Telecommuting – A Two Edged Sword

Whenever you meet someone for the first time the subject invariably rolls around to what you do for a living and where.

I’m a telecommuter (aka working virtual office, work at home, etc.) Working for an IT organization over the past fifteen years I’ve been blessed with the experience of telecommuting part time from 1998 to 2002 and then full time from 2003 to the present.

Almost all of the reactions I get are ‘That’s fantastic for you’ and they get that envious look in their eye. But they become baffled when I tell them it’s truly a two edged sword.

They all day dream of waking up, avoiding the long drives to the office and working in their PJ’s. Yes, it’s true you can work in your PJ’s and allow your personal hygiene to slip for as long as you want and spend no money on gas.

On the other hand, there is the total isolation. You only communicate with another human being when your on the phone or via the already impersonal means of instant messaging. You can never truly judge the other persons reaction through all of this.

Not to mention you really have no friends through all of this. Sure, you may have one or two people you work with that you develop a rapport with and can talk more candidly with, but when your entire strata of work relationships is scattered across the eastern seaboard, your opportunity for developing a true camaraderie is slim if at all. You can’t just strike a talk about the game passing in the hall for thirty seconds. Meeting for lunch and after work for drinks or maybe the Monday Night Football game are gone.

And, as much as everyone says they would love the isolation, (like marriage) that honeymoon feeling fades and you settle into a grind that is much easier to get through when you have other people around for the simple recognition that you are a good person no matter how hard the corporate grist mill grinds because no one passes by your cubby on the way to the water cooler to recognize your new hair or how much weight you lost or how well you handled that jerk in accounting.

Then, there is the work environment. You have to own a home thats conducive with residents that are cooperative with working at home. Working at the dining room table while the wife or kids or noisy large dogs or lawn mowers are going is not the best way to focus on what you’re doing and produce for the team. Trying to use a master bedroom when a mate wants to sleep or watch tv or have that discussion you’ve been putting off doesn’t fly either.

Then there is mental self discipline. You need the self discipline to ensure that you stay focused on your work rather than doing all the chores in the house to avoid that project you so dread. And you also need the self discipline to tell yourself enough is enough, you’ve slaved from 8am to 11pm on nothing but coffee and chocolates for the past week and you need to walk away, take a break and visit the land of the living.

Here are some tips for telecommuting sanely and successfully:

  1. Have a room dedicated to use as an office, preferably with an insulated door and a normal interior door lock to isolate yourself from the live-at-home distractions who invariably believe that if you’re at home, your free whenever they are. If it has a limited number of windows, all the better for noise dampening in the suburban setting when the lawn warriors are out in force and it sounds like the deck of an aircraft carrier.

  2. Set a schedule and try to keep to it as best you can. Start and end your day at a given time each day. And for heavens sake include a lunch break in your schedule. Just because you’re working at home doesn’t mean you have to be inhuman. A little break from work is a good thing. It allows you to regroup and finish out the day more refreshed. Healthy alternatives like exercise will definitely generate endorphins to combat cabin-fever. Or meet a friend for lunch. Or run a few errands. Or satisfy some self serving whimsy, just take that break.

  3. Avoid distractions in the schedule. Don’t think you’ll be able to concentrate on leading a conference call while sorting the laundry, doing the dishes, starting the roast, scrubbing the bathroom and cleaning the pool all at once. The distractions will take away from your ability to focus on the quality of your work. Try to limit all non-work related activities to non-work hours or at least to times of work when there is little or no demand for your attention. Additionally, don’t get caught in the middle of something you can’t stop easily if the boss calls and needs your undivided attention.

  4. Get the cooperation of those you live with. When you first start telecommuting, those immediately around you will have to be trained that just because you are at home does not mean you have all the time in the world to get things done for them. Getting a honeydew list from the spouse with a ‘before I get home’ deadline doesn’t fly. Things will have to wait until the work day is done. You’re time is supposed to be dedicated to working. On the other hand, using that ‘commute time’ that got freed up to contribute before and after your working hours will win kudos with the significant other.

  5. Telecommuting (aka virtual office) implies you will be using a few technology solutions. This post won’t discuss details. From my personal experience, keep it as simple and flexible as possible. I’ll cover more details in the future.

As for the conversation with those that ask about the two-edged sword of telecommuting, it’s up to you whether you decide to gloat or put a picture of reality out there for them. So for those exploring, consider the possibilities. For those with no choice, take heed. There will be more to come.

Advice to the Future IT Techs of America

Let’s look at a little history.

We could start in the cro-magnon of the technology era with the birth of the transistor, the birth of the CRT, the birth of the computer, or the birth of the Internet (by the way, Al Gore had nothing, zippo, nada to do with the birth of the intenet).

Instead, let’s fast forward to a more recent age. The internet is on the up-swing, IBM as a company had been suffering brutally at the failed OS2 operating systems market performance in light of strong handed exclusionary marketing tactics by MS. Like other manufacturers, IBM turns to overseas sources for production.

But that was only the beginning. They progressed over time to embrace the ‘International’ of the name to expand the business to allow non-US offices to take on more and more of the basic business production (programming, support, etc.). This allowed them to hire qualified people (albeit with potential language and cultural differences) to perform tasks that would replace the US worker that cost as much as ten times as much. And with the progesses in telecommunications and excess in bandwidth available across the globe, the process became a foundation of the business model.

Funny thing, they weren’t the only ones or the last. So, as corporations are pushing for high performance and lower overhead, US workers are not the prefered employee. They can hire someone anywhere on the planet.

What does this mean for the Future IT Techs of America? If you’re interested in IT, corporate IT is probably not the prime direction if you’re looking for upward growth, opportunity, income growth and a strong career.

Is IT dead? Not by a long shot. Local businesses will always need someone to walk in and provide the installation and on hands support to their offices. This is where the IT future is. Small shops and teams of people that can provide monthly installation, support, direction, administration and response.

But, with the excess exodus of IT pros on the streets either looking for new jobs or starting new businesses either in or out of the industry, you can bet that the competition is tough.

Get in with or start a small or medium sized organization for an opportunity at staying in touch with the real technology, the real customer and a career that can reward you on issues directly based on your productivity, rather than the desparate gasps of a US industry that is shrinking.