10 signs that you aren't cut out to be a telecommuter

Telecommuting may sound like a sweet deal, but it's not for everybody. Long-time telecommuter Jody Gilbert takes a realistic look at the pros and cons.

I've been telecommuting off and on for about 12 years, mainly because I insist on living in the middle of nowhere, which makes the drive to any regional office facility tiresome, inefficient, and expensive. Also, I'm a hermit, so that works out well for all concerned.

When I tell people about this working arrangement, I usually get one of two polar-opposite responses: Wow, that must be GREAT! or How can you stand it? I'd go out of my mind after two days. Sometimes, I get the cousin of the second response: Oh, I'd never get anything done; I'd just sit around and watch TV all day.

Successfully telecommuting — being productive, staying in the mix, keeping yourself on the executive radar, and not allowing work to bleed into your home life until you can't tell which is which — definitely requires some discipline and vigilance. It's not for everybody. But if you like it and you want to hang onto the deal, you'll do whatever it takes to satisfy management and avoid pissing off your co-workers.

If you've been considering a telecommuting arrangement, you'll want to be aware of some of the ways it might go off the rails. Here are a few indications that maybe your commute to the office isn't so bad after all.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: You fall prey to external distractions

One common lure of a telecommuting arrangement is the misguided notion that staying home will make it easier to juggle caregiver demands and work demands. Whether it's kids, an elderly relative, or anyone else who happens to inhabit your home-now-office and requires some of your attention, the distractions are likely to take a sizable bite out of your focus and productivity.

I'm not saying it's impossible to find a balance. I'm sure many of you out there have. (And please share your comments and tell us what works for you.) But make sure you take a good hard look at what's really going to happen if you try to manage domestic and professional responsibilities in the same space-time continuum.

#2: You're a sitting duck for internal distractions

If you can immerse yourself in a project and resist the little devil on your shoulder that urges you to raid the fridge, do the laundry, call your brother, pay some bills, weed the garden, bathe the dog, finish that Stephen King book so you can return it to the library, pop over to the library to return that Stephen King book, hook up the new DVD player, look for that missing cell phone, cut the grass, watch a few minutes of SportsCenter, check your eBay bids... well good for you. It's not that office employees aren't doing a workplace version of some of these activities (some more than others). But at home, there are likely to be more tempting distractions (WAY more), with nobody but you to keep yourself in line.

Of course, you need to give yourself some latitude here. But if you're going to succeed, you have to do a little self-policing. Or bribery. That can work. One time-honored trick is to promise yourself a break or reward at a certain time or after you accomplish a particular task. Sure, it has a kindergarten flavor. But if the devil on your shoulder is around five years old, as mine is, you might give it a try.

#3: You can't put together the necessary equipment, services, or infrastructure to do your job

One of my ongoing frustrations as a telecommuter has been the lack of anything resembling a high-speed Internet connection out here in the valley where I live. I came within a few nanoseconds of inking a deal with a satellite broadband service, only to have the installer double-check the elevation and azimuth and discover the trees had grown enough to block the signal in the weeks I'd been waiting for him to show up. Seriously.

Decent connectivity is essential for the work I do, and odds are, it will be important for you, too. But even if you have a screaming connection, you might face other equipment or infrastructure shortcomings that could make your work difficult or impossible to perform from home. Think carefully about what you need to create the optimum working environment. Your organization may be able to help you fill in the gaps, just as it supplies employees with what they need in the office — but you don't want to have to function with sub-par services or inadequate facilities day in and day out.

#4: You can't sustain enough (or any) proactive contact with the office

If your goal in telecommuting is to get the hell away from everybody in the office and have little or nothing to do with them, you probably need a new job. And possibly some counseling. It's true that I like solitude, which is a plus in a remote working situation. But I spend a large portion of each day in contact with co-workers, bosses, and TechRepublic contributors. I pester people with instant messages all day long, sometimes just to touch base, to say, "How's it going," or to get a read on the mood in the office from my trusted confidants. Other times, I need a quick answer, a simple debriefing, or the latest on a go/no-go decision. If you're an isolationist or you're reluctant to take the steps needed to keep communications flowing freely, telecommuting probably isn't a good arrangement for you.

#5: You don't function well without a lot of structure

Some people really need to have someone else impose a work routine on them. They need help lining up tasks, setting priorities, scheduling their days, staying motivated, and deciding how to tackle a project or assignment. If that's your working style, you might find yourself adrift with nobody around to help you stay on track.

If you can't seem to get organized or get started on things you know you should be working on (or you don't know what you should be working on), telecommuting is going to be tough for you.

#6: You have a manager who can't or won't manage remotely

My first opportunity to telecommute got torpedoed by my manager. The company president and CFO were all excited about the idea. In fact, they'd come to me with it, to see if I'd be the telecommuting guinea pig for the organization. But my manager wasn't included in the initial conversations and when she heard what was afoot, she threatened a hunger strike.

Some managers simply can't imagine trying to oversee the performance of a staff member who isn't in the office with them. Could be management style, could be insecurity, could be an unwillingness to make the types of accommodations needed to keep telecommuting staff productive and integrated with the team. Whatever the reason, I can tell you first hand, you need your manager's buy-in for this type of arrangement to work. And the more you can take on your own shoulders (keeping your data backed up, your antivirus updated on the laptop, your online meeting software properly configured, your maintenance requirements low, and your participation levels high), the easier it will be to hang on to that buy-in.

#7: You can't establish boundaries with friends, family, or neighbors

Telecommuters cite the boundary problem as one of the biggest challenges they face. For whatever reason, not everyone gets the fact that yeah, you're in the house, but you're working. Your proximity is an irresistible invitation to some folks — even those who should know better — to see if you can tell why their car engine is making that noise, help move a refrigerator, fix a pot of coffee and talk about spring training prospects, read The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, or explain what you really meant when you said that thing you said last night.

Of course, co-workers and bosses interrupt each other all the time in the office, and not always for any useful (or even discernable) purpose. But those boundaries are generally easier to establish and maintain, especially if you have a door (or a Mafia death stare). Trying to get family members and friends to understand that you need uninterrupted work time can be a lot more difficult and frustrating — and feelings may get hurt. If you think this could be a problem for you, or you just don't want to have to be the bad guy and enforce some limits, you might be better off in the office.

#8: You can't bring yourself to quit for the day

Some people hit the door the instant their workday is over. Others have a tendency to hang around until they wrap things up. If you're a hang-arounder, be wary of letting your work life encroach on your home life. Maybe you just want to test one more thing, try one more approach, knock out two or three lingering tasks, or get a head start on tomorrow. But before you know it, it's 8:00 o'clock, it's 10:00 o'clock, it's midnight. Occasionally, this may not be a bad thing. It may not even be avoidable, depending on your job role. But if it becomes a habit, you could be in trouble.

If you're not careful, your job will begin to infiltrate your personal life — with potentially destructive consequences. Here are a few recommendations for combating this "pervasive workplace" syndrome:

  • Set up a dedicated area for working (so you can leave when the day is done).
  • Establish a work schedule and stick to it.
  • Take breaks just as you would in an office environment.
  • When it's quitting time, quit.

#9: You can't work independently

This is a little bit like #5. Being able to establish your own work structure, schedule, and priorities is an essential part of working independently. But there's more to it than that. Working independently also means being able to create and pursue ideas and solutions without constant feedback or approval. It means that you're innovative and proactive, you spot opportunities, and you don't always need to be told what to do or have everything spelled out for you. It means that you're experienced enough to fly solo and make good decisions without too much hand-holding.

If you're new at a particular job or constantly under the gun to learn new processes or technologies, working independently can be next to impossible. Take a realistic look at how much your work requires you to lean on co-workers and supervisors to accomplish tasks.

#10: You hate missing out on collaborative opportunities

Brainstorming, tag-teaming, and sharing project planning, development, and execution aren't out of your reach if you telecommute — but you have to make a concerted effort to keep yourself in the game. That may mean IM-ing and e-mailing incessantly, speaking up during phone conferences even though there's that funky delay and awkward interruption factor, forcing yourself to use online collaboration software, or making extra in-person visits to the office. It can be done. But it's not the same as being there every day.

If you thrive on the ongoing interaction of working in the trenches with your colleagues, being able to look over their shoulders and hang around the break room or someone's cube arguing spontaneously and face to face instead of via your keyboard or cell phone, telecommuting is probably going to disappoint you.

Do you have experience telecommuting or managing telecommuters? How well has it worked out for you?


Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.

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