Not many people can claim to have been telecommuting for as long as Jack Nilles has been untethered from office life.
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In 1973, Nilles coined the terms “telework” and “telecommuting,” and he’s been an ardent supporter of the trend and a die-hard telecommuter himself for decades. Nilles is the cofounder and president of JALA International, which helps organizations develop their telecommuting programs, and authored several books on the topic.
With thousands of people losing their jobs each week, Nilles offers five pieces of advice for those CIO.com readers who might have little if any experience working outside an office environment and now find themselves working from their homes full-time—looking for new jobs, or working on contract assignments until they find other full-time gigs.
1. Good or Bad: You’re the Boss Now
The first thing that someone who was used to working in a big-company office environment will notice, says Nilles, is that he has lost all his means of support: Need IT’s assistance with an Internet connection issue? Gone. Or accounting’s help with a financial question? Nope. How about marketing’s insights? Ditto.
“When you’re working from home, you are the entire staff,” Nilles says. “You have to think about that, and you have to become self-sufficient. And all of the things that you used to leave for someone else to do, you may have to learn or relearn them yourself.”
Even basic scheduling or meeting personal deadlines can be difficult for people who have long relied on office norms that dictated when assignments and projects needed to get done, he says. In the office “if people were walking down the hall to a conference room, then [that told you] that there must be a meeting,” Nilles says. “Now, you need to provide your own cues as to what really needs to get done today.”
2. Be Front and Center, Virtually
Even though you are now out of sight from your former coworkers, peers and recruiters, you need to be virtually prominent in their sights. “You need to be proactive about setting up communication schedules” with former colleagues, new networking acquaintances and recruiters, and prospective employers, Nilles says.
And do that, he adds, by whatever means necessary: via e-mail, IM, text messaging, videoconferencing and professional social-networking groups. “You don’t want to be out of mind,” Nilles says, “even though you may be out of sight.”
Nilles also says that this can provide a benefit if your former employer decides it needs your services on a part-time or contract basis. “You may be able to get back in with your former company,” he says, “and do work for them at an hourly rate that will probably be more than what they were paying your for your full-time work.”
3. Your Laptop Is Your Lifeline to the World—and a New Job
The Marine Corps’ “Rifleman’s Creed” might apply here (just insert “laptop” for “rifle”): “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. My rifle, without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.”
OK, so that might be a stretch, but Nilles points out that today’s knowledge workers have to have the right tech tools—such as Internet connectivity, e-mail, IM, text messaging and perhaps PC-enabled videoconferencing—to allow them to be virtually anywhere without being there physically.
“You need to have at least similar computer hardware and software that you had before at your old job,” he says, “so that you can be as transparently accessible as you were before when you were hooked into a physical [corporate] LAN.”
In addition, now that you’re the de facto CIO and IT admin, you need to take special care of your PC. Nilles implores all teleworkers—especially those with no IT department to back them up—to install all of the most up-to-date security applications available and steer clear of those “free” public Wi-Fi connections at not reputable hot-spot locations.
4. Turn Your Telecommuting Experience Into a Plus
In this economic environment, Nilles says, a prospective employee who is a proficient and experienced teleworker is a definite plus.
“You now become possibly a more attractive asset to potential employers who are thinking about reducing operating costs, because of the economic crisis,” he says. “And one way to reduce those costs is to decrease demand for office-space costs, which, in fact, is one of the chief reasons companies get involved in telecommuting.”
JALA’s research has shown that many telecommuters “tend to be a higher productivity person than the people who are still in the office” and also that “telecommuters who have some experience at it are, on average, better organized than their current colleagues in the office.”
5. Get Out and Actually Talk with People in Person
Conducting tons of virtual communication is an important task for teleworkers, Nilles says. But equally important is “not going stir crazy.” That’s especially true for those people who were used to lots of face-to-face contact office before.
So if you need to go down to Starbucks or Panera to work on your resume or meet with a former colleague (or use the Wi-Fi), then definitely do it, Nilles says.
Success with telecommuting is “part technological, part attitude and part increasing your networking skills and access,” Nilles says. “And those three altogether, typically without a huge financial investment on your part, can make a pretty big difference.”