First, let me clarify. When I say, “working from home”, I don’t mean the occasional Friday or snow day. I’m talking about working from your house, day-in-day-out. Telecommuting full time is definitely not for everyone. I tried it during the dot com days with limited success myself, but I learned a lot during that time about how to pull it off and some pitfalls to avoid. Since it seems like working remotely is a growing trend, I thought I’d document some tips I’ve learned for new telecommuters to help them make the transition from working in the office to working in the virtual office.
You do not work from home.
I can’t stress this enough, so I’ll say it again…in bold–You do not work from home.
You work from work. If you have the mindset that you are working from home, you’re already walking on thin ice. The problem with this mindset is that you will inevitably either bring home to work (not good), or bring work to home (even worse). One of the biggest difficulties I had working from home in the late 90s was that some days I had a very difficult time “going to work”. Other days, it seemed impossible to “come home from work”. There are a few things you can do to make the transition easier and keep the separation between work and home more clear:
- Set aside an office in your home. If you are limited on space, this may not be a separate room, but it needs to be a separate work area at least. It can even be a designated chair. All you do in this area is work. You don’t watch TV, play video games, or read for pleasure here. Work there, and don’t work anywhere else. I’ve learned that I do best with an entire room complete with bookshelves, a printer, filing cabinet, etc. It has to be as much like a traditional office as possible. And it must have a door that locks.
- “Go” to work in the mornings. In the beginning, you can help yourself with transitioning to telecommuting by continuing the same routine you would to go to work at a traditional office. This helps prepare your mind for the day ahead. For me, that meant actually getting dressed for work and arriving at the office at 7:30 am. After a month or so, I was able to drop the dress code, but I still like to “clock in” at the same time every day. If you have a morning workout routine, this will be much easier because you will continue exercising and showering before getting dressed. I’ve heard of other people going so far as getting in their car and driving to Starbucks for coffee, then returning home and going straight to work–simulating a commute.
- Factor in transition times, both to and from work. If you are used to commuting 20-30 minutes every day, this one is crucial. You may not realize it, but you’re probably using that time to either mentally prepare for work on the way there or to deflate from work before you get home. One of the issues you can run into when your commute is only 10 seconds is that your mind is still at either home or work, even though your body has changed locations. I’m lucky that the people in my group at work tend to start around the same time I do, while most of the people I support come in a little later. This gives me time to catch up on what’s going on within my group if necessary before “customers” start coming in, and it also keeps my morning more flexible so I can easily transition. “Going home after work” is much more difficult for me personally because my customers are still working when I’m ready to leave the office. If I’ve been working on one of their issues or am writing some code right up until the time I leave for the day, I sometimes find myself still mentally “at work” when I get home. I try to save tasks that have definite termination points for the end of the day to help me make a clean break.
There will be doubters. And some won’t change their minds.
Whenever you are doing something outside the absolute norm, there are going to be people who are skeptical. I once worked for a company that had a strict 8:00 am – 5:00 pm attendance policy. When they moved to flexible scheduling for salaried employees (as approved by management), lots of people in management refused to allow their people to participate, even if it meant something as small as taking 30 minutes instead of an hour for lunch and leaving at 4:30 instead of 5:00. Does that sound like a good way to keep responsible, reliable professionals around?
Skepticism of working remotely is fair up to a point. Know this is the situation you are signing up for, and do your best to change minds. Remember, you are being given a large amount of trust in your ability to manage your time effectively, so it’s reasonable to accept more responsibility for doing just that. Some people will never have their minds changed, but do your best to make sure that’s because of them, not you.
- Answer phone calls and emails ASAP. Every work place is different, but a certain amount of time in between receiving an email and replying is usually acceptable and the norm. Try to beat that. Every time. Try to be the most responsive person in the organization, especially during the regular office hours.
- Be flexible, especially with the “not bringing work home” rule. Smart phones make it easier to at least respond to emails if you have information readily available without “going back to the office.” I think it’s reasonable for people to expect a little more availability from a telecommuter given the extra flexibility they are afforded.
- Be willing to “go back to the office” later. If you’re working in IT, you are probably used to having to come in during off-hours to perform maintenance and installations anyway, so it’s no big deal at all to go back to your home office and log in from 10pm-2am to perform some task. Much better than driving back in, right? If you work in another field, this may take some getting used to.
- Produce! You’ll probably find you’re much more productive by default since you aren’t spending as much time in meetings or getting pulled into random conversations with people stopping by your cube. Don’t take your foot off the pedal!
- Volunteer! There are always going to be those “meh” projects in any organization that no one is too excited about taking on. Take the opportunity to grab them if you are caught up on your usual duties and have the time to take care of them! This stuff has to be done by someone anyway, and it’s been my experience that I almost always end up learning something new or making a connection that leads to a much more interesting project later on.
Work From Home Every Now and Then
Every now and then (but not too often), work from home the same way other people do. Does this mean relaxing by the pool with lemonade in hand and doing just enough to keep your screensaver from activating? Uh…no. But it can mean an evening performing some less thought intensive tasks with your feet up on an ottoman while someone else in your house is engaged in a Desperate Housewives marathon. You’ll have no problem focusing on work if that’s your only other option.
You can work-from-home from home if you’re single or have the house to yourself during the day, but it’s tough to really work in your living spaces during the day if you have kids. My preference is to head to a coffee shop for a Friday afternoon every now and then when I’m caught up and things are expected to be smooth for the rest of the day. Right before a long holiday weekend when everyone else has mentally checked out is the perfect time. It’s a nice change of pace from sitting in the same spot every day and gives you the chance to feel like you are a part of normal society, even if it’s just for a few hours.
Sometimes You Have To Adapt
Just like at the regular office, sometimes things pop up that throw a kink into your perfect plan. You’re going to get sick, but there isn’t any “I don’t want to infect everyone else,” so you have to do your best to fight through it and still get some rest. Sometimes you’ll need to handle an errand during your office hours, just like an in-office job, and you’ll have to step out to take care of it. The best you can do is to try and imagine how you would handle any unexpected occurrences if you weren’t a telecommuter and try to handle them the exact same way.
I’m sure others have some great strategies to adjust to telecommuting and handling the challenges it brings. If you can overcome the things that make working remotely difficult (solitude, distractions, mindset, etc.) it is a great way to work! Again, it’s not a good fit for everyone or every company, but it’s worth giving it a shot if your employer is game to letting you give it a shot and you think you can do it successfully.