The recent Yahoo! (and now Best Buy) announcements to eliminate telecommuting struck a personal chord for me. My wife has been working remotely for 12 years, and when we started a family and moved from the Pacific Northwest to Colorado almost 6 years ago I joined her in telecommuting full-time. With two young boys not yet in school and travel demands inherent in my wife’s job, our schedules can get very complicated. I’m very lucky that Waggener Edstrom gave me the chance to test out remote working, and it’s brought much appreciated flexibility. Telecommuting certainly isn’t for everyone and for those who haven’t had the opportunity to try it out, misconceptions can flourish.
Many non-parents, parents of older children and parents who have never worked from home have at some point either said or thought this of telecommuters: “It must be so nice to keep the kids out of daycare.” The assumption is that people such as my wife and I work AND care for our children while at home. At first this idea was a bit funny to me, and sometimes it still is coming from non-parents, but mostly now it’s just irritating. You wouldn’t hire your babysitter to simultaneously run your business, would you? If you have two kids under the age of 5 like we do, you know that quiet, personal time is a rare commodity. My wife and I take both our careers and child-rearing responsibilities seriously, so we pay the high day-care costs necessary for us to perform effectively at work.
When I started telecommuting (one day a week) when working as a front-end programmer in the Portland, Ore., area, I quickly realized that working from home allowed me to avoid many distractions faced by office workers. I was more efficient because I could focus on the code in front of me, without a coworker popping in to say “hi” or ask me about my weekend. When my wife and I moved to Colorado and became new parents, we found the flexibility of telecommuting even more invaluable. Oops, I forgot to drop off diapers at daycare? No problem, I’ll have them there in five minutes — or the time it would take me to get water from the company cooler and chat about the NFL draft.
As a manager of people in Bellevue, Wash., Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, remote work may not seem like the ideal situation, but I don’t think it would be terribly different if I was located in one of those offices. My team would still be spread out geographically, and I would still need to make extra efforts to train, manage and relate to people I don’t have the luxury to work next to in the same office.
Building a collaborative team across geographies certainly comes with its challenges, but it’s necessary to succeed in today’s global business environment. Here are a few tips to remain successful, no matter where you’re working:
Don’t go dark – If you aren’t physically present in the office, don’t let your people wonder where you are. Make sure your schedule is available and known to everyone and keep your calendar open to direct reports, team members and key clients. When you take a break, let everyone know.
Technology is your friend – So, you’re not in the office AND your team can’t get hold of you? That’s a problem. Instant messaging is a great tool that allows me to keep in touch with my team. Microsoft Lync shows when I’m available, away or in a meeting. I can also easily phone or video conference with teammates while sharing documents and notes. My advice is to get the fastest, most reliable Internet connection you can afford (bonus points if your company will help pay for it!) and consider also investing in a land line to mitigate cellular phone connection issues.
Treat the home office like a workspace –Preparing for the day as though I were heading into an office (instead of trying to squeeze in a shower and breakfast between conference calls) really helps ensure I get rolling on time and can focus on the work at hand. And if you can dedicate a room in your house to serve as an office, do it. You’ll gain a quiet, private space where it’s easier to set boundaries around interruptions from a spouse, roommate or pet that wants to play. Keep in mind that work doesn’t end if your laptop is staring at you, so closing it behind a door at the end of the day can also enforce needed downtime. And, yes, that might be harder for a telecommuter to realize than many imagine.
Even if you’ve taken the necessary steps to make telecommuting successful, there are still obstacles. A few of these (such as lack of visibility, the challenge of promoting creativity in isolation) are simply unavoidable and you should be aware of them before taking the leap. What steps have you taken to promote collaboration and innovation in remote working situations? I’m always looking for new tips and tricks.