Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, May 18, 2007

Business Telecommuting - What You Need To Know If You Want To Work At Home Online

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Business telecommuting is fast catching on as an effective way for companies to see a boost in productivity, and employees to escape the drudgery of life spent in a cubicle. In this guide to telecommuting jobs, I take you through what you need to know to work at home online.

Photo credit: Darren Baker

There are certainly plentiful opportunities in the world of online, independent publishing, but working as a freelancer or trying to make money from your blog have their downsides. Freelancing can be a precarious profession at the best of times, and while blogs can bring in some serious money, it seldom happens overnight.

So how can you keep your job, or find another salaried position in your field, and still enjoy the freedom of working from home, with everything that it entails?

It may not be as difficult as you imagine, as companies are fast finding that employee productivity sky-rockets once workers are given the opportunity to take their work out of the cubicle and into their homes (or indeed, to the coffee-shop, park or beach).

If you are capable of managing your time efficiently, it is perfectly possible to get a lot more done in a lot less time, and all without having to change out of your pajamas.

The following short guide covers the facts, figures, benefits, and even the pitfalls of relevance to those thinking about joining the mobile workforce of digital bedouins.

Telecommuting - Overview

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Wikipedia defines telecommuting as:

''...a work arrangement in which employees enjoy limited flexibility in working location and hours.
In other words, the daily commute to a central place of work is replaced by telecommunication links. Telework is a broader term, referring to substituting telecommunications for any form of work-related travel, thereby eliminating the distance restrictions of telecommuting.

In its simplest terms, then, telecommuting is all about the the ability for workers to cut out or reduce the physical commute to an office space due to the existence of telecommunications and, increasingly, web-based tools.

But successful telecommuting goes beyond the technology involved, because for all of the online collaboration tools in the world an outmoded style of management will ultimately doom any efforts to transfer work beyond the cubicle-farm.

Unfortunately, despite compelling evidence that productivity is radically improved outside of the office, the notion that being physically present, directly observable and working constantly for nine hours a day still holds truck with a lot of companies. For telecommuting to really work, for both employer and employee, a different approach is called for:

''A successful telecommuting program requires a management style which is based on results and not on close scrutiny of individual employees. This is referred to as management by objectives as opposed to management by observation.''

Wikipedia, Telecommuting

While it's certainly possible to instigate the change at your own company, this might mean a lot more work on your part than you would need to put in at a company already supportive of telecommuting opportunities.

Nevertheless, armed with enough gall, some helpful case studies and a well-planned trial period it might just be possible for you to negotiate your way into a full or at least part-time telecommuting situation.

Here are some of the reasons that telecommuting may or may not suit you:

Benefits of Telecommuting

Among the many benefits of telecommuting being able to work from home and cutting out the need to commute to work twice a day are high on the list. Depending on your personality and needs as an individual you may or may not find the traditional office conducive to getting work done effectively.

Nevertheless, there are few people who don't relish the idea of being able to work at least partially from their home - getting up a little later, cutting out the need to spend time making themselves presentable, and for many spending more time with their partners or families.

The benefits of telecommuting are well documented, and include a markable increase in productivity, a sense of personal freedom, better use of time spent otherwise traveling to and from work, and even savings for your company.

The following benefits cover both those that will most impress your employers, and the perks that make telecommuting such a desirable lifestyle for so many:

Lowered Company Expenses

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One way to snag yourself a telecommuting job with your current employer is to present them with some hard facts regarding how much money they could be saving as a consequence of letting you work from home. Quite besides the rise in productivity they could expect, it might well be worth pointing out just how much they could be saving in ultra-costly office expenses:

''Sun Microsystems Inc. calculates that it saves $300 million per year in real estate costs by allowing nearly 50% of employees to work anywhere they want.''

Tim Ferris,

Obviously if you are the first in the company to suggest working from home, it is unlikely that your shift to a telecommuting role is going to save the company anything on its monthly office overheads. But if you present your case well and suggest that your example may have a positive, knock-on effect, you might just win approval.

US employers may also be reeled in by the fact that they could stand to save themselves some taxes by adopting a telecommuter friendly strategy. Esther Schindler notes that:

''...a telecommuting bill in Congress, introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), promises tax incentives for employers who support remote workers. The Parents' Tax Relief Act of 2007 suggests a vastly simplified home office deduction ($2,500 or the profit from the home-based business, whichever is less) and a telecommuting tax credit for employers of up to $2,400 per telecommuter. In addition, employers that provide telecommuters with computers and broadband access equipment can write off the expense.''

Esther Schindler,

If you are outside the US, it may well be worth investigating whether a similar bill exists in your country. Governments and corporations alike are starting to realize that telecommuting is good for profits and the economy. If you can appeal to the bottom line in your request to start working from home, it may very well support your case.

Increased Productivity

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Even if appeals to the chance of direct savings don't convince your employers to let you take your work home with you, there is plenty of evidence that you can present that suggests that productivity goes through the roof in telecommuting environments.

Of course, it makes perfect sense - put a person in an environment where they are most content, and relatively distraction free, give them the chance to work at their periods of peak performance, rather than to an archaic 9-5 convention, and ultimately the results are likely to be impressive. Statistics are on your side here:

''By the end of 2007, all 4,000 staffers at Best Buy headquarters will be on ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment), which permits them to work whenever and wherever they want. So, what happens when smart companies realize that work isn't a place where you go, but something that you do? That performance should be based on output and not hours?

Average Rise In Worker Productivity Since 2005: 35%

Average Change in Voluntary Turnover (Quitting) Across Divisions: -72.3%''

Tim Ferris,

As long as you have the self-discipline and time management skills to pull it off, telecommuting could well transform your productivity for the better, giving you a better working environment, and your company a higher turnover. Everyone's a winner.

Location Independence

Photo credit: Ivana Korab

Once you are free of the office the opportunities for travel, relocation or simply finding a pleasant work environment suddenly open up. Want to take your laptop to your nearest coffee-shop, or catch up on some accounts in the park? Telecommuting makes it more than possible.

In this sense you can move to a different, cheaper state, or even country and enjoy a sudden boost in the value of your salary. Or if you're happy where you are, how about hanging out at your favorite cafe, meeting up with some fellow telecommuters, and working over a latte? You wouldn't be alone:

''A new breed of worker, fueled by caffeine and using the tools of modern technology, is flourishing in the coffeehouses of San Francisco. Roaming from cafe to cafe and borrowing a name from the nomadic Arabs who wandered freely in the desert, they've come to be known as "bedouins."

San Francisco's modern-day bedouins are typically armed with laptops and cell phones, paying for their office space and Internet access by buying coffee and muffins.

Dan Fost, SFGate

This new breed of 'bedouins' manage to escape the potential isolation of working totally from home, while working in places that feel most comfortable to them. And the great thing about flitting between wifi-enabled cafes is that if you feel like a change of scene, you simply have to pack up your laptop and head off to pastures new.

Armed with Skype and email, nobody need ever know you aren't sitting at your home office, and as long as the results come in and your work remains of a high standard, neither should they care.

Potential Pitfalls of Telecommuting

As much as telecommuting has its definite benefits, it is worth considering some of the potential downsides before attempting to make the switch across.

While being able to crawl from your bed to your home computer after a lie in is certainly appealing, and checking your emails from your favorite cafe has its advantages, you should make sure that you know exactly what to expect from the telecommuting experience, for better or worse.

If you know what the potential problems are, you will be in a much better position to negotiate favorable terms when it comes to arranging your all-new, home-based work week. Here are some things to look out for:

The Always-On Office

Photo credit: Michael McCloskey

One of the biggest problems faced by telecommuters is the sudden lack of a clear division between workspace and home space. If you aren't careful you can soon find yourself finishing up a report or checking emails long after you would have left both at the office in your pre-telecommuting days.

The other thing to be mindful of is making sure that you take your holidays. Often a sense of guilt at your privileged work-from-home status will deprive you of the holidays you used to take without thinking twice:

''Telecommuters work more often while on vacation and rate their work-life balance and life satisfaction significantly lower than daily and traditional flextime users and workers not using flexible work arrangements, the study found.

For example, 46 percent of telecommuters reported working on vacation, compared to 30 percent of daily flextime users; and 24 percent of telecommuters said their work-life balance was "good" or "very good," compared to 38 percent of daily flextime users. Forty-six percent of telecommuters said they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their lives, compared to 65 percent of daily flextime users.''

Gail Repsher Emery, Washington Technology

It is also worth noting that if you don't set clear boundaries as to when you will be available, and when you will be 'at work', friends, family and indeed colleagues may contact you at inappropriate times. Whether your talkative sister realizes that you are now suddenly much easier to get hold of, or your manager starts to think it acceptable to send you to-do items well beyond working hours, this is something to be careful of.

Setting the tone here from the beginning is the best way of establishing your boundaries and making sure that your work doesn't suddenly take over your life. What's most important is not to feel guilty or privileged for your telecommuter status. Yes, it's great that you can work from home, but if you are producing the same amount of work (or more), you really have no reason to feel bad about shutting down your computer at the end of the day.

The division is not always easy to make however:

''The biggest problem with working at home is that the separation between work and the rest of your life is much smaller. There is no "now I'm at work, I'm on alert mode... now I'm at home, I'm in rest mode", its just always a semi-work, semi-home state.

What this means is that rather than switching off in the evening you can't help but feel maybe you should be doing some work right about now instead of relaxing. Or instead of waking up on the weekend feeling like you have the day off, you still feel a little like you are at work.

Colis, FreelanceSwitch

The key to overcoming this feeling is effective time management. This doesn't necessarily mean setting strict working hours so much as it means setting strict communication hours, and giving yourself manageable tasks to complete. Once you have reached your goals, it is a matter of learning to switch off and relax.

Communications Breakdown and Career Jeopardy

Photo credit: Robert Byron
Another potential issue with telecommuting is the fact that by working from home you are removing yourself from the office 'network', and potentially from opportunities that develop over time through both formal and informal means.

Even if you are producing significantly better work from home, you may still find yourself doing battle with the more traditional assumptions of your managers:

''Over 60% of 1,320 global executives surveyed by executive search firm Korn/Ferry International said they believe that telecommuters are less likely to advance in their careers in comparison to employees working in traditional office settings. Company executives want face time with their employees, the study said.''

Michael Cooney, Network World

While changing preconceptions isn't always easy, there are things that you can do to make sure that your presence is felt, even in your physical absence. One is to confront the perception that you are somehow beyond reach and outside of the communication loop.

To counter the perceived problem of poor communication in the absence of daily time spent in the office, there are a number of important skills that need to be put into practice to become a successful telecommuter. Esther Schindler summarizes these skills as:

  • Effective conference calls - it's important to speak clearly, make use of visual aids where possible and avoid trying to do something else at the same time as a teleconference, which is easily spotted and comes across as both rude and unprofessional
  • Self promotion - your absence from the physical workspace may well effect how your managers and colleagues view your input and performance. Because of this, making your presence and achievements known becomes more important than it might be for on-site workers
  • Good response time - not replying to emails for hours or days doesn't promote a strong sense of your actively working and can reinforce stereotypes of the work-at-home lay-about
  • Team communication - just because you can't physically join the gathering around the water cooler, it doesn't mean that you can't stay abreast of the latest news by using instant messaging, email, phone conversations and other online communication tools to keep yourself in the loop
  • Boundary setting - let your team know when you will be available and when is the best time to contact you to avoid being considered either inaccessible or else 'always on'

Hidden Expenses

Photo credit: simonkr

Another thing to be mindful of is that you may find yourself facing hidden expenses that you hadn't accounted for in your shift from the office to home working environment. While you might save on commuting costs - if your company wasn't paying them already - you could stand to lose out in other ways if you don't do your homework first.

One thing to check into is your tax situation, and any changes that might occur in your dealing with the HR department of your company. Taxes, surprisingly, can cause an incredible blow to your finances if you live in the wrong place:

''Live in California and work for a New York company by internet connection, for example, and you could be in a world of hurt. California will properly consider you a resident and want state taxes on your full income.

But then New York will apply a charming thing called the "convenience of the employer" rule and demand resident income taxes on 100% of your income too, on the grounds that you were a New York resident in disguise for all those long telecommuting hours.''

Mike Gunderloy, WebWorkerDaily

Even if you manage to evade paying double taxes, though, there are other things that you might want to agree with your company in advance of your switching to home working. The question of who funds the telecommuting venture is worth ironing out at the very beginning of the new business relationship, as this can have serious repercussions for both home worker and company:

''Who pays for the phone connection and the ISP? For a full-time telecommuter, who pays for the "extras" that make 14-hour days acceptable, such as a notebook docking station, separate keyboard, big-screen monitor, printer, fax machine and laptop backpack?

If the employee uses her own computer, will you pay for another copy of the company-approved antivirus software and an additional license for work-related applications (whether that's Photoshop or Visual Studio)?''

Esther Schindler, CIO

Companies can be fast put off the idea of letting you work from home if they see a sudden ramp-up in the extra expenses potentially required. On the other hand if you don't bring these issues up early on, you may well find yourself footing the bill entirely, and finding that your salary is suddenly being eaten into by your Blackberry, Internet and software expenses.

Poor Fit

Photo credit: Ed Isaacs
The last thing to be mindful of before embarking upon the switch to telecommuting is that it may be a poor fit either for you, or for your company.

If your job has a strong focus on direct, face-to-face meetings, it is unlikely that you are going to be given the clear to become a full-time teleworker. That said, you may still be able to negotiate working from home for some of the week.

Beyond the type of job you have, though, there are certain technological tools that may well prove essential to letting you do it from home. If your company can't support your requirements here, you may be in trouble.

As a very minimum you are going to need:

  • A decent, high-speed, reliable Internet connection
  • Web conferencing tools
  • Applications that you can use remotely, and VPN acces
  • An instant messaging tool that you can use to contact all of the members of your team
  • A decent intranet that you can access to keep abreast of the latest company news and information
  • Call forwarding

Without these basics, you will find it very hard to get your job done.
But it isn't just the technology that can cause problems. One of the biggest issues faced by new telecommuters is dealing with managers that have no experience in managing employees at a distance.

If your manager has little experience is dealing with hired help and subcontractors, you may well find that you suddenly suffer from a lack of management. And while that might sound appealing at first, when you are suddenly faced with missed deadlines, poorly communicated briefs and working into the night to fix problems that weren't of your making, the novelty can soon wear off:

''Elizabeth Ross, director of technology projects execution at AMEC Earth & Environmental, has telecommuted and managed telecommuters. She sees a direct relationship between the strength of a manager and the telecommuting experience.

"Managers who know how to manage resources, subcontractors, etc., can make the situation work, sometimes exceptionally," she says. "Managers who don't communicate well, [who] don't know how to manage their own time well, etc., don't get around to checking in or managing the telecommuter very well (if at all)".''

Esther Schindler, CIO

Let's assume that you have managed to secure the technology and manager that can confidently direct your efforts at a distance. There still remains the issue of whether telecommuting is the best fit for you.

IBM, a company well known for its support of telecommuting practices helps potential home workers to assess whether telecommuting is going to work out well for them. They stress:

''...the importance of reviewing the personal, relational, resource and function factors of anyone interested in telecommuting. Do they have the motivation, job commitment, focus on deliverables, interpersonal communication capacity and distraction-free environment to thrive in such an arrangement?

Do they have relationships with managers and peers that will facilitate distance communication? Is their job independent or interdependent? Do clients or customers expect regular physical access to the employee? And is the telecommuter properly equipped for such an arrangement?

Robert Colman, ManagementMag

If you are considering making the switch, it would be a good idea to discuss these points with your employer, and to honestly assess them for yourself. While telecommuting is enormously desirable, if it is a poor fit for your job, you are most likely to find that your productivity drops quickly, and as a consequence, your telecommuting experiment is drawn to a swift close.

Conclusions - Is Telecommuting For You?

Photo credit: Zsolt Nyulaszi
Telecommuting offers the very desirable opportunity to work from home, take control of your day and avoid the long, thankless commute to your office day-in day-out.

With the benefits of being able to work wherever you can find a good wireless connection, add flexibility to your work schedule, spend more time with your loved ones and improve the overall quality of your work, there is a lot in its favour.

On the other hand, telecommuting isn't a bed of roses, and before making the switch it would be worth doing your research into a number of points that might make you reconsider.

Are you, for instance, willing to accept longer work hours in exchange for greater freedom? Have you considered the possible extra expenses you might incur by shifting your office to your home? And is the somewhat isolated life of the home-based worker really well suited to your character and ambitions?

For many, the answers to these questions will be a resounding yes. In which case, welcome to the club. For others, it may well suit them better to add partial telecommuting to their work week, aiming for one day in five spent working from home for instance.

Your own personality and work situation will determine what works best in your situation. Nevertheless, as more and more companies realize that telecommuting is both great for increased productivity and saved overheads, it may well be worth attempting to try it out.

Telecommuting Resources

The following list of resources is by no means exhaustive, but should provide you with a good springboard from which to begin your telecommuting investigations:

  • The Wikipedia entry on telecommuting is an extensive resource.
  • ManagementMag article on making the transition to telecommuting
  • 2WorkAtHome have compiled a list of telecommuting friendly companies
  • NetworkWorld asks if telecommuting can kill your career
  • CIO outline the need for telecommuters to develop special skills
  • ETO FAQ on the advantages and issues of teleworking
  • WebWorkerDaily has a number of useful articles on telecommuting
  • CIO asks some important questions about the financial side of beginning a telecommuting role in your company
  • SFGate coverage of the new breed of coffee-shop dwelling digital 'bedouins'

Originally written by Michael Pick for Master New Media and originally published as: "Business Telecommuting - What You Need To Know If You Want To Work At Home Online"

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posted by Michael Pick on Friday, May 18 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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