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Confessions Of A Telecommuter

“How would you like to work out of your home for the rest of your life?”A future boss of mine actually posed this question to me in an interview, and instantly my ears perked up. “If you mean would I like to skip those horrific commutes in Chicago traffic, continue to avoid the life-stage that involves dressing uncomfortably (a.k.a. “professionally”) and work the hours that fit my sleep schedule (late to bed, late to rise), then YES!” Well those weren’t my exact words, but that was pretty much my line of thinking.

So I took the job, not knowing that “the rest of my life” would turn out to be less than a year, when the company would have a sudden change of heart and pull everyone into a “central office” (a.k.a. hour-long commute). But it did open my eyes to both the joys and challenges of telecommuting. So after leaving that home-turned-office job, I managed to find work with another company that allowed telecommuting—and that’s where I am today, earning my paycheck out of my basement.

When I explain my current job situation to most people, I typically get one of two responses: “Oh I could never do that, I’d never get anything done!” or “I’d give anything to stop driving and work at home in my pajamas!”Let’s take closer look at these two statements. First, it is true that many people could not accomplish much if trying to do their job at home. It does take a specific type of personality. We’re all wired up differently in what motivates us, what helps us focus, how we balance work and home life, etc. To work at home, one definitely needs the ability to focus, and environment plays a huge part in that.

If you’re someone who likes background music to work or can ignore background noise, just put a desk anywhere in your home, get a good set of headphones for your stereo, and you’re set. If you thrive in complete quiet however, you’ll need to designate an entire area of your house as “the office.” I use my basement, but I know others who use their own bedroom (much to the dismay of their spouse) or even a room in their garage (which isn’t as fun in those cold Midwest winters).

You also need the ability to separate home-life from work-life. Workaholics typically have a more difficult time working at home, because every time they walk by the office and see that computer screen and paperwork staring at them, they can’t resist the urge to walk in and get something done.It also helps to be self-disciplined and a self-motivator, since you miss out on a lot of the feedback and direction that comes from having your boss down the hall (well, sometimes).

To clarify the second statement, there are certainly some big benefits to working at home.Obviously, the 30-second commute across the house is much more bearable, even on “heavy traffic” days. And though most companies want telecommuters to keep hours similar to the onsite employees, you can still get a lot of flexibility in your hours. This means you can cater your schedule to your most productive times of the day (which for me is never before 8 a.m., and often after 10 p.m. when all is quiet).Another advantage surprisingly is productivity—I find myself accomplishing a lot more in an 8-hour day of focused work at home than I ever did in a day at the office constantly interrupted by the infamous cubicle conversations.

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However, there are some challenges one must be prepared for before making the leap to telecommuting.Some people really thrive in feeling part of a team, and despite recent advances in technology such as IM, teleconferencing and webcams, it is very easy to feel out of the loop. You miss out on those casual cubicle conversations (the very ones mentioned above that can cut into productivity), so it’s hard to feel as connected with coworkers. You obviously don’t get to participate in office parties and socials, and getting to go home early on a warm Friday afternoon isn’t quite as exciting when you’re already there.

After three years of telecommuting experience, I do have a few tips to offer those seeking to give it a try. First, especially if you’re a “people person,” make sure you get out of the house often during the day. I eat lunch out with friends 2-3 times a week (another great benefit of working at home) and try to go on daily walks in the mid-afternoon, whether rain, snow or sunshine. Second, make sure the company still offers some way to keep you connected to the rest of your team. The technology mentioned earlier keeps getting cheaper and more readily available, so there’s really no excuse not to use it.Third, be sure to schedule regular trips to the main office, for obvious reasons. And finally, use telecommuting to its greatest advantage in your job performance by fully understanding how you are wired and what makes you most productive. If you need five minute breaks every half hour to clear your head, make sure you take them and have somewhere to go. If you need long focused periods of time when your mind is most awake, determine when that is and make it happen.

Though many companies would never consider allowing telecommuting, it’s beginning to make sense for more and more industries. And it can often save a company a lot of money by cutting the high costs of office space and utilities, relocation, etc. And as home Internet speed increases and teleconferencing and Web technology continues to grow, it will become a more viable option. If you are currently a telecommuter and are bored and distracted and longing for those days back in the office—just put on a shirt and tie, bake yourself some brownies in honor of someone’s birthday, and invite the family to come hang out in your home office and chat. As for me, I’ll be down here in my basement in a T-shirt and shorts typing away on the computer.Hey, at least I’m out of my pajamas.

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