Telecommuters Need to Develop Special Skills

Whether you telecommute personally or you work with telecommuters, you should be aware of the pitfalls mdash; and the solutions mdash; so you can deal with them before they become problems in which a manager does need to get involved.

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 in 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.

Telecommuters can be quot;out of sight, out of mindquot;, and that can affect your manager's and co-workers' perception of you and your performance

Speak Up! Lisa Curhan, an operations engineering manager at Sun Microsystems, recommends that telecommuters pay attention to their behaviour 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 co-workers' 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.

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Be Responsive. Another important component for telecommuting success is to respond quickly. Your office co-workers 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 co-workers. Otherwise, they miss out on the conversations that start as Monday-morning discussions about the footy 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 co-worker 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.

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 kick-off 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 non-profit organization, observed that everyone needs to be explicit and overt in any work situation that lacks face-to-face contact.

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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 co-workers since expectations of working hours can vary widely.

Denise Wilmer Barreto, a retail marketing manager, makes it clear to her co-workers 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 centred 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 co-workers 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 mdash; I had a question for you', which is silly because I'm even more reachable at home," he says.

(See also "7 Things the CIO Should Know About Telecommuting")

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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