Life as a Telecommuter

Working from home has gotten a lot of attention in the news recently, especially since the CEO of Yahoo recently announced a policy to end telecommuting at the struggling Internet company. This hits home for me, especially since home is where I do most of my work.

Hi, my name is Brian … and I’m a telecommuter.
The terms for this vary in the digital age … work from home, telecommuting, virtual employee. But it’s all pretty simple for me. I have a job that can be done from most anywhere, given the right tools and a solid Internet connection. When I changed jobs in August 2011, I had the opportunity to work from home instead of relocate to DuPont, WA.

Challenge accepted.

And it is a challenge.

Yes, many things become easier when working from home. I no longer lose two hours of my day to Atlanta traffic. I save a lot of money on gas. My cats remember what I look like. But most importantly, the remote worker lifestyle fits the culture of my team.

Work culture is the real problem that Marissa Mayer is trying to change at Yahoo. Successful telecommuting requires a proper mentality, both from workers and management … and it can be successful. My wife works for a government agency that allows employees to work from home several days a week. My friend Amy is a full-time telecommuter. My last job didn’t have a culture that embraced telecommuting, which is ironic since one of the company’s flagship products is remote management for servers.

My current job is very compatible with telecommuting. My boss works from Austin, Texas. Her boss is in Paris, France. His boss is in Santa Clara, California. My team has members in Oregon, Washington, Texas, China, Russia, France and Sweden. No matter where I am, someone I need to talk to or work with is guaranteed to not be there.

I have a cubicle in DuPont, Washington. I hear it’s nice.

For this kind of distributed workforce, telecommuting looks just like normal work … even if you decide to take that 8:00am phone call in a bathrobe. I have deadlines that have to be met, reports that need to be filed and customers that need to be happy. It doesn’t hurt that my customers are spread all over the world, just like my coworkers.

But it’s not all a bed of roses, especially when the cats knock over flower pots when you’re on a conference call. Separating home life from work life is hard enough when your employer sends you home with a smart phone and laptop. Now try making that distinction when you also bring home four test systems, a pile of monitors and the laptop’s docking station. Just because you can work all the time doesn’t mean you should. Yes, remote workers can be more focused on some tasks without the distractions of the office. However they can also burn out by trying to always be engaged, or be distracted by the home life that refuses to stop when they step into the “office” (in my case, an IKEA standing desk in the front guest room).

Good news: I don’t have to be in the office for my weekly team call. Bad news: That call is every Monday at 8:00pm Eastern Time. That’s a more reasonable time for the folks in China, Oregon and Washington. It’s not an ideal time for yours truly. However that works to my advantage when dealing with Europe, who can call me after I have breakfast and before they leave for home.

Those foreign faces aren’t strangers. I do travel, as shown by the 106,000 miles I logged on Delta last year. While I don’t see as many people in my supposed DuPont office, I have met people in Poland and Taiwan that my coworkers never see. Face-to-face business still has great value, a lesson I learned well in my previous sales & marketing job. I will travel when I need to, and being able to stay near the world’s busiest airport has made that aspect of my job easier.

That face-to-face relationship may be a problem for Yahoo. Companies need to build relationships within the office before they can be successful outside their walls. Big conversations about direction and strategy work best in person. The infamous “hallway conversation” can be a real factor for product development. Yahoo isn’t the only technology company that functions on an office culture, it’s just the one that is being public about trying to make changes.

Working from home is an odd life, which requires self-discipline to make sure you’re productive and self-awareness to avoid isolation. But teleworking allows me a certain amount of flexibility that let me keep my personal life intact when changing jobs almost two years ago. Preserving the life I want is worth the effort it takes to successfully telecommute.

It also means I’m generally in charge of doing the laundry. Pardon me, I think I need to put a load of jeans in the dryer. I’m not going to spend all day in my bathrobe.

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