Thursday 13: The prerogatives and pitfalls of telecommuting

To keep from going stir crazy, I mix up
my working from home with trips to my
local “coffice” aka Starbucks. Occasionally, there
are bonuses like mini-fraps! See #11 below.

For the last couple years, I’ve had the special privilege of managing three different types of telecommuting arrangements. As a sometime university instructor, half of my job consists of grading and answering emails, largely from home (not to mention teaching online). I’ve balanced teaching and a partial telecommuting gig (85% at home with monthly face-to-face days) before more recently working from home 100% of the time (but still for an employer). With this experience, I thought I’d share some of the best, worst and most complicated aspects of telecommuting for this Thursday Thirteen.

1. FlexibilityWorking how, when and where I want. Telecommuting is often touted as a way to increase work/life balance and flexibility, particularly for working parents or those with special life circumstances. As a worker who straddles two states, I appreciate the flexibility. I can typically work a schedule that suits me, in a location that fits my mood, and in a manner that I deem appropriate, so long as I get my tasks accomplished in a satisfactory manner. Being trusted by my employers to work from home has enabled me to accomplish academic and personal goals that I wouldn’t have been able to fulfill otherwise.

2. Managing perceptionsNo bonbons, I swear. Communication is key, however, in order to successfully navigate a telecommuting situation, particularly managing perceptions. In a previous job, I telecommuted about 85% of the time, coming into the office a few days a month. Without fail, members of leadership would make cracks about me “working on my tan” in Phoenix or hanging out by the pool all day. I had to consistently combat negative commentary about my situation–that it wasn’t fair, that I didn’t work as hard as in-office employees, etc. Now in a full time telecommuting situation, I deflect barbs about sitting around eating bonbons all day, and questions about whether I “really” work. Yes, I assure you (when I’m not blogging), actual work gets done. More generally, it’s imperative to over-communicate as a telecommuter. I find it helpful to clearly set expectations with supervisors (and follow up in writing as a reminder), constantly keep in contact, and when working in teams, send projects updates frequently.

3. OvercompensatingEmails at midnight. A significant pitfall of telecommuting relates to overcompensation which creates stress. Research suggests that employees who work from home consistently put in more hours than they are compensated for in an effort to appear as competitive as in-office coworkers (same often goes for part-timers). For me in my last gig, overcompensation blurred the boundaries between my work and personal time as I was terribly concerned about negative perceptions (see above). I’d check emails at 6 a.m. when I woke up, respond between classes (yay smart phones), and catch up with conversations at midnight. This equated to thinking about work all the time, and worrying that I wasn’t doing enough.

4. Out of sight, out of mind syndromeYes, I still work here. Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to forget about a telecommuter when they aren’t seen all the time. Luckily in my last job, I worked a role that required me to communicate with mass audiences. My name showed up in email boxes and on the corporate intranet site frequently, so I didn’t have too much trouble being remembered. However, for those with up-the-ladder inspirations, it may be important to explicitly stay top-of-mind with the powers-that-be. I highly recommend scheduling regular face-to-face days, if possible, if for nothing else than to be remembered!

5. Multi-taskingI’m working AND fixing the furnace. Square in the “Telecommuting rocks” column is the ability to multi-task at home. For me this means scheduling repairs, crockpotting dinner or running laundry all day long. Bonus, I’m almost always home to meet the UPS dude.

6. Best uniform ever–Everyday is casual Friday. Oh how I adore taking meetings in sweatpants. When I first started this telecommuting stint, my new boss casually remarked “Don’t forget to turn on your web cam” before a conference call. What the what?? Thankfully, I don’t own one because my favorite part about telecommuting is not having to dress up, or hell, get dressed at all, if I don’t feel like it.

7. Disrupted hygiene routines5 p.m. showers. A strange manifestation of telecommuting has been disrupted hygiene routines. By this I mean showering at odd hours and staying in sweats all day. Without somewhere in particular to be, the impetus to get up early, shower and dress up everyday is gone (not to mention the fact that Mr. T steals all the hot water first thing in the morning anyway). I admit though that I miss structure and occasionally, wearing cute work clothes.

8. Saving time–The shortest commute ever. My commute is approximately 12 steps. Need I say more?

9. Shifting costs–Utility bill baloney. Whereas telecommuters definitely save on transportation, sometimes subtle expenses are shifted onto the employee like utilities, telephone, internet, office furniture etc. For long-term telecommuting arrangements, negotiating these costs is important.

10. A close kitchenThe double-edged sword. On the plus side, working from home allows for home cooked meals, reduced restaurant costs and the stealing of yummy leftovers. On the plus size side, it allows for eating, all the time. 

11. Cabin fever–Find a coffice near you. A nice aspect of telecommuting is control over the work environment. No cubicles. No noisy neighbors. Fewer interruptions. But then again, that means no people. Just you. No one to chat with or bounce ideas off of. Just lots of silence (and/or fabulous Pandora stations). For frequent telecommuters, I recommend the establishment of a “Coffice” if possible. If you’re me, this means setting up shop at Starbucks every so often (get it? Coffee + Office = Coffice. No, I didn’t make that up) to have some form of human interaction.

12. Reduced movement10,000 steps, my ass. I have strong suspicions that telecommuting is making me fat (reference #10). Not only do I have unlimited access to the kitchen, nothing is very far away (reference #8). In light of this, telecommuters should make concerted efforts to get in the daily recommended 10,000 steps. Every couple hours, take a walk around the block. Do squats between meetings. Schedule a five minute dance attack. Keep the blood flowing as much as possible.

13. Discipline requiredIgnoring the clutter, keeping focus. Telecommuting is not for everyone. To be successful, it requires the ability to focus on tasks, operate without direct supervision and stay self-directed. This means ignoring the messy house, keeping the TV off and concentrating. Believe me, that’s no easy feat some days!

Anything you’d add to the list?

xoxo,
shawna

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