Don't underestimate the importance of 'face time' - real and virtual - and the need to manage your manager's expectations.

by Mathew Schwartz | August 2007

Want to write code in your slippers?

As demand for talent has surged and companies look for new ways to recruit workers while cutting operating expenses, many organizations - from start-ups to tech heavyweights - have embraced telecommuting. Take IBM: 40 percent of its 356,000 employees now work from home. Likewise, because Sun Microsystems has 16,000 workers based in home offices, it has been able to eliminate 7,700 office spaces.

With more companies embracing telecommuting, more executives telecommuting themselves and access to broadband Internet connections increasingly widespread, the barriers to working at home have all but disappeared. Right?

According to one recent study, 78 percent of executives think workers who telecommute are at least as productive as their office-based brethren. Half of executives would themselves pursue a position involving substantial telecommuting, especially for the ability to work flexible hours. However, 61 percent also believe telecommuting is less likely to advance their career, according to the survey of 1,320 executives conducted by a unit of Korn/Ferry International, an executive recruiting firm.

While telecommuting is far from a dead-end career option, those who want to take advantage of it shouldn't underestimate the importance of "face time"- both real and virtual - and the need to manage their managers' expectations.

Here are 10 tips to help make telecommuting successful for you:

Find the Right Corporate Culture

Pursue companies that do more than just talk the talk. Ask these questions: How many executives telecommute? Are higher-ups available to mentor telecommuters? Does the company train managers and employees on all aspects of telecommuting, from supervising remote workers to using equipment properly from home? Finally, can workers opt out of telecommuting if it's not to their liking?

Evaluate the Telecommuting Infrastructure

Even at home, working 12-hour stretches requires the right tools. So, does the company provide telecommuters with a corporate-issued laptop, laptop dock, external monitor and keyboard? Will it pay for broadband access and a dedicated phone line for your home office?

Train Up

To maximize their telecommuters' productivity, many companies offer relevant training. For example, Sun counsels employees in the art of running or participating in distributed meetings. Susan Landau, a Sun Microsystems distinguished engineer and regular telecommuter, says such advice includes: "Plan the meeting well. Create time for social chatting at the beginning or end of the meeting. Address behavior problems as they occur. For example, say 'We hear typing noise, please mute your call.'"

Manifest a Potent Virtual Presence

Just as face-to-face communication works on many levels, effective virtual communication requires more than just occasionally IM'ing your co-workers. Be aware of both subtle and obvious means of communicating your presence. For example, frequently update your IM "presence" status, remember to speak up on conference calls, and regularly send e-mails to your boss at 8 a.m.

Play Sysadmin at Home
Remote workers inevitably face remote connectivity challenges. The SSL VPN for accessing your enterprise e-mail goes down, the home router forgets the required security settings, or perhaps the latest Windows patch isn't installing correctly. Given the fact that remote assistance won't always be available, be flexible. As Landau notes, "I've learned to handle minor system administration myself."

Accept Telecommuting Trade-Offs

Realize telecommuting may require real trade-offs. "One problem I have not solved is that I don't participate in the informal discussions - the random idea brought up over lattes, the talk someone heard at a meeting the week before and mentions at lunch - that are the lifeblood of a research lab," says Landau. This comes down to a compromise: By working at home, "my connections to my colleagues are not as close, our conversations not as frequent, as they would be if I saw them daily," she says.

Watch Your Stress

Even though telecommuting eliminates your morning and evening commutes, working at home can add also stress to your life, especially if you feel isolated. To compensate, one guide for Lenovo telecommuters recommends spending extra time to build your extracurricular social network, and perhaps joining a local association of professional telecommuters. Or, work out at your local gym every lunch hour. Also build routines, create to-do lists, check in with colleagues at specified times throughout the day, and especially plan and take breaks. And don't be in a rush: A 30-90 day adjustment period for telecommuters is typical.

Minimize Non-Work Interruptions

Ensure you're a happy telecommuter by creating the right environment for minimizing interruptions and getting work done at home. For starters, dedicate a room to be your office, ensure you have a door that locks, and put a day care plan in place.

Don't Be a Workaholic

No one likes a burnout. Set and keep specific start and stop times for work, have reasonable expectations about what you can accomplish during a given day, and don't over-promise what you can deliver simply to "make up" for working at home.

Manage Your Career

Even if you telecommute, you want to be sure your career advances. So regularly schedule meetings with your manager to "assess needs, get feedback, and discuss problems," recommends Lenovo's guide. Keep your manager up to date on all of your projects and, in particular, always inform him or her about any work successes.

In short, telecommuting presents challenges, especially if you crave interpersonal interactions and aren't an old hand at manifesting a virtual presence. Yet with a little practice, perseverance and a supportive corporate culture, you can make it work for you.

Mathew Schwartz is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Cambridge, Mass.