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Telecommuters: Driven to Distraction or Achieving Equipoise in Life?

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Telecommuting—the concept, the term, and the practice—has been around for about two decades. Dictionary.com defines telecommuting as "[t]he practice of working at home and communicating with your fellow workers through the phone, typically with a computer and modem. Telecommuting saves the employee getting to and from work and saves the employer from supplying support services such as heating and cleaning, but it can also deprive the worker of social contact and support." Ah, there's the rub. Social intercourse, or the lack thereof, is deemed as necessary to the health and well-being of the average employee—as if there is some positive force engendered by communing around the water cooler. Quite frankly, this ain't what it's cracked up to be.

The fact is, as I waxed so eloquently in a recent TNT article, there is the "Rule of 80/20," which states that 20% of the people do 80% of the work. I conferred the term "floaters" on those who float from office to office and cubicle to cubicle in blissful limbo, bugging the heck out of people who are trying to do work, finish work, and get home to their lives.

I truly believe the work day, and hence week, month, and year, have been extended not because there is necessarily more work to do, but because we are always "switched on," connected 24x7, with no boundaries at all between professional and personal life. Technology has not made our lives easier; it has made us slaves to all our electronic gadgets.

But I digress.

A recent barrage of cartoons, commercials, and morning news show segments have derided the telecommuter as being hassled with distractions: kids, music, chores, pets, and other sundry homework such as laundry, repair people, etc. One morning news show recently did a segment with the telecommuter "sneaking" out at mid-day for banjo lessons. Even in the corporate world, people are allowed to have a lunch break. We have all seen the commercials featuring the telecommuter wearing the pink bunny slippers and pajamas. Well, that is one of the perks. Sweats are my "office" uniform of choice. Word to the wise: Too much time in sweats makes for not being able to fit into your jeans.

To be or not to be a telecommuter is not the question. The correct questions are these: (1) Is the corporate culture in your workplace amenable to telecommuting? (2) Are you in a job that is conducive to telecommuting full-time or a few days a week? (3) Do you have the personality to effectively telecommute?

Let's face facts: Some corporate cultures eschew telecommuting, especially the traditional brick-and-mortar companies. Whether the corporate culture is one of "present in mind and body" or issues of trust and micromanagement obscure innovation, the only thing employees can do is to come up with suggestions in which telecommuting would genuinely be productive, get permission to conduct a pilot, and then prove the viability and efficacy of telecommuting.

Of course, some jobs are just not conducive to telecommuting. Airline pilots obviously cannot fly the plane from home. IT operations people often cannot perform their jobs remotely, especially if they are systems operators, network administrators, etc.—the hands-on people who need to be where the systems are. However, software engineers and programmers typically can work from home. Even some managers might want to work from home if, for example, they are preparing employee evaluations or department budgets or are developing proposals/presentations for new projects.

Many IT jobs are conducive to working at home. Presently, I have three consulting gigs that allow me to work from home. One part-time job is in the IT department of a home healthcare provider. Most of that job can be done at home. I travel to the office—occasionally—for meetings. I have worked from home for the past 10 years, and I love it. However, I have the personality, the designated space, and the work-at-home ethic, which leads me to a discussion of the employee and whether or not this person can work at home.

There is a telecommuter personality, if you will. Neither the august Sigmund Freud nor modern psychology has yet defined this unique personality type, so I will take a stab at it.

Traits of the Successful Telecommuter

Below are some of the personal qualities a successful telecommuter must possess.

  • Self-starting—From bounding out of bed in the morning to meeting deadlines with efficiency and aplomb, the telecommuter must have a sense of urgency and accountability.
  • Trustworthy—I know this moniker better describes a boy/girl scout; however, it is imperative that there be a relationship of trust between the telecommuter and his/her superior/manager. If this is not the case, the telecommuter will always be looking over his/her shoulder, the manager/supervisor will likely micromanage, and there will be a lot of tension.
  • Focused—The telecommuter must have focus and concentration. Those who are easily distracted by children, pets, undone laundry, dust, dinner, etc. will not be successful. Helpful hint: If you have young children at home, hire a babysitter. Notwithstanding the odd day off to be with your children, if you work from home, you can't be both effective parent and competent employee.
  • Comfortable with Solitude—If you work from home you have to like being with yourself—period. I'm a homebody, and I don't get cabin fever.
  • Organized—This goes without saying. Clutter does not cut it. I'm a pile-maker myself. With three graduate courses and three part-time jobs, I have to be very organized while trying to avoid multiple-personality disorder. If it's Tuesday, I'm a consultant; Thursdays, I'm a student, etc.

Traits of the Unsuccessful Telecommuter

So who would not make a good telecommuter?

  • Procrastinators—Those who goof off all day and then work from midnight to six o'clock in the morning to "catch up" are not good candidates.
  • Those who are easily distracted—Yes, if all you can think about is the dust on the furniture, the unwashed car, that little project in the garage, etc., this is not for you. However, this is not to say that you can't get up early and water the garden, take a brisk morning walk, or, my favorite, watch the news. You just have to know when it's time to go to work.

Those who are unable to quit—One of the rules of telecommuting is that you have to have a schedule: a starting time and an ending time. Now, it is ridiculous to think that you will always adhere to this schedule. Life, after all, does happen. But having both a schedule and a life does help you to set and stick to boundaries.

It's All About the Working Environment

As I mentioned, it is imperative that the telecommuter have a designated work space. Since I have been working at home for 10 years and have neither pets nor children, I have a home office in what could have been transformed into a very comfortable guest room. (We relegate our guests to the basement futon. Hey, gotta pay the bills.)

Many non-traditional companies and startups as well as companies with a presence in multiple geographies, are by both necessity and mission, virtual. They hire the most qualified employees, wherever they may live, and usually stipulate that employees have a proper working environment. Below are some guidelines to creating an efficient work space.

  • A designated work space—This can really be anything: a whole room, a corner of a room that is dedicated to work, a room in the basement (that's where my husband has his home office), a converted garage, etc. The kitchen and dining room tables are not recommended; these places should not be doing double duty and detracting from your home life.
  • Quiet, quiet, quiet—Duh. The environment must be conducive to the type of work you perform. I typically read, conduct research, and write. My office is the back "bedroom," the one that does not face the street. That was deliberate. In winter, I can look out my office and swear that I'm looking at the land that time forgot—not a creature stirs. Sometimes it is eerie and I call my husband at work for a reality check.
  • A real desk and a good chair—You might as well be comfortable. This is the excuse and opportunity to buy the chair of your dreams, not the standard office issue hard-as-a-rock chair with thin, plastic armrests (if you even get armrests).
  • Separate phone and fax lines (trust me, you won't regret this) and high-speed Internet (which, if you are a full time telecommuter, your company should pay part or all of)—These are paramount to helping you set boundaries because, when the work day ends, you don't have to continue taking calls on your home phone. Of course, I still check voicemail on my work phone. Another staple is voicemail, usually available through the telephone service provider for a small fee. It's just professional.
  • Rules—Yes, rules. You need to set boundaries as to when you can and can't be disturbed. I am often on conference calls and the doorbell rings. I don't answer it—period. After a while, you can train yourself to behave as if you are actually somewhere else—mentally, that is.
  • Appropriate electronic devices—TV is really not recommended, seriously, unless you are taking a break. I listen to the classical radio station on low volume. Some people do require some audio stimulation. I know some telecommuters who keep their TVs tuned to CNN if they're checking email or doing something administrative; however, avoid SPIKE TV's Police Chase.

Benefits vs. Burdens

As with most things, there are pros and cons to working from home. Let's explore the benefits:

  • Save on gasoline—This is a no-brainer.
  • Save on clothing—You don't have the expense of "work" clothes and the accompanying dry cleaning bills.
  • Avoid bad weather—During the nor'easter that gripped most of the country a couple of weeks ago, I was very content to be working from home. My rule: Only necessary personnel should be on the roads in inclement weather. This cuts down on traffic jams and fender benders. So, "let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."
  • Possible tax advantages—Check with your accountant or tax preparer.
  • Efficiency—I maintain that those who can work from home without distractions are infinitely more efficient, should be able to get more rest, and attain a certain feng shui in their lives.
  • Fresh air vs. stale, recycled air—At home, you can open the windows.
  • More productivity-I have found that I get sick less working from home. This is a two-way street because when I am ill, I don't have to drag my sorry self into work and infect everyone else.

And then there are the burdens:

  • Cost—There is some cost (as well as some reorganization) involved in working from home. During the winter, you may need to keep your home warmer during the day than you would if you were at the office. Likewise, in summer, you may need to keep your home cooler or at least run the AC in your office. There are other costs as well. Your company may reimburse you for long-distance calls but not for your local service. If you are a freelancer, you must purchase your own office supplies and equipment. Even telecommuters have to purchase some of their office supplies.
  • Expectation that when you are sick, you'll still work—Here's where you have to have a good relationship with your supervisor and your company. If you are sick, you should reduce your duties and take the time you need to rest and/or go to the doctor. Having the same cough for three weeks (been there, done that) is just ridiculous, painful to you, and annoying to others.
  • Lack of social intercourse—This is a double-edged sword. You can always use the phone to reach out and touch someone. And while the office environment does provide camaraderie, the office environment with tiny cubicles and distractions such as other employees yapping all day long to each other and their kids, friends, and spouses is just not conducive to getting work done. After all, this is the workplace; those people should save the socializing for after work.

A Few More Things

Working from home enables you to avoid office politics to some extent. However, some folks get paranoid that they may be passed over for promotion and that working from home can negatively impact their careers. There are choices to be made. If you are on the fast track and seeking to climb the corporate ladder quickly, working at home may not be optimal. However, telecommuting is not an all-or-nothing proposition. If you live within reasonable commuting distance (or even if you don't), you can set aside time to occasionally "meet" with your manager either in person or via phone.

If you manage people, and this can be accomplished successfully remotely, set a time for regularly scheduled in-person staff meetings. If everyone is remote or if many are, then schedule a weekly teleconference call, being careful to facilitate it so that it doesn't become a mini phone marathon.

Bottom line: Telecommuting may be the rule rather than the exception in the future as employers are abandoning their expensive brick-and-mortar offices in favor of the virtual and more flexible workplace.

MC Press is interested in learning about our readers' experiences with telecommuting. Please share your stories, comments, and suggestions by participating in the forums discussion at the end of this article.

And for a more in-depth look at telecommuting, you might like to have a look at Managing Without Walls, published by MC Press.

Maria A. DeGiglio is President of, and Principal Analyst for, Maria A. DeGiglio & Associates, an advisory firm that provides clients with accurate and actionable information on business and technology initiatives. You can reach Ms. DeGiglio at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

MARIA DEGIGLIO

Maria DeGiglio is president and principal analyst of Maria A. DeGiglio & Associates. Current clients of Maria A. DeGiglio & Associates include the Visiting Nurse Service of New York ; Experture, LLC; and MC Press. Ms. DeGiglio has more than 20 years of experience as an IT consultant, industry analyst, and executive. From 1997 to 2005, she worked for Andrews Consulting Group and the Robert Frances Group.

 

Ms. DeGiglio received her Masters Degree in Health Advocacy from Sarah Lawrence College and graduated Cum Laude from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree.

 

 

Ms. DeGiglio has worked with IT and C-level executives to enable IT alignment with business goals and to implement best practices. She has experience and expertise in both large enterprises and in small- and medium-sized business. Ms. DeGiglio has authored over one hundred articles, reports, and white papers.

 

 

Since 2004, she has worked in the healthcare industry and in health IT investigating the legal, ethical, and regulatory aspects of creating, implementing, and exchanging electronic health records (EHRs). Ms. DeGiglio is an expert in security, privacy, and HIPAA regulatory compliance.

 

 

Ms. DeGiglio may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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