Is Telecommuting Right for You?

The last time I wrote a little about telecommuting as part of my Changing Workplace blog but what I didn't go into is my experiences over the last 11 years of working at home. This article will run on with some things I liked about working from home, some I didn't and some things you should be aware of if you, your coworkers or your employees start telecommuting.

Photo by franky242.

 In March of 2004, I left my full time position at Telesuite to work for myself. They became one of my first clients, as well as a real estate developer and an architect. Most of my work revolved around going to someone's office for a few minutes to pick up and go over the red lined markups, then doing  the design (CAD) work at home. For the next decade, that pretty much became the rule with most clients I worked with. Some wanted me to spend more time at their office and a few didn't even have an office. With some clients I had to do software video conferencing chats with them while designing their products (and that's where my loathe for software really began but that's a story for another day). Anyway, on to it.

The Good
For the most part I set my own schedule. When I first started working for myself I was single and into cycling. Being an early riser, I would wake up around 5, work until noon, go on a bike ride for a while then work a few more hours until I was just done and it was time for some wine.

The lesson here is that having a work routine is important so you can stay focused when you need to and relax when you want to. I was oblivious to work when I was on my bike in the middle of the day.

I've had a dedicated office in the three houses I've lived in since I started working for myself. The best bet is to take over a spare bedroom and don't decide to make your living room a home office. Too many distractions there among other things but in a spare bedroom it can give you the feeling that you're in an office, and that's important. Why is that listed as a good point? If you keep your work related crap in the spare bedroom your room mates won't get pissed when you have a bunch of drawings/documents/whatever littering the living room floor.

Another great reason to work from home is that I didn't have to shovel snow from my farm's driveway in the morning to get to work, nor did I have to deal with rush hour traffic. To go a little off topic, I had a driveway that was about 700 foot long that split a corn/bean field. Snow drifting was horrible in the winter months. One day I woke up at 4 AM to start shoveling (this was back when I had a day job). It took me at least two hours to get to the point where I thought my car would make it through to the road. Then I took my shower and got ready for work. After the shower when I looked outside, you couldn't tell that I had spent the better part of the early morning moving the snow. I had to call in "sick". Had I a telecommuting job at the time, I could have looked out the window, laughed at all the people who had to drive into work that day and get started on whatever I was working on.

Midday naps are awesome.

The last good point - It's five o'clock somewhere.

The Bad
Your family and friends must absolutely understand your situation. Too many times telecommuters get in trouble because they were home all day and didn't get the dishes, laundry, vacuuming or anything else done around the house.Your family must understand that since you're home it doesn't mean that you're on holiday and can help them with overhauling the tractor or fixing the washing machine.

Distractions are difficult for us with attention problems so you need to be mindful if your brain goes in 30 directions at once. Identify the distractions. What can you do about them? You'll have to figure out this stuff for yourself. One of my biggest distractions was gazing out of a window. It still is, so when I work, I close the blinds or turn myself away from the window. Now I like having Netflix on in the background while I work. If this is you, just make sure you don't spend an hour trying to find something to watch.

You're expected to work. Why is this labeled as a "bad" thing instead of a "duh" thing? If you end up too distracted during the day you may find yourself forced into working through the evening to get your normal amount of work done.

If you're one of those people that enjoys water cooler chats with coworkers, you may find yourself pretty lonely working from home.

Note that you will not always be able to contact the telecommuter. As I stated above, I took 4-5 hour bike rides in the middle of the day. Don't buy into the hype that presence apps or software will keep you in contact with your remote team 24/7. We are human. We must eat, go to the bathroom, ride bikes and otherwise may not want to be available at every given moment. If you're a telecommuter and on a flexible working schedule, let people know your typical hours of work so they won't be trying to reach you when you're unavailable.

For remote workers
  • Set a schedule and let your clients/boss know it
  • Let people know if you're going to be unavailable for a period of time (to ride a bike, take a nap, etc)
  • Setup a dedicated place to work
  • Minimize distractions 
  • Take a break to pet your dog 
  • If you're on video calls often, get the beer bottles out of the camera capture and keep the background generally clear.
For Employers of remote workers
  • Don't assume you can always be in contact
  • Know their schedule and don't expect them to work outside of it.
  • If you set a deadline for a project, hold them to the fire for it. If they can't deliver maybe telecommuting isn't for them as it's certainly not for everyone.
  • Understand that it's not appropriate to call them constantly to check up on them. They may be in the bathroom. Is your ad hoc video chat really that important?
What are your tips for a better telecommuting experience?

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Bryan is the Director of Engineering, lead designer, head of R&D, CAD guy and Chief Cubicle Builder at Array Telepresence. He is also avid video conference product tester and enjoys writing about the industry. Opinion expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Array.

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