The (Telecommuting) Face-Time Challenge

Don’t underestimate the importance of ‘face time’ – real and
virtual - and the need to manage your manager’s expectations.

by Mathew Schwartz | August 2007


Want to write code in your slippers?

As demand for
talent has surged and companies look for new ways to recruit workers
while cutting operating expenses, many organizations – from start-ups
to tech heavyweights – have embraced telecommuting. Take IBM: 40
percent of its 356,000 employees now work from home. Likewise, because
Sun Microsystems has 16,000 workers based in home offices, it has been
able to eliminate 7,700 office spaces.

With more
companies embracing telecommuting, more executives telecommuting
themselves and access to broadband Internet connections increasingly
widespread, the barriers to working at home have all but disappeared.
Right?

According to one recent study, 78 percent of
executives think workers who telecommute are at least as productive as
their office-based brethren. Half of executives would themselves pursue
a position involving substantial telecommuting, especially for the
ability to work flexible hours. However, 61 percent also believe
telecommuting is less likely to advance their career, according to the
survey of 1,320 executives conducted by a unit of Korn/Ferry
International, an executive recruiting firm.

While
telecommuting is far from a dead-end career option, those who want to
take advantage of it shouldn’t underestimate the importance of "face
time"- both real and virtual - and the need to manage their managers’
expectations.

Here are 10 tips to help make telecommuting successful for you:

Find the Right Corporate Culture

Pursue
companies that do more than just talk the talk. Ask these questions:
How many executives telecommute? Are higher-ups available to mentor
telecommuters? Does the company train managers and employees on all
aspects of telecommuting, from supervising remote workers to using
equipment properly from home? Finally, can workers opt out of
telecommuting if it’s not to their liking?

Evaluate the Telecommuting Infrastructure

Even
at home, working 12-hour stretches requires the right tools. So, does
the company provide telecommuters with a corporate-issued laptop,
laptop dock, external monitor and keyboard? Will it pay for broadband
access and a dedicated phone line for your home office?

Train Up

To
maximize their telecommuters’ productivity, many companies offer
relevant training. For example, Sun counsels employees in the art of
running or participating in distributed meetings. Susan Landau, a Sun
Microsystems distinguished engineer and regular telecommuter, says such
advice includes: "Plan the meeting well. Create time for social
chatting at the beginning or end of the meeting. Address behavior
problems as they occur. For example, say ‘We hear typing noise, please
mute your call.’"

Manifest a Potent Virtual Presence

Just
as face-to-face communication works on many levels, effective virtual
communication requires more than just occasionally IM’ing your
co-workers. Be aware of both subtle and obvious means of communicating
your presence. For example, frequently update your IM "presence"
status, remember to speak up on conference calls, and regularly send
e-mails to your boss at 8 a.m.

Play Sysadmin at Home
 
Remote workers inevitably face remote connectivity challenges. The SSL
VPN for accessing your enterprise e-mail goes down, the home router
forgets the required security settings, or perhaps the latest Windows
patch isn’t installing correctly. Given the fact that remote assistance
won’t always be available, be flexible. As Landau notes, "I’ve learned
to handle minor system administration myself."

Accept Telecommuting Trade-Offs

Realize
telecommuting may require real trade-offs. "One problem I have not
solved is that I don’t participate in the informal discussions – the
random idea brought up over lattes, the talk someone heard at a meeting
the week before and mentions at lunch – that are the lifeblood of a
research lab," says Landau. This comes down to a compromise: By working
at home, "my connections to my colleagues are not as close, our
conversations not as frequent, as they would be if I saw them daily,"
she says.

Watch Your Stress

Even
though telecommuting eliminates your morning and evening commutes,
working at home can add also stress to your life, especially if you
feel isolated. To compensate, one guide for Lenovo telecommuters
recommends spending extra time to build your extracurricular social
network, and perhaps joining a local association of professional
telecommuters. Or, work out at your local gym every lunch hour. Also
build routines, create to-do lists, check in with colleagues at
specified times throughout the day, and especially plan and take
breaks. And don’t be in a rush: A 30-90 day adjustment period for
telecommuters is typical.

Minimize Non-Work Interruptions

Ensure
you’re a happy telecommuter by creating the right environment for
minimizing interruptions and getting work done at home. For starters,
dedicate a room to be your office, ensure you have a door that locks,
and put a day care plan in place.

Don’t Be a Workaholic

No
one likes a burnout. Set and keep specific start and stop times for
work, have reasonable expectations about what you can accomplish during
a given day, and don’t over-promise what you can deliver simply to
"make up" for working at home.

Manage Your Career

Even
if you telecommute, you want to be sure your career advances. So
regularly schedule meetings with your manager to "assess needs, get
feedback, and discuss problems," recommends Lenovo’s guide. Keep your
manager up to date on all of your projects and, in particular, always
inform him or her about any work successes.

In short,
telecommuting presents challenges, especially if you crave
interpersonal interactions and aren’t an old hand at manifesting a
virtual presence. Yet with a little practice, perseverance and a
supportive corporate culture, you can make it work for you.

Mathew Schwartz is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Cambridge, Mass.

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