Working Remotely, pt. 2

Telecommuting is convenient and I’m lucky to do it. Apparently Matt’s lucky, too. A new study reveals that 5% of workers surveyed would give up their spouses for an opportunity to work remotely. Wow.

I don’t think anyone needs to break up a family to go to work in their slippers, but particularly in light of a heightened focus on work-life balance, the environmental impact of commuting, the need for flexibility in the workplace and the difficulty of finding local opportunities for dual-career families: telecommuting makes sense. It’s not for everyone (maybe I’ll get to that another day), but when it works, it works very well.

If you’re considering leaving the office behind, I think it’s important to be aware of the things that seem to scare employers away from telecommuting. Every one of these is a valid concern, in my opinion, but there are reasonable (and honest) rebuttals to each one.

Worry: Productivity.  Every employer’s worst fear seems to be vividly illustrated by cartoonists who draw “working from home” as a guy in pajamas with horrible talk shows playing in the background. Or maybe in a bathing suit sipping drinks on a beach. There’s no denying that if your boss can’t see you, he or she can’t be sure how you’re spending your time.

Response. Entry-level jobs aside, most of us aren’t measuring our success based on how we spend each minute of the day. Our success is tied to outcomes. And your work product will be every bit as visible from a remote location as it would be from the office. A great workplace is one where your boss relies on you to have a strong work ethic and get your work done. We base these relationships on trust and respect. If there is some question about your productivity, it may be that the trust is missing. And that’s about more than your location.

Worry: Accessibility. If you’ve been working in an office, or if you’re pursuing a position where your predecessor worked in an office, your boss and your teammates are going to be accustomed to having near constant access to you. If they can’t get your attention with a quick knock on the door or by poking their heads around a corner, how will they find you?

Response. I think it’s important to be as crystal clear as possible. Make sure that you’re stating exactly when and how you can be reached at your desk. Ex: I’ll be available via phone/email/IM/text between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. During that time, make sure that you have no other responsibilities (no kids, no dog walking, no carpool etc.). Having your cell phone with you doesn’t count as working. Be “at your post” (as my dad would say) and let your employer know that this is the case. Always be there. Your responsiveness is critical to your credibility, especially in the first few months.

Worry: Collaboration.  Sometimes it’s great to put your head down and knock out four hours of work on your own. But often — particularly in creative environments — the best thinking comes from collective energy. If you’re going to be working with a team that’s already geographically distributed, then it’s easy. Everyone’s on a conference call anyway. But if everyone else is in the office, being on a speaker phone for a brainstorm isn’t ideal.

Response. There are two things that have to happen here. First, you have to be committed to pushing through the awkwardness of contributing to a conversation via speaker phone. You’ll get used to it, the rest of the team will get used to it, and you need to let your employer know that your value will be unchanged in these circumstances. You’ll still be the creative sparkplug you’ve always been, or the one your resume shows. Second, sometimes you need to go to the office. Let your team know that when they’re attempting to build a better mousetrap for the biggest client in town: you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with them. And then get there. Based on your job that might mean once a month or once a week, but regardless, it needs to happen.

Worry: Relationship building. If you’re going to make a case for leaving an office where you already work, then you have your social network in place. Lucky. If you’re making a case for beginning a new job as a remote worker (especially if it’s for a firm where telecommuting is not the norm) then there’s going to be legitimate concern about how you’ll fit in. It’s the most important part of a job never to be written into a job description.

Response. If you’re the kind of person who should be telecommuting (again, more on this later) then this is an obstacle you can overcome. Yes, it’s harder to make friends when you’re not there, but this is the age of social networking, right? Chances are if you put yourself out there, your new colleagues will respond. There are a few things you can do to help the process along. First, at least initially, go to the office regularly. There’s no substitute for lunch. Or even better, drinks. Once you’ve made a start, remember to pick up the phone. Talking will get you much farther in building relationships than email. As you make a case for telecommuting, you need to make it clear that you’ve thought this through. Your employer is not going to say “How will you make (or keep) friends?” But he or she will be respectful of the fact that you’re prepared.

There are some financial and logistical concerns as well, and it’s hard to comment on those without knowing particular circumstances. For example: if the company has XX budgeted for your position and suddenly has to fly you to town every three weeks and put you up in a hotel overnight, can the total budget be adjusted? Or is it your salary that needs to be adjusted? How does the cost of office space in a major city compare to the costs of having you out of town? Will you need IT support and if so, how will you get it?

Before you approach an employer with your idea of moving away to — oh I don’t know, Vermont, maybe — be sure you’ve done your math. Have all your reason and justification ready. Anticipate the problems that may arise, and proactively propose solutions.

Every company is different, every job is different, and every person is different. Telecommuting is not a perfect solution for everyone or every job that comes along. But if you want to do it and you think you can make a case for it, I say go for it. Let me know how else I can help.

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