By Emily Faracca – On
Read this before you take a job telecommuting!
One of the Arbeit Software offices is located in Buffalo, N.Y. That means during the months of October through April, there's a good chance we'll wake up to our cars buried beneath several feet of heavy, lake effect snow.
When this happens, our options are to brave the roads, or telecommute.
Telecommuting became "a thing" in 1979. IBM wanted to ease a "logjam" in their office, so they installed terminals in the homes of five employees. By 1983, about 2,000 of their employees were working from home. By 2009, 40 percent of their workforce were contributing from the comfort of their own home.
As of July 2018, 3.2 percent of the world's workforce now work from home at least half the time, according to Global Workplace Analytics. These are a lot of statistics, though, so...
Do Statistics Even Matter?
At the end of the day, statistics are only statistics. But is this boom in remote work a temporary trend? Or is telecommuting the future?
If you are reading this, you presumably fall into one of 2 camps:
- You’re an employee who is working up the courage to talk to leadership about the option to work remotely
- You’re in a leadership position looking to boost productivity while reducing turnover, whatever that looks like
Whatever brought you here, I am confident you’ll find this guide a useful tool to decide for yourself whether telecommuting would be a productive option for you or your employees.
If you fall into the first group, here's what you can expect to learn:
Pros of telecommuting
- Concentration/Fewer Interruptions
- Creating Your Ideal Work Environment
Cons of telecommuting
- Missing a sense of belonging; loneliness
- Lack of clear expectations
- More difficult to network
Skills you'll need for telecommuting
- Very good communicator
- Focused and organized
Let's start from the top and discuss the pros.
Pros of Working from Home
Apart from what is obvious (convenience and comfort), there are proven reasons that telecommuting is a better option for some work personalities.
What we are all searching for in our work life, in many ways, is autonomy - to feel like we have agency over own our lives and decisions. A lack of autonomy is often what causes anxiety. If your routine is to wake up, sit in traffic, go to work, sit in traffic again, maybe go to the gym or watch television, go to bed, wake up, and do it all over again, it's very possible you'll can feel stuck or out of control.
In an article for Platform Magazine, Darsey Norton explains that smartphones and laptops have made staying in contact effortless, and for companies that use programs like Slack, Google Drive, Trello, Monday, and other project management software, teams can easily work seamlessly as they would in an office.
She also explains that millennials are perceived to be a "migrant" population. As employers look for ways to attract top talent, they simultaneously seek to offer competitive benefits. For many, a flexible work schedule is a great way to attract and retain the best employees.
In Norton's article, she spoke with two young professionals who worked remotely for a Public Relations agency.
“I can literally work from anywhere — not just from home," one of the interview subjects explained. “I travel much more now that I’m telecommuting because I don’t have to take a vacation day when I’m not physically in the office. I’ll take a redeye to Orlando or New York or wherever, land in time to work my normal hours, and then I have the evening and weekends to spend exploring.”
What telecommuters are perceived to have is the ability to create their own schedule, as well as possess the complete and total trust of their superior. This trust and autonomy naturally gives them flexibility - they can wake up when they choose, work when and where they choose. For some, this is incredibly appealing. But, as one of the interview subjects stated, it's a privilege that comes with responsibility.
"The more you show that you can handle tasks on your own and earn the trust of your supervisor, the more likely they’ll allow more flexibility with your work’s pace," she said.
Some people prefer to work alone, work better alone, or like to avoid the interruptions that naturally come with a coworking space - some welcome, some unwelcome.
In an article for Forbes, Christine Carter explains this phenomenon:
"With unpredictable interruptions, office politics and frequent idle chatting, a remote location tends to distract employees less than a traditional office environment. Happy employees hit their stride in a comfortable work environment, and only 7 percent of workers say they are most productive in an office," she writes.
Interruptions have almost become expected in a typical workday. It would be unusual to go through an entire workday without speaking to anyone - we are used to the office visits from colleagues, lunch breaks, coffee breaks, watercooler conversation. It’s part of our daily routines. Without these, how much more work could we be getting done?
It’s assumed that the employees working from home, because they are not experiencing these typical interruptions, are able to enter into a work flow that is only broken when they decide. This interruption-free work mode should not be taken lightly: Mark Murphy explains for Forbes how much time these "small" interruptions actually cost:
"Let’s imagine that it takes 10 minutes to really get your mind engaged on writing that report; collecting your thoughts, clearing your head, etc. And then, let’s say that you’re only able to write for 10 minutes before you get interrupted by an employee. So you stand up, deal with the issue, and then sit back down to start work again. Because you’ve lost your creative train-of-thought, you now have to go through that 10 minute ‘start-up’ time before you can return to your writing."
He goes on to explain the benefit of telecommuting in this instance:
"Before you know it, a measly three interruptions per hour could cost you half-an-hour in wasted time. So instead of your report taking one hour to write at a coffee shop, it’s now going to consume at least two hours of your time in the office."
Creating Your Ideal Work Environment
Some people work best when they can look out a window. Others know that sitting beside a window, they will become easily distracted. Some people prefer lots of light, others prefer only natural light. Some prefer to sit, others to stand. The list of individual preferences goes on and on, and an office manager or boss knows s/he cannot please everyone. S/He can only do his best to create what s/he thinks will be the best environment overall, for everyone.
Those working from home can arrange their workspace however they wish. Depending on what environment suits them, telecommuters can set up shop at the kitchen table, in their bed, at a coffee shop, on the beach - anywhere they feel most inspired and motivated.
In an article for Emplo, eight features of an ideal working environment are listed. Among others, two listed are:
- Culture of creativity
- Work-life balance
The ability to create an environment that inspires you most is certainly appealing for an employee who might stare at the cubicle walls all day, feeling drained and uninspired.
So far, there are obvious perks. But there are downsides, too. Let's take a closer look at the cons.
Cons of Working from Home
Remember those telecommuting IBM employees I mentioned earlier? In 2017, IBM shocked the world and their workforce when they announced they were recalling thousands of workers back to the office.
"Employees who worked primarily from home would be required to commute, and employees who worked remotely or from an office that was not on the list (or an office that was on the list, but different than the one to which their teams had been assigned) would be required to either move or look for another job. Similar announcements had already been made in other departments, and more would be made in the future." - Sarah Kessler
And why? Their new CMO's recipe for success: "Great people, the right tools, a mission, analysis of results, and one more thing: Really creative and inspiring locations."
Missing a sense of belonging
Considering the average employee will spend more hours at work than anywhere else - why not enjoy the people you see every day? My coworkers more often than not become my closest friends - I still have friends from my first job that I text almost daily.
This is something a telecommuter misses out on. But maybe you’re reading this and rolling your eyes.
I hear you. We can’t be best friends with everyone we work with. But having a sense of community can be an underrated thing. It’s nice to exchange those “Good Mornings!” (even before you’ve had your coffee,) talk about your weekend plans, pop culture, and of course, happy hours!
In an article for Inc.com, Margo Aaron calls this phenomenon like it is.
"Some call it "founder isolation," others call it loneliness. Whatever you call it: it's that moment when you realize you haven't been outside or seen a human other than your spouse in days. The social awkwardness is funny, but the emotional isolation isn't. It's hard to find people who get what it's like to work from home and understand the emotional rollercoaster you go through on a given day (and no, your spouse doesn't count)."
Aaron says this isolation can often leave you feeling alone and stuck in your head. She says a way to combat this is to simply get out of the house. Coffee shops or co-working spaces are a great way to collaborate and meet people who can relate to your situation.
Biologist E.O. Wilson writes about this need for a "tribe" in his book The Social Conquest of Earth and shares the basics in an article by Newsweek.
"The drive to join is deeply ingrained," the article states.
For those working from home without the comradery an office setting automatically provides, it is vital they seek out a community elsewhere.
Co-working spaces like WeWork are a great option, especially for finding those likeminded or fellow telecommuters.
Lack of Clear Expectations
Because I work closely with my coworkers in a shared space, getting a rundown on what is priority is simple. I can see it around me. It’s difficult to explain, but when you hear everything, see everything, and have regular meetings face-to-face with your team, you somehow know exactly what you need to focus on for the day.
When you’re outside of a team-oriented environment and isolated from others, it can be difficult to know what tasks should take priority, or what kind of tone a certain project should have.
More Difficult to Network
I am not only talking about networking with the intent of getting a job.
Professional networking has no doubt gotten much easier with sites like LinkedIn.
There is, however, something to be said for networking events, office visitors, and work-related conferences that introduce you to colleagues who inspire you to be better and work harder.
Because this article is meant to neither convince you nor dissuade you from taking the telecommuting leap, I wanted to make sure you (and your boss) know exactly what it will take to become the work from home type. Let's go over what you'll need!
What You'll Need to Work from Home
Reliable hardware and software
One of the reasons some companies decide to give employees the option to telecommute is a bit more logistical - fewer employees in the office means fewer resources to provide. Think fewer computers, fewer desks, fewer cubicles... the list goes on.
With that understanding, it's critical that you have the resources available on the go that you would need in the office. The software installments we mentioned earlier - Slack, Google Drive, etc. that allow you access to all your files and communicate with immediacy.
Another must-have is a VoIp phone system that has mobile integration. You''ll presumably be hopping from home, to a coffee shop, to your office. When you use VoIP, your "extension" is your phone. As long as you have your mobile phone, you'll have access to your office at all times.
Plus, with the chance that you may be in a different time zone or even hemisphere, the ability to conference globally is vital. Most VoIP providers include this.
There are several affordable options. Arbeit Voice allows for unlimited minutes starting at $19.99 per "extension." Their system is powered by top tier carriers, and another added benefit is 24/7 access to support located inside their Buffalo, N.Y. office.
You might not realize how much you rely on a shared co-working space until you are forced to motivate yourself, by yourself.
"Without the fear that your boss could walk in on you playing Candy Crush, your motivation can get foggy when you work from home. So while you might be tempted to throw a load of laundry in the washing machine or start working later than you’re scheduled to, you’ll need to keep yourself motivated," writes Jennifer Parris for The Muse.
It definitely takes a certain kind of person to actually get out of bed if they don’t have anyone waiting for them. It can also be tempting to put things off, even with deadlines in place.
You will need the ability to push yourself, have a lot of drive, and become very intentional in your productivity habits.
Sharpened communication skills
This one is especially true if you are reporting to someone. Rather than being able to collaborate and brainstorm in a room together, all too often communication takes place over apps like Slack, Google Drive or e-mail.
As a result, you will need to learn how to communicate just as effectively and present information just as effectively as you would if you were sitting in front of your team and not in front of your computer screen.
"Since almost everything is done via email (and there are no facial or body clues to read), you’ll need to make sure that you mean what you, um, type. I’ve found that shorter, more succinct sentences go a lot farther than long-winded soliloquies," Parris advises.
Focused and Organized
It’s important to know yourself when you decide to work from home.
How do you stay organized? What work environment helps you stay most focused?
"Without face-to-face communication, it’s easy to let things slip through the cracks, so you’ll need to find ways to be as organized as possible. You might find that you like to write things down in a notebook, or perhaps you prefer calendar notifications. Find what works best for you to keep you organized and on task," Parris says.
You will need to put your own code of conduct in place so that you can still perform efficiently without supervision.
"Act like your home office is in the center of an actual office. That means, yes, taking a shower, getting dressed, and being presentable for your workday," Parris recommends. She suggests that going through the motions helps to keep you in work mode.
So that's everything for the aspiring telecommuter. But what about those who fall into the second group? If you are an employer who is considering if this is the right strategy to implement into your culture, this next portion is for you!
Tips for Leadership
In an article for Inc.com, Scott Mautz shares the results of a study conducted by Stanford University. Professor Nicholas Bloom designed a test whereby 500 subjects were divided into two groups. One was a control group who worked in an office, the other was telecommuters.
Over the course of two years, the study revealed an astounding productivity boost among the employees who worked at home. With fewer interruptions, breaks, sick days and vacation hours, the employees who worked at home showed the same, and often better numbers than employees who stayed in the office.
The study did show, however, that those who volunteered to perform in the telecommuters group asked to return to the office, reporting feelings of isolation and loneliness.
This has unexpectedly become an underlying theme.
So what does this mean for you? There are so many pros for you as an employer:
- Lower overhead cost (think fewer computers, fewer desks, less strain on utilities)
- Reduced unscheduled absences
- Cuts down on time in unnecessary meetings
- Reduced turnover
- Improved morale
But the most common recommendation I found for employers considering telecommuting was this: Offer it as an option a few days a week.
This was the recommendation by Professor Nicholas Bloom as well. Dive in, he said, or you will quickly fall behind on finding and retaining top talent. But keep an eye toward maintaining face to face contact and cohesion.
"The nature of every job does not necessarily lend itself perfectly to working from home, even a few days a week. The bigger thought here is that it's time to erase the stigma about telecommuting in general," says Mautz.
There is a lot to consider when weighing whether or not to telecommute.
When IBM changed their policy, it led to thousands of resignations. Arguably, a culture fit is just as important as
Telecommuting is a great option, but it's certainly not for everyone. And there are even telecommuting jobs that require more structure than a typical job. Do your research and more importantly, know yourself!
“Working shouldn’t mean that you don’t have a life. Working shouldn’t mean that you can’t do well at your life." - Sutton Fell