Working From Home

First things first: this article will not help you get a new job making big bucks from the comfort of home. (I've been telecommuting since 2000, and every time I tell people I telecommute full time, they all ask, “Have you got any more jobs available?”) Rather, this article will help wannabe-telecommuters outline what it takes to turn their own job into something more flexible and enjoyable.

Telecommuting Requirements

Forget a computer and a fax machine: the first requirement of telecommuting is a solid personal relationship with their coworkers. It's difficult to build that relationship initially without being physically present in the office, and I've found that it's easier to transition existing workers into telecommuting rather than hire new ones who work from home.

The second requirement is being passionate about the work. Any job is hard enough without the distractions that an office shelters people from. Telecommuting works when the worker gets fired up first thing in the morning about getting to work. I couldn't telecommute as an accountant: I'd be too tempted to clean the house, take out the trash, do the dishes, anything but the work itself.

Once an employee meets those two requirements, a manager will be more open to allowing telecommuting. The key to getting managers to open up to telecommuting is the word “more”: getting more productivity, more availability, more reliability, and anything else they expect from their current employees. People who want to telecommute have to be able to offer more of everything, and be able to deliver with specific goals.

Telecommuters Can Be More Productive

This is a sales & marketing effort as much as an actual productivity measure: every morning, telecommuters should send an email to their supervisor with bullet points outlining what they did yesterday, and what they're going to accomplish today. It might sound like enabling micromanagement, but it's really designed to help people sell their supervisors and coworkers on the fact that they're productive. If managers see these regular bullet points, they appreciate the productivity increase, because they can see it in their inbox every morning.

It needs to be the first thing a telecommuter does in the morning because it's the equivalent of turning the light on in an office. Demonstrating a good work ethic is important at any company, but even more so when telecommuting: coworkers need to understand that telecommuters are showing up and turning on the virtual light at the right time, not sleeping in and goofing off.
For creative jobs like programming, graphic design, and writing, working at home affords the ability to be productive whenever the urge strikes. Good telecommuters put in eight hours a day (or whatever the magic number is), but they do it on their own schedule, when they're in the zone. I program best between 5am and 2pm, after which I'm mentally brain dead. As a result, I start work at 5am, but I send my daily status report in around 8 or 9am.

Telecommuters Can Be More Available

Regardless of my working hours, I appreciate that a telecommuter has to be available on everyone else's schedule. Might as well address the obvious: when a meeting is held around a whiteboard, or when teams are designing large visual objects, there's no substitute for being there. While meetings of 5 or less people can work if there's only one remote worker (or of course, if they're all remote workers), larger ones just aren't an easy sell. I don't expect my company to shell out big bucks to put my face up on a screen when frankly, I'm not that much to look at. I'd rather they kept the bar charts up on the screen.

Having said that, telecommuters can still be more available than their in-office counterparts, but it requires conscious work. Disciplined use of Instant messaging is the first step: my coworkers often talk about how I'm easier to reach than any in-house employee, simply because I'm always available right from their computer desktop. Without getting up out of their seat and walking down a hallway, they can see if I'm available for consultation, and then initiate a conversation and get their problem solved. I'll explain how that works.

In cubicle environments, it's easy to stick my head over someone's cube wall to have a quick chat. Replicate that at home by using instant messenger software from AOL, MSN, or Yahoo – or even all three. In order to make it as easy as possible for my coworkers to get in touch with me, I run all three instant messenger clients at all times, because different coworkers use different instant messenger programs. All three allow for conferencing between multiple users: learn to use it, because coworkers probably don't know how to invite people into virtual conferences. It's very helpful for quick meetings to solve small problems.

Office workers have the luxury of walking past someone else's cube to check their status – to see if the time is right for a quick meeting. If one worker needs help from a more senior worker, for example, they'll often do a visual check to see if that worker is in a meeting, talking on the phone, or maybe even just has the door closed to work on a big project. Those types of visual clues are critical to maintain good relationships with coworkers, and the way to accomplish it while telecommuting is by using instant messaging statuses appropriately. Instant messaging programs like Yahoo IM, MSN Messenger, and AOL Instant Messenger all let users set their status to things like Away From My Desk, In A Meeting, and so on. An up-to-date status is important: if coworkers send an instant message without getting an instant reply, they suspect telecommuters of playing hooky.

The hidden advantage to disciplined use of instant messaging statuses is that coworkers know when telecommuters are done for the day. Otherwise, in-office workers will continually place telephone calls and send emails to telecommuters expecting a response: after all, if the in-office people are working, they expect the remote office is open as well. When telecommuting, set strict office hours and abide by them. When I'm done for the day, I change my instant messaging status to show that I'm not available, or away from the computer, even if I'm sitting there surfing the web. It's important for coworkers to know that business time is over, and personal time has started. (It goes without saying that telecommuters should never give out their home number as a business number: either use a company cell phone, an additional phone line, or a voice-over-IP solution like

Telecommuters Are More Dedicated

This one's a no-brainer: people don't leave telecommuting jobs. Once someone has mastered the basics of telecommuting and become more productive, more available, and more reliable, it's difficult to leave that position. There are so many advantages to telecommuting: everything from reduced costs (no eating lunch at restaurants, no gas costs for commuting, etc) to more flexible schedules to just plain increased morale.
In this economy, it might seem hard to sell managers on telecommuting. However, when a manager sees the benefits in practice, they open up. The key to getting managers interested is clearly outlining and delivering the above benefits, and more.