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Make the Telecommute

How would you like to work in your PJs?

By Molly Joss

My first brush with telecommuting came, literally, by accident. Years ago, after I fell down a few steps into my garage, the doctor told me to stay off my badly broken left foot and in bed for at least two weeks. Armed with the only laptop that the small technical publishing company I worked for owned, I propped myself up on pillows, and wrote my assignments. Since most of that two-week period I was also taking painkillers, I can’t say that I remember much of what I wrote—or whether it was even publishable.

My second experience with working from home was much more memorable. The following winter we had snowstorm after snowstorm. My daily hour-long commute to the office turned into a dangerous impossibility for days on end. I loaded up with work when I could make it into the office and worked at home while the flakes fell too hard. So did most of my co-workers.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when the spring rains came, the ice melted, and life at the office got back to normal. However, I had stayed home enough to realize that I enjoyed working by myself, particularly when I had to write something that required more than a little mental effort. Not that I didn’t enjoy chatting with a colleague or sitting in during meetings, but I did not like losing at least two hours out of every workday to a mindless commute.

Who Gets to Do It

These days I spend a lot of time in my home office, but technically I am not a telecommuter. I am self-employed, which means I run a small business from my home. Telecommuters are company employees who spend one or more of their workdays working outside the office—from their home, from satellite office facilities, on the road traveling or other places. Even a public library with a free wireless connection can be a remote working environment.

Depending upon whose statistics you’re reading, the number of telecommuters in the United States might be as many as 15 million (according to Daniel Pink, author of the book Free Agent Nation) or as few as 3.6 million (according to the federal government). The government’s numbers are a little older than Pink’s, and I think the trend is increasing rather than decreasing, so it’s safe to say that at least ten million people work one or more days a week outside their main office.

To put these numbers in perspective, about one in every ten employees could be considered a telecommuter. I think the percentage will increase in the next decade. Consider this: technology for working outside the office is getting less expensive and gasoline and driving costs just keep increasing. And some companies are exploring telecommuting options as part of their disaster planning process. Say a terrorist event or the bird flu that you read about from time to time actually happens, then companies want to know that they are prepared to cope and allow their employees to work from home for an extended period of time. Plus, as more companies become environmentally conscious, they are looking for ways to lower their corporate use of carbon-based fuels. Letting people work from home will help them do that, as well.

Pink Fuzzy Slippers and Meetings in Your PJs

You might have dreamed of being a telecommuting employee, and it’s a great way to ease the stress of working. If you’re interested, make sure you find a company that already offers the option and has a real plan and budget for supporting remote workers. Chances are, if they don’t have a plan in place, they’re not going to start one for a single employee, particularly a newbie. Most companies, too, limit the number of out-of-the-office workdays to one or two days a week.

To be a happy telecommuter, you need to be the kind of person who can stay focused during the workday and ignore temptations, like surfing the Web or consuming everything in the fridge. While your actual work hours may vary—I like to start work late morning and work into the evening, for example—you’ve still got to put in the same number of hours. Working remotely can also be a real downer if you’re the kind of person who loses focus easily or needs to be around other people a large portion of your day.

It helps if the work you do has tangible results, such as a completed project or milestone, and your productivity doesn’t rely on meeting with people constantly. Managers, especially those who are not accustomed to working with people who don’t inhabit the cubicles around their offices 24/7, like to see concrete results that they can link to time on the job.

What You Lose

Remember the episode of Friends in which Rachel pretends to smoke so she doesn’t miss out on valuable face time with her boss during smoke breaks? Well, working outside the office means you lose face-to-face time with the boss or co-workers along with some in-person time during formal meetings. The solution is to stay involved, and remind your boss every so often how great you are and how much you’ve accomplished. If you’re not into blowing your own horn on a regular basis, telecommuting may not be for you—especially if getting ahead is a big goal in your career agenda.

If You’re Interested

If you like the idea of working at least part of your time from home or other places, make sure to look for a job that has concrete goals and results built in, such as progress toward a programming goal or calls logged for customer support. Make sure the company supports remote workers with the adequate technology and ready access to computer files from outside the office. And don’t expect to land a job that lets you work 100% from home, especially if the company doesn’t already have an established telecommuting policy. Finally, stay away from the companies you see on the Web that promise to match you up with work-at-home jobs, because many of them are scam operations.

Molly Joss is an IT veteran who writes about career and job issues, among other topics of note.


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