dial into your computer at work to retrieve files, but you will have to use a standard phone line and configure your work computer correctly. The system administrator should be able to help out here.

Now that you have all the tools in place, stay connected to your office. Give colleagues your phone and fax number, set your e-mail program to check automatically for new messages every five minutes or so, and make sure the people at work know your home e-mail address. You might be able to configure your work e-mail to forward messages to home, and some offices also let remote workers check their mail over the Web.

To be completely connected, you and your supervisor could install an instant messaging system such as ICQ--freeware downloadable from the Web at www.icq.com. It lets you and co-workers chat in real time, send messages faster than e-mail and even see when your correspondents are online.

Other instant messaging products are free from America Online Inc., Yahoo and other sources.

FOR YOUR HOME OFFICE

HERE ARE SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR SETTING UP YOUR COMPUTER . . .

Processor

Minimum: Celeron

Ideally: Pentium II or III

Ram

Minimum: 64MB

Ideally: 128MB

Hard drive

Minimum: 8GB

Ideally: 10GB

Operating system

Minimum: Windows 98

Ideally: Windows NT

File storage

Minimum: CD-ROM drive

Ideally: Zip drive or SuperDisk drive

. . . ALONG WITH OTHER ITEMS TO CONSIDER:

Utility suite: Fix-It Utilities 99 or Norton System Works

Virus protection: Norton AntiVirus

Muti-function device*: Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet 720

Printer: Epson Stylus Color 640

Instant messaging: ICQ freeware; others are available from America Online and other sources

*Prints, scans, faxes and makes copies.