These days, telecommuting (a.k.a. telework) is simpler and more cost-effective than ever before—which means that many office workers can pursue their careers without setting foot in a traditional office, except when absolutely necessary. Although some businesses still resist this option, others have begun to embrace it in a serious way. As overhead and transportation costs continue to rise, and other benefits pile up, there’s little doubt that this trend will accelerate.
That being the case, you may very well end up working from home at some point, whether you initiate the change or your company does. Thus, it pays to learn how to create the most productive home office environment possible. In this article, I’ll outline the basics.
Set Up Your Workplace
One of the nicest things about working at home (aside from the non-existent commute) is the familiar, comfortable setting. Therein lies a problem, however: Most of us tend to take an overly-practical approach to our home office furniture and equipment. Why buy a new desk chair, for example, when you have a nice kitchen chair you already know and love? And who needs a desk anyway, when the kitchen table’s right there?
After a week or two of working in the breakfast nook, you’ll figure out the problem with this approach. By then your back will probably ache constantly, you’ll have to sit on a pillow to stay comfortable, and your hands will feel like stiff claws. As a result, your productivity will go right out the window. Hand-me-down furniture won’t do; you’ve got to go ergonomic if you expect to get anything done. So bite the bullet and buy good, solid office furniture of the appropriate types. Use a wrist pad to keep your typing and mousing hands straight, so you don’t fall prey to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Make sure you have sufficient lighting, coming from above and, ideally, behind you, and supply all cordage with surge protectors just in case.
Your organization may have a written policy requiring specific types of ergonomic furniture in the home office, not to mention where and how they want you to set it up. The regulations may go so far as to specify (or at least firmly recommend) such fine details as the height of your desk, the maximum angle your chair should tilt, and the amount of sunlight you can expose your electronics to (seriously). Some may even make you keep a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, and a list of emergency phone numbers on hand. If you live in California, you can add an earthquake preparedness kit to that list. Your employer may also ask you to beef up your homeowner’s insurance to cover injuries on the part of anyone who visits your home office.
While you may perceive all of this as obtrusive (and for good reason), on the upside, they may provide you with all the necessary gear—though if they do, they’ll certainly hem you in with a lot of other demands and may require periodic inspections to ensure your compliance with their rules. Again, this may seem annoying to you, but remember: it represents a trade-off you’ll have to make if you want to enjoy the freedom of telework. And besides, the law requires them to keep an eye on your safety…though admittedly, some organizations are more zealous about it than others.
Whether you buy the equipment or your company does, try to set it up in a clean, spacious, well-defined, and distraction-free workspace that offers good ventilation. If space is a problem, then at least ensure you have a door you can close, to place a boundary between work life and home life. Don’t set up in the kitchen, your living room, or the master bedroom, though an unused spare bedroom works great. Insofar as possible, make sure you have plenty of room for all your furniture, electronics, and especially your files and supplies, so you don’t have to run back and forth to find information and tools.
All in all, make your home office as comfortable and convenient as possible, so you can more easily maximize your personal productivity.
Keep in Contact
Until about five years ago, a surprisingly mundane problem plagued the telecommuter: how to stay in unbroken contact with HQ. Sure, voice connections via telephone tend to be dependable, but they’re insufficient for most modern workers. With the advent of the global information economy, a dependable online connection suitable for transferring files, programs, and other electronic resources back and forth has become de rigueur. But for years, high-bandwidth connections were rare and expensive, and rarely reliable.
Fortunately, this has changed in the era of cloud computing, cheap storage, and broadband connectivity. Nowadays reliability is amazingly high, downtime for more than a few minutes almost unheard of, and data loss minimal. You can easily tap into the dataflow by means of a cable modem, a dedicated DSL phone line, or even by direct satellite feed if you live in the boonies (I’d recommend avoiding it otherwise, since the price is prohibitive). In any case, do a little window shopping, focusing on reliability rather than price, and select the option that looks like it will do the best job for you.
That gets the information superhighway to your house. Once there, your best option for an “on ramp,” if you will, is a direct cable-based connection between your computer and your modem, as opposed to a wireless or “Wi-Fi” connection. However, do take the versatility of the modern day Wi-Fi connection into account, since it allows you to set up just about anywhere, and move easily if necessary. Most computers (especially laptops) have built-in Wi-Fi receivers and software that easily configures itself for such reception, and existing Wi-Fi modems broadcast powerfully enough for you to detect them anywhere in the average house—and beyond.
This brings up the issue of security. At the very least, implement the basic built-in security protocols for your Wi-Fi network. If necessary, tap the technical know-how of your company’s IT gurus to increase security and, as required, encrypt any files you plan to transfer back and forth.
The high-speed “tunnel” of a virtual private network (VPN) represents an excellent alternative to public networks, assuming your employer will pay for one. If they balk, you can use the argument that having a VPN connection will increase your employee productivity. And why not? It’s true. If they care at all about the organization’s productivity programs (and you can rest assured your organization has them), then they’ll at least listen.
If you’re not already highly organized, get yourself together ASAP. Consider it a survival instinct, at least if you want to prove you can maintain (or exceed) your productivity at work via telecommuting. Give some thought to every aspect of your personal organization, from the best way to arrange your office furniture to how to process incoming information and arrange your files. Speaking of which: institute a simple, logical filing system not just for your paper files but for your electronic ones as well. Use an easy-to-remember file naming system, with simple, basic terms as folder and subfolder labels. If you can’t find a piece of information in less than a minute (with rare exceptions), then you need to revamp your filing system(s).
As necessary, institute a personal time management system of some sort, too. It can be paper-based, electronic, or some combination of both. The type doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you and fits the HUG criteria: i.e., it’s Handy, Usable, and Garbage-free (meaning nothing falls out if you shake it). At the very least, a good system brings together all your personal, professional, and family schedules, along with detailed contact information for every important individual in your life.
Basic messiness itself can get in your way and cause distractions that pull you away from your productive focus—so clean up the clutter, and keep the place tidy. Pay special attention to making sure your desk doesn’t accumulate papers and junk. A clean desk isn’t a sign of an empty mind, contrary to the popular saying; rather, it indicates an organized mind that refuses to allow clutter to get in the way of a job efficiently done.
Stay on Top of Things
As a telecommuter, you’ll inevitably find yourself isolated from many aspects of the traditional workplace. This can be a positive thing when it comes to factors like external distraction; however, the lack of a formalized workday may lead you to let things slide. It’s bad enough that the reality of “out of sight, out of mind” can limit your advancement within the organization. If your productivity drops because you’ve failed to stay on top of things, then you’ll certainly shoot yourself in the foot, and may wreck your telecommuting experiment altogether.
Before saying farewell to the traditional office place, you’ll need to know and understand exactly what you must accomplish during the course of a typical work week, from your basic responsibilities to specific projects, meetings, and deliverables. Sit down with your bosses and coworkers and hammer out a plan detailing what they want you to accomplish and deliver, and how you’ll measure your workflow via status reports, reviews, and (of course) the quality and timeliness of the finished products. When you actually start telecommuting, be sure to stay accessible during the day, via phone and email at the very least. This may require you to pay closer attention to both than is reasonable in a typical office.
This next item should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, since so many erstwhile telecommuters seem to lose track of it: stick to deadlines and due dates just as assiduously in your home office as you would in any other office. Find a way to track everything, so nothing slips through the cracks. (See the previous section for details). Don’t let the lack of direct supervision lull you into a sense of complacency. If you notice yourself slipping, clamp down hard and get back to work. I hate to say it, but you may have to become your own micromanager.
To help keep yourself on track, create a pre-work ritual that helps you distinguish between home and work, so you don’t blur the lines between the two any more than necessary. This will vary according to your needs, of course, but start by assuming you are going to work, and proceed from there. Shower, shave, dress up in your special work clothes (casual or formal, your choice), eat breakfast, and then head to the office.
Combine this ritual with a strict schedule, one that corresponds (at least somewhat) with that of your non-telecommuting coworkers and team members. If you experiment with flexible work hours, at least be available when others need you, and strive for consistency. Otherwise, set start and end times for your work, so you don’t let home and work time bleed over into the other, and plan for the day just as you would if you were working at HQ. Schedule breaks and take your normal lunch hour, too.
Finally, don’t run errands, do household chores, help your neighbors, or take care of the kids when you should be working. If you do, once again the boundaries between home life and work life will blur (to the detriment of both), and you’ll end up working when you ought to be relaxing.
The Bottom Line
As with any shift in lifestyle, you’ll find yourself facing certain challenges when you start to telecommute—and if you don’t take them immediately into account, your dream job may end up broken on the shoals of harsh reality. So don’t let down your guard just because you’re comfortable at home; always maintain a high level of commitment, self-discipline, and situational awareness no matter where you work. While telecommuting isn’t for everyone, if you’ll head into your new workplace adventure knowing what to expect and how to react to it, your chances of success will skyrocket.