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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Keys to Successful Telecommuting

Working from home can provide greater satisfaction and lead to increased productivity. To make it work, though, you need to consider a few things. The items that are covered in the sections that follow are important keys to make the work-from-home experience a successful one.

Project-Based/Free-Agent Mindset

You must, if working from home, be even more disciplined when it comes to producing a final product for your employer. The fact is, when you are at your place of work, part of your performance is based simply on your appearance. Managers typically do not look over your shoulder to see what you are working on.

When you are working from home, management does not see you. It sees only the work you produce. Employers are much more critical of project time frames. You must develop a free-agent mindset that places production above "busy-ness."

You must document additional tasks more meticulously and more effectively track your time. Communication between you and your employer must also be more effective. Notice that I did not say more frequent or quantitative, only more effective. You must be able to concisely keep management apprised of the work you have done, what you are doing, what has to be done, and when.

Apply Discipline

Working at home requires intense discipline. The draw of family, little projects around the house or, worse yet, the television, must be set aside. If not, you will fail in this endeavor. Telecommuting requires much more discipline than is needed when working at the office.

At the office, it is unlikely that your spouse will ask you to fix the television. You will not hear the kids playing in the pool and feel compelled to put in some "quality family time." These types of situations certainly do arise in a work-at-home environment, so if you are not disciplined, don't consider working at home an option.

Clear Expectations

You must establish clear expectations for what constitutes an effective working relationship with your employer. These include what hours you must be available via phone, how to communicate on projects, what a minimum schedule entails, and so on.

Establishing clear expectations right from the beginning is a key factor in work-at-home success. Doing so greatly reduces the possibility of frustrating misunderstandings.

If you have a history of great work with your company, it, of course, will be more willing to approve telecommuting as an option. If your company's past experience with you is not a positive one, your telecommuting is unlikely to be approved. Telecommuting requires a great deal of trust on the part of the employer. Give the company a reason to expect continued production regardless of where you work.

Technologies for the Telecommuter

The sections that follow cover some of the key technologies used in the work-at-home environment.

VPNs

A VPN is a secure network connection to a private network (the company LAN) through a public network (the Internet). A VPN provides a way for an external computer or resource to connect to resources on the private network. This can be access to company e-mail, files, and applications.

As an example, I connect from my home network, across the Internet, to the networks of several of my clients. This provides me relatively high-speed access to their LANs without having to pay for leased lines or other expensive telecommunication links. I can administer their servers, perform troubleshooting tasks, or even develop applications on their private systems directly from my home system.

With recent advancements in network-based telephones, you can even connect a phone to your home network and, through a VPN connection, have calls to your office routed directly to the phone at your house. This lends to the professionalism that is associated with telecommuting.

IM Services

Although they're often cited as a source of abusive practices, IM programs can be extremely valuable in telecommunication settings. I use Microsoft Instant Messenger to stay in contact with remote developers and key clients.

It should be noted, however, that IM can be extremely detrimental to performance. I have had employees who had day-long conversations about virtually nothing "between moments of production." The problem is that technology work, when done well, requires concentration.

Programming takes anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to shift into "high productivity" mode. Every distraction resets this clock. IM, if used incorrectly, can kill productivity if you're not careful. In fact, any interruption can.

You need to set time aside that you are not available except for emergencies. This means turning off IM and e-mail.

When writing, I must turn off Outlook and my phone. I also shut down Internet Explorer so that I am not tempted to browse the Internet to see the latest news or research something. All of these distractions are much more available and dangerous for the telecommuter.

It is not that these technologies cannot play an important role for the telecommuter. In fact, I use them daily for my work. I have a network of peers who specifically use IM to stay in touch and quickly resolve work-related issues. For instance, if I run into a problem programming, I typically have one or two programmers online whom I can ask a question of. If they are busy or unavailable, they simply log off the system, and I know not to interfere with their day.

The point is that you must use the technologies wisely and when appropriate. Distractions greatly hinder productivity, and a lack of focus can kill any telecommuting opportunity.

Resources for the Home Worker

Many resources are available for those contemplating or currently working at home.

As previously mentioned, Jeff Berner's book, The Joy of Working at Home: Making a Life While Making a Living, is a good place to start. You can find it at http://www.jeffberner.com.

Also, check out http://www.about.com for a list of various telecommuting and work-at-home resources.

Don't forget to check out the library for other books discussing everything from office space, tax implications, and other work-at-home arrangements.

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