Why Telecommuting Is No Day at the Beach
There was a time when I used to dream about being a remote worker. The thought usually arose while I was stuck in rush-hour traffic on the 405 (Note: Rush hour is approximately 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. in Southern California). I pictured myself on an outdoor chaise lounge, tropical drink in hand, as client after client called to tell me they were ready to sign on the dotted line. Pineapple slice? Don’t mind if I do.
Fast forward a couple years. I am now a remote worker, thanks in part to my wife taking a teaching job on the opposite coast, and our house is literally one block from the beach. And though we do own a chaise lounge, it gets virtually no weekday use, and nothing is quite as I pictured it (Example: I still wear pants every day). Being a remote worker is not as easy I thought it would be.
According to the New York Times, the number of telecommuters rose 79 percent from 2005 to 2012. There’s a number of reasons why one might choose to work remotely: geographical limitations, family situation, and the desire to be one’s own boss, to name a few.
In some respects, there’s never been a better time to work remotely. Speedy Internet connections and myriad communication tools help us overcome the everyday inconveniences that arise when you’re working all on your own.
But there are drawbacks, too. Working out of a home office can be distracting, as family (and pets) compete for your attention. Being a remote worker is psychologically taxing, as you can sometimes feel isolated, like you’re missing out on the social gatherings an office affords. On the productivity side, your access to critical data and company updates is often stymied by a breakdown in the communication process.
Having experienced both the highs and lows of transitioning from cubicle-dweller to master of his own home office, I thought I’d share three important lessons I’ve learned along the way:
1. Schedule Your Day Tightly (and Stick to That Schedule)
In an office, the most important items on your to-do list are often dictated by outside forces (“Can you follow up on this lead?”, “Can you help me find a reference client?”, “We need you in this meeting”). You probably had a schedule, but there was some fluidity in it to account for the needs of other team members.
As a remote employee, you must create a strict schedule for yourself – and you have to stick to it. You have to be incredibly proactive and not easily distracted. And you can’t wait for others to do things for you. It’s not exactly “out of sight, out of mind,” but it’s a lot harder to be the squeaky wheel when the oil is 3000 miles away. (Side note: Your mixed metaphors get less appreciation when you’re remote.)
Repetition is also an important part of scheduling. For instance, I have a call with one particular client every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 12:30. I can schedule the rest of my calls and tasks around that one particular anchor task.
2. You Must Be Succinct and Direct in Your Communication
In an office, you can iterate often. If the logo is off-centered, you just pop over to the graphic designer’s desk. Now the logo’s too large, so you head on back. You wanted burnt sienna, not burnt orange – one more trip.
You don’t have that luxury as a remote employee. You only get attention sporadically, so you have to be very specific about what you want. And definitely don’t be shy. If you don’t ask for something, you won’t get it.
You also must be succinct – if you write a long, rambling email, you’re going to lose your audience halfway through. Plus, you want to place emphasis only on that which is important. You don’t want your fellow employees to focus on the wrong things because your request was unclear.
3. Take Advantage of Online Collaboration Tools
The Internet can be a huge time suck (thanks, Twitter), but it can also make you more effective and help you feel connected to other employees.
There are many different online collaboration tools out there. One company I consult with, WorkSmart.net, has a productivity suite that includes cloud-based document management, project management, and database apps. Some of the other indispensable solutions I’ve used recently include Skype, Trello, Hipchat, and join.me.
Solely relying on email can lead to information overload – plus, it’s hard to search through 1000s of emails to find the one you want – so seek out more efficient solutions. If you use an online collaboration tool, you can effectively work with teammates no matter where you all are. I’m able to work collaboratively with colleagues in the U.K. and India without having to pick up the phone. Plus, building out these online collaboration portals helps bring new remote employees up to speed more quickly after they’re hired.
I must confess, there are a lot of things I miss about working in an office, like lunchtime basketball, high fives, and saying “goodnight” to friends/colleagues. But one thing that hasn’t changed is my productivity. Don’t let the realities of being a remote worker derail your career.
Just because you’re remote doesn’t mean you have to be distant.