Considerations (and Confessions) About Telecommuting
Would you, could you with a phone?
Working from home could be fun, but
Would you, could you get anything done?
I’ve worked with many candidates over the years that are interested in telecommuting or flexible work hours. It’s a desirable arrangement that still seems mostly elusive in our industry. For example: Less than 1 in 20 searches I work on support even occasional telecommuting. On the other hand, I’m aware of some agency people that have brokered successful remote work or flex time scenarios.
What’s my POV? I’ve worked full-time from home for the past 7 years – with and without a boss. I’m a big-time advocate but also acknowledge the challenges of managing a remote work force.
For this post, I wanted to provide a balanced representation from both employer and employee perspectives, plus pass along some helpful tips about how to negotiate working remotely within your own company. Finally – under the “Confessions” heading – I’ll share a few facts and myths from my own experience.
Good news! Our culture is learning to embrace telecommuting. The number of telecommuters in the U.S. is up about 35% since 2003. 40+ million Americans telecommute at least one day/week, and we could see 63 million by 2016 – or 43% of all US workers! Employers cite a variety of benefits:
- Attract talent they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Companies with remote headquarters – like Critical Mass (Calgary) and Blast Radius (Vancouver) – have opened satellite offices or allowed employees to work from home simply because the talent isn’t available locally
- Reclaim commute time. A management consultant recently found that Canadian workers could recoup up to six work weeks annually by eliminating their daily commute. Several people I surveyed also responded that teams tended to work a little longer since they don’t need to commute
- Increased productivity due to fewer interruptions. Establishing a home office can further blur the line between work and personal lives, resulting in employees that are always dialed in and accessible
- Powerful talent acquisition/retention tool. In a recent survey of Fortune 1000 execs, 63% reported drops in employee turnover due to telecommuting
On the flip side, remote work teams pose several challenges:
- Maintaining an engaging work place culture. Over the past decade, many companies have adopted open floor plans, with the goal of inspiring free-form collaboration. It’s tough to reconcile work-from-home employees with these goals
- Invisible management. If you’re a manager, it’s hard to be accessible to your team when you’re working from your living room. Jack Welch eventually had to leave his comfortable satellite office in Pittsfield to move up the ladder at GE. Often there’s no substitute for face time
- Training and development. At my previous employer, we found it difficult to train and mentor new recruiters, who would have benefitted from hearing more seasoned recruiters make calls and conduct interviews
- Infrastructure. Companies have to embrace cloud computing, balance privacy/firewall concerns, and support employees dialed in from a variety of different devices
- Productivity and potential for abuse. Not everyone can be successful without structure, and applying a unilateral company policy will inevitably pick up people who can’t make it work
Questions to Ask Yourself
If your goal is to achieve a work-from-home arrangement within your own company, you must put together a realistic and compelling proposal for the leadership team.
Here are a few things to ask yourself as you prepare your case:
1. What are you after, and how would it best be achieved? For example, if your motive is to spend more time with your kids, what’s the most valuable: Reducing the amount of time you spend commuting, or working a 4-day instead of 5-day week? If working from home means you work until the kids get home at 3:00, then you’re working a 6-hour vs. 8-hour day.
2. Can your job functions be achieved remotely? Be especially conscious of asking your colleagues to inconvenience themselves, e.g. Making work available on sharing sites when otherwise they’d be marking up hard copies, arranging special conference calls, timing meetings around your child care schedule, etc.
3. What are the benefits to your company? Increased productivity, improved client service or leadership and cost savings are topics that speak to your employer. Can you quantify how much more you’re able to achieve with fewer interruptions? Are you willing to take 80% of your salary for a 4-day week?
4. Can you be effective in a home office environment? I admire the biz dev person who told me he absolutely couldn’t work from home because his wife and young children were there. You really do require a dedicated, quiet environment free from interruptions. You have to provide multiple ways for colleagues to reach you, e.g. phone, IM, email, Skype, etc. Conference calls sitting cross-legged on your bed with a dog barking in the background will only fuel perceptions that remote work isn’t as productive or rigorous as in-office time.
5. How will this arrangement impact your career development? It’s conceivable your promotion path will be delayed because you’re less visible and/or may miss valuable opportunities to mentor or contribute.
Making Your Case
If you’re thinking: “I hear what you’re saying, but I still want to make telecommuting work for me,” then here’s how to frame up the conversation with your boss.
1. Outline what do you want and why. Provide options and anticipate some compromise. Be realistic about your definition of work/life balance. I LOVE this clip from TED!
2. Prepare a formal and well-researched presentation. It’s a proposal, so it should present a few options, potential schedule, rationale, benefit analysis, how you’ll support the arrangement, how success will be evaluated, etc.
3. Be prepared to handle objections. How will your team react? How can I offer this to you without offering it to everyone? How can I reach you? How will you participate in meetings? Etc.
4. Provide accountability measures. Plan for more frequent check-ins. Discuss expectations.
5. Propose a trial period.
When I mention to people that I work from home, reactions typically range from skepticism to envy. Surprisingly, more than a few people have asked: “Wow, how do you get anything done?”
Answer: I have a dedicated room for my home office. This is the place I spend most of my waking hours. Seriously. When the phone and email are right there, it’s easy (and addictive) to pop in for 5 minutes just to see what’s going on. Two hours later I’m still answering emails…
But honestly, I’m also very self-motivated and disciplined. I plan my day in chunks since I have less structure than in-office environments. I set goals for myself. Yes, I do get the urge to sneak off to Short Hills Mall mid-day, but the 40 calls I have to make keep me tethered to my desk. And conveniently, I have to be productive to make money! About the only way I can check out guilt-free is if I lose my Internet connection. Sad, but true.
This brings me to the last huge misperception about telecommuting. That you can multi-task, i.e. watch your kids, clean the house, cook dinner AND work at the same time. This is my mother-in-law’s fantasy. Totally not realistic. Though I have been known to fold laundry while on conference calls.