You’ve finally accomplished your dream: The boss will let you telecommute. Instead of hurling yourself into rush hour traffic, drinking break room coffee that tastes like shampoo, and enduring the other charming attributes of cubicle life, you can work from the comfort of your own home. You can turn up the stereo as loud as you like, wear your pink bunny slippers, and work with a dog (or cat) at your feet. How wonderful!
Now, however, you need to learn new skills. You’ve probably spent your entire working life in an office. You know the unspoken signals that, say, indicate that the water cooler chat is over and it’s time to hunker down with work. But most people aren’t adept at the work-at-home lifestyle, either personally or in terms of remote collaboration with coworkers.
Telecommuting Made Easier
The first step in successful telecommuting is to set up a home office that lets you get the work done. After you get set up, take these steps to make sure your telecommuting becomes a successful endeavor.
Many people that start telecommuting worry that they’ll have a hard time getting started in the morning. They fear that their newfound freedom will cause them to procrastinate — to spend time reading blogs, taking care of children, cooking fancy dinners, doing the laundry — and never settle down to work. That’s a real issue for some people, true. Those people need to create a new structure for the day. As the writer Peter DeVries once said, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”
Instead of laziness, the opposite is usually a bigger problem: When telecommuting, it’s very hard to get away from work. The best thing about working at home is that you can get up at 4 a.m. and go to work — and the worst thing about working at home is that you can get up at 4 a.m. and go to work. The trip to Burnout Land is shorter than the distance between your bedroom and your computer.
It’s important to create a sharp distinction between “I’m at work” and “I’m not at work.” For some telecommuters, that means physically closing the door on the home office. Other people rely on a daily regimen. For example, if the phone rings while I’m eating lunch — which is never in my office — I let it ring. “She’s at lunch,” I say out loud. “She’s not at her desk.”
A less obvious telecommuting problem is isolation. While you may love the idea of working alone, no longer overhearing phone conversations from the cube next door, eventually you will become lonely. Sure, you don’t have to get dressed up for work; on the other hand, if you wear a new sweater, absolutely nobody will say, “Such a pretty sweater!” You can go days without walking out your front door. There are plenty of ways to address this – go out for lunch, for example – but the first challenge is to recognize when “solitary” begins to feel more like “alone.”
Mommy’s working now
It’s likely that a key reason you chose telecommuting is to be closer to your family. Indeed, a major benefit of your new flexible schedule is that you can pick up children at daycare (and stop for bank and post office errands on the way) or nurse the new baby. But when you telecommute, you aren’t a full-time parent. You’re working. You’re just working nearby.
Prepare to train your family to understand that the key word in “work at home” is “work.” Even when you can clearly distinguish “work time” from “not at work time” for yourself, your children and spouse may not be able to tell the difference. They see you, therefore they believe they can talk with you, ask you to cook dinner, demand to be driven to a softball game.
Create clear rules about when others may and may not disturb you. Stick to them.
The office … from afar
Prepare for smirks from your coworkers. At least one person in your office is sure that, if you’re “supposedly” working from home, you’re sitting on the couch, watching afternoon TV and eating bon-bons. Certainly, they think, you aren’t actually working. In fact, you’re probably working harder than they are, since you don’t have water cooler conversations to distract you and you aren’t wasting time in irrelevant meetings — but they don’t know that.
It’s important to establish a sense of trust with your coworkers and managers. Enjoy your flexible schedule, but ensure that your team members can predict your availability.
- Be very sure that you clearly itemize and document what you’ve accomplished on the days you telecommute.
- Send detailed status reports
- Ask questions
- Participate in any way you can
Did you write a new code module, finish writing a report, or spend three hours researching a problem? Make sure that time shows up in some measurable manner.
One real issue for telecommuters is: “Out of sight, out of mind.” Unless you take direct action, your coworkers and — more important for your long-range career ambitions — your boss doesn’t see you in the office, so in some ways you don’t exist. You aren’t there when three people have a brainstorm in the lunchroom. When the boss has a bright idea, he can’t look at you and think, “Hey, she’d be a great person for that task.” You don’t hear the office gossip, so you won’t know the current state of office politics.
To address the problem, you must deliberately participate in office conversations. Technology can be a huge help here, including email, instant messaging, teleconferences, shared content tracking systems and Web conferencing.
Email becomes more important to telecommuters, who can’t lean against your doorjamb to follow up on a conversation. If you can, set team rules for response time. Some messages require an immediate response, even if it’s just “Thanks, I got it; I’ll look at the document later.”
You should also work with your team to set up at least two weekly teleconferences. The first is a team get-together to discuss current tasks (“What are you working on this week?”), general strategy and company news (“We’re reorganizing the way we handle expense reports,”) and — this is important — social time. Do not underestimate the value of catching up on Monday morning (“How was your weekend?”) in terms of team building.
The other weekly meeting should be between you and your manager. That’s the time to talk about individual projects, to discuss any concerns about work (“Since I’m across the country, how can I participate in company training?”), and to chitchat. The latter isn’t just about team building… it’s one of your weapons against the telecommuter’s emotional isolation.
Telecommuting is a wonderful way to work. It lets team members control their environment and work in the most productive fashion for each individual. But to make a success of the lifestyle, telecommuters — and the people they work with — have to learn a new set of social skills. It takes a little extra work, but the payoff is phenomenal.