Teleworker or Telecommuter? Terms for Today’s Workforce

Here’s a good list of definitions for telecommuting and remote working. For the record, I am a Remote Worker by this definition as there is no office for me to go to.

thevirtualleader

video conference

There are many terms used to describe workers nowadays. ‘Telecommuters’ made their way into the virtual office as early as the mid-1970s. ‘Teleworkers’ followed just over a decade later. Now we have ‘remote’ employees and ‘distributed’ teams. Is there a difference? (Admittedly, I tend to use some of these terms interchangeably.) More importantly, does it really matter? For some organizations, especially large organizations, it can be important to define how employees work if there are different requirements, policies, provisions, or benefits for these different types of work arrangements. From research and speaking with a number of organizations, here are the most commonly used terms and their definitions:

Flextime/Flexwork: Working a full or part-time schedule, but adjusting start and end times to accommodate personal needs or commitments which allow employees more choices in managing their work schedule.

Telework: Working a full or part-time schedule from a location other than an employer’s…

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Quitting Time

clock

 

Are Telecommuters at risk for Overwork?

 

 

As a telecommuter, we often cite increased productivity as one of the biggest benefits for an employer to support teleworking or remote work. To that end, many a telecommuter can find it difficult to separate work time from personal time, especially when it comes to work hours.

Take quitting time, for example. For an office worker, quitting time may be defined by specified shift times, a mass exodus from the office, waiting for the boss to leave, and even traffic conditions or transit schedules.

For the telecommuter, some of these indicators aren’t present. Sure, you may have shift coverage to account for if you’re in customer service or similar positions, but what do you do when there isn’t any clear definition of work hours?

Scott Behson of Fathers, Work, and Family  wrote a good piece on a book he read relating to the cult of Overwork here.  Many a telecommuter could fall into these traps because it’s so easy to just keep on working.

For me, I work with a geographically diverse workgroup. We are spread throughout North America working for a Pacific Time Zone based company. This presents some unique challenges. What times am I supposed to be available? How do I guard against working 60 hour weeks just because there is no security guard shooing me out of the building, or that I can hear my phone ringing from the kitchen?

Here are some guidelines that I like to follow:

  • Discuss your individual “working hours” with your supervisor. When does s/he expect you to be available?
  • Decide what time you are going to stop work for the day, and honor it. Turn off the computer, the lights, etc.
  • Close the door to your office (if you have one.  If you don’t, read this). Resist the urge to go back in there! A quick check of email after dinner rarely is quick, and often causes more harm in your personal life than it helps in business.  A coworker of mine told me last week that while he loves his new house, his office doesn’t have a door, and he needs a door to close off his work life from his home life.
  • When it is after hours and you get an email or call, pretend that you would have to get in the car and go back to the office to handle this.       Would your perception of its urgency change if it was really a hassle to drop everything and address it now, versus tomorrow morning?
  • Establish your boundaries. If you are working through until 5:30, don’t take that phone call at 5:45 because you hear the phone ringing while you’re fixing dinner or working out. Taking that call tells the other party that you are still working. Set your boundaries and soon your colleagues will understand when you’re available, and more importantly, when you’re not!

A number of years ago my boss was located on the West Coast. (I was East Coast) Sometime just short of 8PM ET (5PM PT) my phone rang, and it was my boss. He said, “Hey, you got a few minutes?” I said that I didn’t because I was trying to help get my kids to bed. “Why did you answer the phone then?” Good question…

Prioritizing the Home Office

Where does a separate office rank on your must-have list?

 

Closing the door is not a luxury
Closing the door is not a luxury

What do you look for when looking for a new home?   For me, a separate room for an office is not only a must-have, but actually a deal killer.  When we bought our current house 7 years ago, our priority was for a guest room.  At the time, I was working in an office, so needing a home office was not even on my radar.  (Turns out, we got both)

I read an article on real-estate and the author was suggesting that you shouldn’t invest money in a home office.  It was no longer high on anyone’s list for resale value.  The argument was that with wireless and mobile device usage on the rise, people weren’t working in a home office anymore, but rather on the couch or the dining room table.

To me, this was naïve.  I guess if you work in an office, you don’t need or want one at home.  But, if you’re going to be serious about getting work done at home, a separate office is necessary.

You can’t successfully work at the dining room table or on the couch long-term.  In my current situation, I don’t even have to share my space with guests.  My office is exclusively an office, and I can close the door anytime, including when I am not working.

Don’t underestimate the value of a dedicated office space at home.  Where do you work?

Change of scenery

Improving productivity by changing your environment

 

office1
My latest re-organized office

While working at home can be very rewarding, it can also be lonely and isolating. If you work at home full-time, you may not see other co-workers or clients often. How do you stay engaged with your co-workers and clients when sometimes out of sight can be out of mind? How do you keep your sanity when you spend 8-10 hours a day alone? What are some things you can do to keep your work, your mental state, and environment fresh?

Here are some guidelines that I like to follow:

  1. Get out of your office once in a while. This can mean making a site visit to a client or vendor, or (gasp) going to the office. I try to make a visit to my company’s headquarters annually, or alternatively attend a large company function. This is good for me and my career as it gives me the opportunity to meet people I am working with and develop some relationships I might not otherwise cultivate.
  2. Use video conferencing or video chat (like Skype or FaceTime) to personalize your communications. In most jobs, good relationships can improve your performance and effectiveness. It is amazing what seeing a co-worker can do for the relationship.
  3. Relocate your office for a day or part of a day to a coffee shop or your local public library. Especially if you don’t have to be on the phone a lot, a change of scenery can often reduce the effects of isolation many home workers can feel.  This is different from visiting customers or a company office, but actually doing the same things you do everyday somewhere else.
  4. Re-organize or re-decorate your office space periodically.       Over time, clutter and paperwork accumulates in your space. I try to de-clutter, reorganize and rearrange my space every year. It is amazing how much productivity I gain when I get myself unburied from paper, surplus equipment, and other “stuff” that seems to pile up in my home office.
  5. Get involved in your community. There is always some organization that needs volunteers, and with your easy commute, your availability will be in high demand.  Volunteering at my church provides me with plenty of personal interactions that I don’t get during the workday after work and at lunch. Plus, I am making a difference in my community, so it’s a win-win for everyone.
  6. Take breaks and go for a walk or run errands.  When you work in an office, you likely have breaks and go to lunch with co-workers etc.  You need to do this when you work at home too.

The truth is, I don’t get out much.  When I’m feeling stale or unproductive, sometimes a change of scenery can solve the problem quickly.

What is missing from this list that you find effective in changing up your scenery and improving your productivity?

 

Excellent Communication is a must for the telecommuter

Communication is key

Most job postings say they’re looking for someone with “Excellent written and oral communication skills”.  It’s like there is a job listing template that has this and everyone says, “yup, need that”.  But the truth is, this is essential as a remote worker or telecommuter.

When you don’t work in a traditional office, you are neither seen nor heard (mostly).  Your work, and how you communicate about your work, is what establishes and maintains your worth and reputation.  It’s a lot harder to simply be the loud voice in a conference room during a team meeting when you’re not physically there.  In fact, you may get only one shot to express your opinion and ideas, so you need to make it count.  Plan ahead if you can, and craft your message to be clear and concise, without the need for your audience to key off of non-verbal cues.  Even in a video conference, you should focus mostly on your words.  They will be what counts.

Email Communication for the Teleworker

As for email communication, less is more.  Kristin Yerecic suggests in a blog post on the OU ImPRessions blog that you should batch your submissions and requests to your manager into as few emails as possible.  I really like this advice because it reduces the amount of clutter your boss sees from you.  Since you can’t personally drop the work off on her desk, you need to make sure that your work (and you) are seen and heard.  A few well written emails in a week should do the trick.  If you’re emailing your boss 10 times a day, what you have to say will not be received well, and your manager will put less importance on everything you say.

Pick up the phone

Finally, don’t rely on written communication for anything that can be nuanced or easily misinterpreted.  Pick up the phone and make a quick call.  You can (and should) follow the call up with a confirming email, but when it is important enough that you need to make sure the other party understands, voice to voice is always the way to go.

Not everyone is cut out to work remotely or telecommute

Can anyone telecommute?

A blog post by Scott Behson of Father’s Work and Family about the considerations needed when setting up flexible work environments really got me thinking:  this remote work isn’t for everybody.

Scott suggests that one important aspect of building a flexible workplace is Person Diagnosis.  That is, assessing individuals for their ability to flex-work.

I think this very point is missed by many when looking at flexible work. Many companies are saying if I allow Steve to flex-work, then I have to allow Joe to do it as well. The truth is, Joe may not be well suited to this at all.

I faced this as a manager many times. I had some employees who were well suited to work from home, and others who would be completely unproductive.   Equality be damned, I didn’t allow flexible work for those potentially unproductive employees.

What makes me cringe is that my company just announced the closing of a number of small offices with everyone being designated as a remote worker now. Wow, are we sure everyone is suited to that?

I doubt it, but maybe that’s part of the plan? (RIF through attrition?)  I believe this may have been part of Yahoo’s plan, albeit in reverse.  (You may remember that Yahoo banned remote working about a year ago).

In a future post, I will discuss some characteristics of a good remote worker or candidate.  In the meantime, what has been your experience with a one-size fits all teleworking policy?

 

Poll: Interruptions at work: how much time does it cost you?

One of the greatest things about working from home is fewer interruptions.  When you’re in the office, how many minutes of your day are wasted on interruptions in your office / cube?

Get it done today

Improving Productivity when you Telecommute

In a previous post (Routine vs. Flexibility), I mentioned my daily task list being part of my routine. This post will expand on my views of being productive with the task list.

In my 2 decades of remote work, I have found the single most effective productivity aid has been the Daily Task List. This is only my take on it.

The Daily Task List: How I do it

1. The list includes only tasks that I will start and finish today.
By design, I try to carve every project or assignment up into smaller tasks. If your task list contains too many items to get done in a single work day, you will feel overwhelmed. You will likely get stuck trying to figure out what to do first, and it will cause stress. Finally, if you are the type that doesn’t like to leave anything undone, this will cause you to work many more hours than your life balance would find healthy.

2. Every task should take no more than 2 hours to complete
For my working rhythms, 2 hours is the maximum planned time for any single task. I need breaks after 2 hours, and I find that as a remote worker, I can usually work undisturbed for 2 hours without issue. (Of course, I have dogs and cats, and they don’t care about my list!) If you have a task that is going to take more than 2 hours, consider breaking it up into smaller tasks. This helps me be productive and feel good about accomplishing things.

3. Add your personal tasks to the same list
A challenge many telecommuters have is mixing business and personal activities together. Sure, in an ideal world, you want to do nothing of a personal nature until after work. But let’s be realistic here: you work at home because of the flexibility or perhaps the need to do personal stuff during the day. Don’t fight it, work WITH it. Just be sure that your personal tasks don’t overtake your work tasks. Need to send a few personal emails today, no problem, put them on your list, and when you need a break from work, do them!

4. Don’t  over schedule, surprises happen
I typically plan to complete up to 6 hours of tasks in a day. This is a guideline only. Things come up. Some tasks take longer than anticipated. Your boss calls and drops an urgent task in your lap, etc. Account for this in your day. If nothing comes up, than you can decide to finish early, or take on a task from tomorrow. However, if something does come up, you can minimize the damage to your productivity and schedule.

5. Plan ahead, but not too far
I am a planner. I have a big picture plan for weeks at a time, but I don’t actually add items to daily task lists that far in advance. I will most often make tomorrow’s list at the end of the day today. Sometimes I will have tasks in future days, but usually only when those have to be done on a specific day. This allows me to make minor adjustments constantly.

6. When you’re done, you’re done
When I finish today’s tasks, I am finished work. Period. If that is after 6 hours or 10 hours, it doesn’t matter.  Am I saying be a slacker? Not at all. What I am saying is that as a teleworker, you have many fewer interruptions than you would at the office. Use that to your advantage and get your work done quicker. What you do with that extra time is up to you. This is the best benefit of working at home. In my job, I am evaluated on what I accomplish, not the hours I put in. When I used to manage remote workers, I told them that I was not evaluating them on the hours they put in, but whether they were getting their job done well. If that took 35 hours a week, good for them. If that took 50 hours a week, then some coaching was needed.

The Daily Task List: Why does this work for me

1. Gratification
It feels good to see what I’ve done and what I’ve got left to do
2. Lowers stress
I don’t feel as stressed out as I would if I had this 30 item list of items to do. I know people who work that way, and they are constantly complaining about how much they have to do. I don’t care about what I have to do tomorrow, that’s tomorrow’s problem.
3. Improves “on-time performance”
I generally beat deadlines because I’ve got the bigger picture all planned out. I know what needs to be done and when, and I work hard to follow it. If you’re staring at a jumbled list of stuff with no organization, it is harder to get it done on time.
4. Minimizes distractions
Work from home distractions get minimized because I am focused on what I need to do today. I can’t stream that entire TV season on Netflix because I’ve got this list of stuff to get done today.
5. Lessens procrastination
I suffer less procrastination. If I know what I have to do today, and tomorrow, I know that if I put it off today, I’ve just made tomorrow that much worse. Sure, it still happens, but not as frequently.
6. Defines boundaries
When you work at home, many friends and family think you’ve got all kinds of time to do other non-work stuff. Having a list for today helps you define these boundaries. This is what you have to do today. Is there room for your spouse’s project? Do you have time to meet a buddy for lunch? Check the list.
7. Increases flexibility
Because I’m not managing my day by the clock, I can be more flexible about when I work. Not all telecommuters can do this, but my job has few time requirements when I have to be available. (I don’t have to cover a shift, for example) If I need or want to take a 2 hour lunch break, I can task my way into that without feeling like I have to work late to compensate.

These tips can help both telecommuters and office workers alike.

How do you keep yourself productive? Do you use a task list?

Routine vs. Flexibility: The balancing act every remote worker faces

Balancing Routine and Flexibility to improve Productivity as a Telecommuter

It’s March, and we’ve had 2 more snow days here in Virginia.  I wonder if the kids will even get a summer break this year?

As I’ve written in a few earlier posts (Snow Days and More Snow Days), Snow Days can be challenging for the  work from home employee.  For me, it can be the disruption of the routine that hurts the most.

Many blog posts about working at home suggest that establishing a routine is a great productivity enhancer for the work at home employee.    Their points are good:  start at a designated time, schedule breaks, quit at quitting time, etc.

But, how do you balance routine with the enormous flexibility that working from home affords?  Isn’t this the #1 reason people want to work at home?

In my 20 years of working from home I have found that following a routine is good practice.  I am a planner by nature.  However, I allow for flexibility in my routine to keep experiencing the benefits of working from home.

If you’re going to be a mindless 8 to 5’er day after day after day with no alterations to the routine, you may as well go into an office! 

My productivity enhancing routine

I have a basic routine that I follow every day:

  1. Get family off to work and school
  2. Walk the dogs
  3. Start work on my task list for Today
  4. Have lunch with my wife when she finishes work
  5. Finish task list items
  6. Create task list for tomorrow
  7. Quit for the day  (I focus less on what time this occurs and more on the completion of today’s tasks)

The Task List

The most important activity for balancing the routine with flexibility is the Task List.  I stick to only one day at a time, and create a discrete list.  If I have a project that spans multiple days, I break everything into smaller tasks and plot them out on the calendar.  When I finish my tasks for the day, I am done working, no matter what the time is.  This gives me the productivity I need, but allows for flexibility when other things come up.

Some days, I need some flexibility.  Like Thursdays, I go to a chapel service at 7:15AM.  So, the dogs miss their walk and I start work a little later today.

No problem, I’m flexible, and that’s why I love working from home.

You can have your cake and eat it too!

Musings of a serial teleworker

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