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Work-at-home days

There is much talk about what hardware and software telecommuters need. But there are other considerations in telecommuting beyond making sure your VPN is up to snuff.

Thanks to technology, more flexible company policies, and comfort with e-mail and instant messaging, telecommuting has boomed, and it’s due to become even more popular in the coming years. Research firm IDC estimates that the number of mobile professionals will grow from 15.9 million in 2001 to 21 million in 2006. Although these figures include some part-time telecommuters, it’s still a hefty increase.

There’s a great deal of talk about the type of hardware and software someone would need at home to be able to telecommute, and that’s for a good reason. If you can’t access company information or get relevant e-mail, you’re not much of an asset to the business. But there are other considerations in telecommuting beyond making sure your VPN is up to snuff.

Are you really a telecommuter?

Plainly put, not everyone is cut out for telecommuting. Sure, it’s cool to be home all day and be able to run errands and hang out with the dog, but it can also be quite a drag as well. A major drawback is the lack of actual face-to-face contact with other professional people, especially your colleagues.

Forget the watercooler talk, in other words. Even if you’re tapped into e-mail exchanges, you’ll be left out of that usual office chitchat that goes on in the hallways, and whenever someone feels like taking a break. You’ll miss out on in-jokes, office contests, and long conversations that keep you connected with your fellows.

Many people might think it’s no great loss, but it’s a serious enough consideration that anyone who’s thinking of telecommuting should really sit down and think about what it might mean to disconnect from colleagues.

Another pitfall is a lack of quick response. If a meeting gets called suddenly, you aren’t there. If a decision needs to be made on the fly and you’re washing the dishes or running to the post office, the decision will be made without you. In other words, many telecommuters have to give up a certain level of control and involvement in the work. Being wired is enormously helpful in keeping up with what’s happening, but unless the entire company runs on telecommuters, being at home creates limitations.

The third major drawback is motivation and organization. To be a great telecommuter, you have to have plenty of both. Simply going into the office is an indication to your mind that it’s time to start work–that physical commute from place to place creates a psychological trigger that makes it easier to dig into professional tasks. But if your commute is from the bedroom to the home office, it’s not as easy.

Many telecommuters have to develop little tricks to stay on task. For example, some actually pack a lunch for themselves and go into office for the whole day. Others create elaborate schedules where every minute is tracked, so slacking isn’t an option.

The point is that motivation can be cultivated, but it takes time and effort, and it doesn’t always work. Someone who isn’t inclined to find new strategies for organization and mental cheerleading might not be a good fit for the telecommuting lifestyle.

Company policy

Even if you have the right equipment and the right character for telecommuting, you may be at the wrong company for it. Not every business is fond of the tactic–sometimes, it’s just too much effort and scheduling. Also, many companies like to see their employees in the office, and have them ready in case there’s a last-minute meeting or an emergency.

“There is a still a sense in many places that to be professional, you have to show up every day,” says John Challenger, head of corporate placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Companies like to have a feel for what their employees are doing, and have some control over that.”

Some companies are hesitant to let telecommuting bloom because they feel that work will get sloppy, or it might be difficult to reach employees who are at home or tapping into the network while on vacation.

A company often doesn’t have much say in whether an employee is using broadband or another type of connection, and quite often doesn’t even check that their firewalls are good enough. When security concerns mix with anxiety over lost work, it could mean that employees will be staying put at their desks, not on their couches.

“A great deal of mobile work is being done,” notes Challenger, “but many companies aren’t ready for some employees to make the big leap and actually give up their office.”

Staying connected

If character and company do match up, and it’s possible to take off on the telecommuter trail, there are several ways to start right. The first step is in hammering out the details with colleagues and supervisors, and not just the generalities. Although many issues will crop up in the first few months that need attention, the more that can be anticipated and addressed, the easier it will be.

Here are some questions that you and your company will have to answer:

— Who will do tech support if the home computer is ailing?

— How will network security be handled?

— Are the access levels for Web-based applications set properly?

— How often will you be expected to come into the office to check in?

— Should regular in-person meetings be set up in advance so you have a feeling of continuity?

— Do you have access to a phone and e-mail list of all employees, including their home numbers and home e-mail addresses if needed?

— Who will own your home equipment? If it’s the company, can it be used for personal reasons, like doing your taxes or playing games, or do you have to have a separate computer for that?

— Will the company pay for all or part of your broadband access, or some of your utilities?

— What happens if files can’t be exchanged or there’s a problem with information sharing? How quickly could you get into the office in that case?

— How will vacation time and sick time be handled?

As you can see, issues abound, but usually it’s just a matter of knowing where the difficulties might exist and making sure everyone is prepared. Once the details are defined, and the telecommuting begins, you may want to set up informal gatherings (aka happy hours) to stay connected with colleagues on a personal level. Arranging lunches, dinners, or outings is a necessary supplement to working at home, both for professional reasons and for social interaction needs.

Telecommuting can be a great thing–a mobile workforce is more flexible, and some studies have concluded that telecommuters are more productive as well. But before fitting yourself for a new pair of office slippers, make sure you’re the type that can feel comfortable wearing them.

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