My Thoughts as a Telecommuter

I started telecommuting over 12 years ago, well before it was “in vogue”.

I guess for the first time in my life I was a trend setter. People telecommute for various reasons. For me the most important factor was I really liked my job and did want it to end just because I was moving and there was no local office. Luckily I had a manager who was open to the idea, and well, the rest has been history as they say.

I had to overcome several obstacles when I first started to telecommute. The biggest was probably setting expectations/boundaries with co-workers. In the beginning folks would get upset if I didn’t answer my phone every time they called. I guess they felt I was off having fun instead of working. It took them a little while to buy-in into the fact that no one sits at their desk for 8 hrs a day regardless of whether you work at home or in an office. People need to take “bio-breaks”, grab a bite to eat, make a cup of tea, etc. Once they started to measure me on my “output” instead of how quickly I answered the phone, it soon became obvious that we had a winning formula. Every boss I had was amazed at how much work I could get done not only telecommuting, but also working reduced hours.

Another obstacle was to make sure everyone knew there was a person behind that voice on the phone. It’s very easy to forget about people who telecommute. In the beginning I over communicated, I made sure to touch base via phone, email, etc., as often as possible. I also tried to put a “human side” to me. During a very important meeting that I was attending via phone, I had arranged with a coworker to print out a large picture of me. She got there early and put my picture in one of the chairs so I was there in spirit. It was a great way to break the ice and put a face behind the voice. (I hope no one drew a mustache on me, but I guess what I don’t know won’t hurt me.) I also made sure to take part in the company’s annual Halloween dress up contest. I would dress up and take a picture of myself and send it to everyone. I even won a prize one year. Doing little things like that helped me to become part of the team and not just a “voice”.

Twelve years ago, there weren’t as many tools to assist a telecommuter as there are today, but I found them. We used Netmeeting a lot. I loved Netmeeting and still to this day wish Microsoft had continued with that product. It was so simple, but worked. We could webcam with Netmeeting as well as work on documents in a collaborative way where everyone could see the changes as they were made in real-time. We also used erooms, which was a good online collaboration environment, but we stopped using it once they started charging. Today there are so many more tools that can be used with many great features, but it’s ironic that the ones I use the most are the simplest ones like chat and IRC.

Telecommuting is not for everyone; it does get lonely at times. If you are the type of person who thrives at the water cooler talking about last night’s ball game or the latest TV show, then telecommuting is probably not for you. But if you are self motivated, enjoy putting your head down and getting work done, then you will do fine as a telecommuter. Just be prepared that the highlight of your day is when you get to say “hi” to your mailman.

One of the best parts about telecommuting is my office mates. Who wouldn’t love working with a dog at their feet and cats purring on the desk. Ok, I will admit… my cats have sent off a few emails before they were ready, or shut down my computer at very inappropriate times. But they add companionship to a lonely work environment and they don’t gossip at all… so in my mind they are the perfect office mate.

It’s important to set up boundaries when telecommuting. For some strange reason, co-workers who would never think of calling a colleague during non-work hours at home, feel perfectly fine calling me at home during non-work hours for non-emergencies. I have always had a policy that folks can call me at home, but to be respectful during non-working hours and to make sure it’s important. For the most part everyone has been very good about this. Those who weren’t were reminded gently that we could have waited until the morning.

I would say that all of my bosses (except one… you know who you are) were very supportive of my telecommuting. I found more bias towards me working reduced hours than I did telecommuting, which is a real shame. (That’s a topic for another time.)

If you are interested in telecommuting don’t be afraid to approach your boss with a concrete plan on how to make it work. I had more bosses in my 11 years than I can remember (I went through a period of time where I had almost a new boss a quarter). It was not uncommon to have the new boss tell me it’s not possible to do my job remotely and under reduced hours. And every single one of them I was able to turn around quickly by showing them that it doesn’t matter where you sit as long as you produce value. If I could do it, so can you!

If you are a manager, I hope that after reading this blog, that maybe I have opened your mind up a little to telecommuting and that if an employee asks, you might be willing to give it a try. You will have an employee who will be grateful and will probably go overboard for you.

In the end, it’s simple: if you do your job, do it well, create value and are a pleasure to work with, it won’t matter where your office is located. You will be successful!

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