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.

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.

Is This a Good Time to Talk?

For office workers, it's apparent when an employee is "at work" and when she isn't. Those boundaries are more difficult for teleworkers to distinguish, both for themselves and for team members. Some teleworkers are always online; others prefer a standard 9-to-5 routine to retain some semblance of work-life balance. Consequently, it's important for telecommuters to establish ground rules about availability with coworkers since expectations of working hours can vary widely.

Denise Wilmer Barreto, a retail marketing manager, makes it clear to her coworkers that even though she puts in long days, she's not going to jump every time her phone rings, her e-mail dings or her IM chings. "I put in way more hours than are required, and if after my early-morning workout I decide to boot up and get centered on some work or prioritize my key projects for that day, I don't want a BlackBerry ping or an IM trying to ask me anything."

Convincing recalcitrant coworkers to change their own work habits to accommodate yours can also be difficult. Freeland Abbott, a research scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute, has trouble making colleagues understand that he's still easy to reach. "I'm here by phone, e-mail and IM, but when people have stray thoughts for me, they seem to sit on them until a day when I'm in the office and we cross in the hallway," he says.

Bruce Kane, a professional services consultant, shares a similar experience. "Often, on the days when I do go into the office, I get a comment like, 'I wish you had been here yesterday—I had a question for you,' which is silly because I'm even more reachable at home," he says.

The Best Technology for the Meeting
One-on-one casual discussions Telephone, instant messaging Key attribute: immediacy and instant feedback ("Did you ever find out how much the gizmo cost?"). The topics you'd ask the boss while leaning against his office door. Be sure to send a confirmation e-mail—even if it's just the log of the IM conversation—with details of decisions reached, because IM doesn't always have a "memory."
One-on-one "serious" discussions Telephone Best when the situation is complex, there are personalities involved, and especially when the discussion content will be emotional or critical. You need every people-reading skill you can get.
Group status discussions Teleconferences or online meeting technology. A regular (usually weekly) meeting by phone (or using another technology, if team members are comfortable with it) lets team members bring each other up to date on project status. These are also good for brainstorming, as long as one person remembers to take and distribute notes.
One-on-one or group process discussions E-mail E-mail is best when you want to ensure that the conversation can be tracked ("Who was it, again, that volunteered to edit this article?"), and when the problem description requires more than a few paragraphs to explain.
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