Telecommuters Need to Develop Special Skills

Successful telework requires more than a laptop and a fast Internet connection. Experienced IT professionals—who work from home at least part time—explain the lessons they learned the hard way.

By Esther Schindler
Fri, May 11, 2007

CIO — Whether you telecommute personally or you work with telecommuters, you should be aware of the pitfalls—and the solutions—so you can deal with them before they become problems in which a manager does need to get involved. (For more information on telecommuting, see "Getting Clueful: Seven Things the CIO Should Know About Telecommuting.")

I sidestep the usual advice here about becoming a self-starter, creating a personal space for professional activities, and teaching children that "Mommy is working now and can't be disturbed." You'll find those suggestions anywhere, including on books devoted to the subject (which have varying value, in my estimation). Instead, these specific suggestions aim to help telecommuters learn business skills that they may not realize are affecting their careers.

Speak Up!
Lisa Curhan, an operations engineering manager at Sun Microsystems, recommends that telecommuters pay attention to their behavior during conference calls. "Make your presence known. Ask people who mumble to repeat themselves or get closer to the mike. Speak clearly and use visual aid-sharing when needed. Don't multitask during the meeting (it's usually obvious), unless you are doing something necessary to the task at hand, like taking notes. Keep yourself on mute when not speaking, and keep the background noise as low as reasonably possible."

Promote Yourself
Telecommuters can be "out of sight, out of mind," and that can affect your manager's and coworkers' perception of you and your performance. "Because your presence is not as strong psychologically as the on-site workers, you may have to be a bit of a publicist for yourself to get proper recognition," says Curhan. So make sure you blow your own horn on notable accomplishments.

Telecommuters need to make a deliberate effort to demonstrate accomplishments and productivity. One way to accomplish this is for the telecommuter to send the manager a weekly log of projects and tasks, at least to begin with. After a while, the manager and telecommuter can rely on a weekly conference call during which the discussion covers what current tasks are under way and structuring projects so there's a steady stream of deliverables.

Be Responsive
Another important component for telecommuting success is to respond quickly. Your office coworkers might be distracted with another project, but if you don't answer your e-mail immediately, the boss might worry that you aren't there and thus aren't working.

Gather 'Round the Virtual Water Cooler
Because telecommuters work on their own, they need to find alternate ways to connect with coworkers. Otherwise, they miss out on the discussions that start as Monday-morning quarterbacking at the coffee station and turn into a brainstorming session. Although you might think of gossip as a negative, I was once surprised to learn from an in-the-office coworker that the team was going out to lunch "because today is Jim's last day." I hadn't even known that Jim was leaving. (A fellow telecommuter said, "It could have been worse. You could have said, 'Who's Jim?' ")

For most telecommuters, the alternate conversation flow happens using instant messaging, telephone calls and e-mail. Videoconferencing isn't common yet, but it can be surprisingly effective. (For more information on the different technologies available for connecting far-flung employees, see the table, The Best Technologies for the Meeting, below.)

It's also common for telecommuters to schedule visits to the home office every so often, and new teams benefit strongly from an in-person kickoff meeting. Be sure that the home-office travel is scheduled at the beginning of the year, though, and that the manager agrees they're vital; those trips have a way of falling off the travel budget later in the year.

Whatever means you use for team communication, it's extremely important that everyone involved make an effort to be clear. Err on the side of too much information. Kimbol Soques, a former IT services manager who is now webmaster for a nonprofit organization, observed that everyone needs to be explicit and overt in any work situation that lacks face-to-face contact.

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