Tuesday, February 19, 2008

4 Tips for Inching Into Telecommuting, One Day At A Time

The Wall Street Journal has some fairly standard suggestions for making telecommuting work for you. [yaaawn] Um, right, set up a dedicated space, be in touch, don't watch TV all day. Check. Got it.

Since, as they note in their article, the vast majority of telecommuters are working in a Real Office most of the time, and from home only one day a week, it might be more helpful to focus on ways you can look at the things you're doing in the Real Office to identify a segment of your work that you could do from home. Dig it: many people aren't going to be able to put together a pure-play, 100% wearing their slippers telecommuting plan because of the nature of their work. Maybe you have to work with legal tender or other confidential documents that you would be ill advised to take off site. Perhaps you have some need or obligation to provide in-person customer service.

Whatever the reason, you still want to make the point that the flexible options your management trumpets in their recruiting materials aren't just for the technology-humping elite. I believe you can do it. Try this:

1. Scan your workday for activities you can do on any computer, not just the Real Office rig. I'm thinking about things like doing research, reviewing or checking printouts of data against records stored in the system, online training, reading professional journals, writing manuals and procedures, working on budgets, reviewing resumes, writing reviews or doing other HR tasks. Spend a month logging the time you spend doing every little thing in the day, and then analyze the data to flag tasks that are not location-specific. Then ask yourself:

  • Can I batch my need to do these activities -- in other words, can I pile this work up until Wednesday and do it all at once, or does it require a daily review?
  • Do they add up to at least eight hours a week?
  • Can I access the systems and information I need to do these tasks from any computer, generally speaking?

If you answer yes to these questions, then you may have just identified a work at home day.

2. Test out all the technology available to you. The goal of this exercise is to make absolutely sure that you're going to be able to do everything you need to from home. Get an account and fire up the VPN from home, then systematically go through all the work-from-home tasks you identified in step one. Start using the web version of your core database to make sure there isn't some missing functionality that you're going to desperately need. Hit all the file systems to identify when you're likely to hit security roadblocks, and come up with strategies to get around this. Like, "Oh, I'll need to make a local copy of those budget files on my laptop on Tuesday afternoon so I can work on them from home on Wednesday, since the server isn't available over the VPN." Don't forget about the phone system, too. Many systems will allow you to forward your phone to any number, not just those within the system, so you may be able to send your desk phone to your home office, making it seamless for folks who call you.

3. Write a specific plan and sit down to discuss it with your manager. Steps one and two have given you a lot of specific data: you know what you want to do from home, and exactly how you're going to do it. Write it up in a concise document, and for Pete's sake, leave out any reference to how great it's going to be for you to work at home. You're writing this plan to make your boss feel good about how smart she is to let you work from home, and she won't feel smart if you talk about how you'll be able to play more with your kids. Really. Trust me on this. Instead, your plan should spell out:
  • The specific things you know you are able to do from home and how many hours a week they take you in the office
  • An explanation of the technology and techniques you'll use to do those tasks, noting which are already in place, and which might need to be added
  • A description of your home office that specifies that it's quiet, businesslike, fully broadbanded-up, and absolutely free of small children or elderly parents whom you might be called upon to care for during your work-at-home days
  • A set of expectations your manager may have of you on your work-at-home days, such as calls returned within X period of time, emails returned within Y period of time, availability on company IM, etc.
  • Suggestions for ways your manager will be able to tell you're working -- maybe you'll turn in all your TPS reports for the prior week first thing in the morning the day after your telecommute day
4. Produce. The single best way to obtain, retain, and expand telecommuting is to produce good results. Remember, if you do the work it gets done. When you're working at home, you must be extra vigilant to call folks back (or better yet, pick up the phone when people call you in the first place, if possible), to do the things you planned to do on your telecommute day, and to generally kick ass in all regards. It's a combination of actual working and window dressing, to be honest with you. Of course, you've got to crank out your budget numbers, yes, the actual work you're charged with. But you also need to play the game a little bit -- make sure that you're on the IM right at the crack of the business day, or make a point of calling into your manager or a cranky colleague first thing in the morning (and don't call just to say, "I'm working at home today, remember?", or worse yet "I can't get to this thing from here, can you do it for me?").

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