Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Could telecommuting be a career mistake?

While a lot of people think telecommuting is the answer to all their problems, sometimes you have to be careful of what you wish for. At the same time, this difficult job environment may mean that you have to work even harder and smarter if you're not in the office everyday. Here's a column on the subject I did for Gannett:

While telecommuting is more common than a decade ago because of advances in technology and more flexible workplace cultures, the tough job market has made some telecommuters nervous as they worry that the lack of face time and presence in an office may make them more vulnerable to being laid off.

Zack Grossbart, a telecommuter for the past nine years, says his advice to other telecommuters wanting to be seen as key players is this shaky job market: “Show other people what you do.”

Grossbart’s advice has come from personal experience. Working from his Cambridge, Mass., home as a consulting engineer for his employer in Provo, Utah, he was given 60-days notice in 2007 that he was going to be laid off. But he says people he had never met face-to-face in the company went to top brass and fought for him. He kept his job.

Grossbart says he believes that by constantly making sure others knew of his contributions to the company, he managed to avoid a layoff. Those are lessons he says other telecommuters need to take to heart.

“You’ve got to brag in the right way,” Grossbart says. “When you’re in an office, you think it’s obvious to others that you’re working. But when you’re telecommuting, you must constantly put yourself out there and communicate really effectively. I always make sure I’m out in front of people.”

That means that Grossbart makes an online presentation at least once a month for his company, and is always looking for chances to show small groups of people at his employer “something cool” such as a new software application. He also relies on various forms of communication, ranging from phone conversations to using social media such as Twitter or Facebook.

When he feared he was going to lose his job a couple of years ago, he launched a blog to showcase his communication skills and industry knowledge. It’s something he continues to maintain for the same reasons, he says.

“If someone wants to know what Zack is about, they’ll be able to find me,” he says. “When the economy is tougher, you’ve got to do more to showcase your talent.”

Heather Huhman, founder and president of Come Recommended, says that as the manager of 12 telecommuting employees, she finds that “over-communicating isn’t a bad idea.”

Still, “out of sight, out of mind works both ways,” Huhman says.
“We use all kinds of technology to communicate, from instant messaging to Skype. Right now, we don’t have two employees in the same state, so we schedule weekly team meetings, and I make myself available at regular times by phone. Do I wish we could meet more often face-to-face? Sure. The isolation can get to be a problem for some people.”

Huhman says some members of her team battle the lack of personal interaction during their work day by taking their laptop computers and going to a local coffee shop. One employee has taken a night job a couple nights a week “just to get out of the house,” she says.

Grossbart says that while some people may believe telecommuting “sounds like a dream,” they may find they hurt their career if they can’t handle the physical remoteness and need for constant communication and diligent self-promotion to their company.

David W. Mayer, executive director for mergers and acquisitions for Aristeia in Greenwood Village, Colo., says nine of his 24 workers telecommute fulltime, and agrees that some people don’t thrive as telecommuters.

“People get all excited, and then the first day at home, they say they miss the camaraderie of an office,” he says. “Social networking helps, but some people just need to be around other people.”

Grossbart says the problem can be more than social. “If you start telecommuting and do your job the same way you do in an office, you’re going to get laid off,” he says. “You actually have to be better than other people at your company. You can’t just sit there and do your job and think that’s enough. You have to do more.”

What are more tips on making telecommuting a viable option?


ION Consultants said...

Great advice. You definitly want to balance technological advices for good ol' fashioned face to face interaction.

Sylvia Dahlby said...

Great article. I have worked at home since 1990, and in that time held three telecommuting jobs, including my present position.

While there are many advantages of telework to both employer and employee, I often advise people interested in telecommuting NOT to do it if:

1) You want career advancement.

For all the reasons sited in the article; the lack of visibility and being physically present will likely keep you off the short list for promotion.

2) You're a young person or new to the profession.

If you're starting a new line of work, or you're just starting your career, telecommuting will limit your ability to find a mentor, learn on-the-job, and develop relationships with your co-workers.

3) You want to work at home so you can look after your children.

This is a very bad idea, especially if you have a new baby. Looking after kids is a full time job. Get a babysitter even if you work at home. Or forget about sleeping and work nights.

4) You're not a good listener.

Telecommuting limits face-to-face interaction; when you're phoned into a conference call or talking with clients/customers/coworkers, you're already missing out on non-verbal communication (body language). If you're not an active listener or not paying attention by multitasking while the tele-meeting is in progress (because they can't see you checking your email), it will be difficult for you to understand whatever it is you need to know or make meaningful contribution to the discussion or connection with the people you're talking with.

5) You're not comfortable making decisions.

Often telecommuters have to MAKE A DECISION or take action with little supervision, and be responsible or accountable for those choices. Not everyone is comfortable with that kind of authority over their work; and not all bosses will back you up when you make a mistake. It helps if you're an entrepreneurial person who feels comfortable taking ownership of your work; otherwise this is not something easily learned.

6) You don't enjoy working alone or lack the discipline to do so.

To telecommute successfully, you need to be both self-motivated and at a level in your career where you're so good at what you do, you don't need supervision. You also have to enjoy your own company, and be happy with the autonomy & flexibility of telework.

In my 18 yrs of telecommuting the most difficult part about working home is GOING HOME.

Anita said...

What wonderful suggestions! Thank you so much. I love that line: "the most difficult part about working at home is GOING HOME." Thanks for sharing your insight and experience.

Zack Grossbart said...


These suggestions are excellent. I especially agree with number 2. Telecommuting is very difficult if you are just starting out in your field. However, I have to disagree a little with number 1. Teleworking makes promotions a little more difficult, but not impossible. I've spoken to many telecommuters that have been promoted while working remotely. They just needed to work for it a little more.

Anita said...

Thanks for all your help with the story. I think you make a key point that if you're going to telecommute, you're going to have to make adjustments -- and that includes how you go after promotions.

Zack Grossbart said...


Thank you for giving me the chance to take part. It was fun to talk with you and the article came out very well. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do to help out.

mike3k said...

I've been telecommuting full time as a programmer since 2001. I live in Florida & my company is in Vancouver BC so I also have a 3 hour time difference & different holiday schedule. My company has many employees outside of the Vancouver office, including our CTO.

The most difficult thing for me is the isolation, not seeing my co-workers, and feeling out of touch, even though we have conference calls regularly.

Jennifer said...

First of all, I'd like to say that's a good article and I found very useful comments here.
Being a telecommuter myself, I know that I have to work harder than office staff if I want to be promoted.
I have my own "tips and tricks" to be more effective.
1. Self-organization.
2. Regular contacts with my manager. Even if it is not necessary I call him to ask something about the project. A short call lets me be more “alive” as if I were on a long business trip.
3. Right tools. Must-have: Skype for communication with colleagues and partners, Radmin software for remote access to corporate PCs to see demonstrations and to share my desktop.
4. Self-organization.

I listed self-organization twice. It’s that important.

Bilal J said...

It would depend on the work culture. In my case, our teams are all over the place and we don't necessarily have a 'main' office for our team. Experts are in States, Canada, UK etc.

We do work-around that by having tele-conferences and web meetings though. It keeps people exposed and on equal ground. However, it definitely helps if you are one of the lucky ones who share the office/city as your main manager.

Its very rare that all employees on the team at my firm are at one location and the telecommuting employee misses out. If most of the team is spread out and telecommuting is encouraged, then the talent can be effectivily utilized and no one really feels disadvantaged.

Anita said...

I think isolation is a problem, especially if we become tethered to our desks because of deadlines, etc. I think it's important to plan for time away, even if you have to set an alarm to MAKE yourself go out to lunch or meet friends for coffee. It's also important to invest in yourself, and attend seminars and/or training outside your home office.

Anita said...

What great ideas. I can see that organization is key, so I'd suggest if you're not naturally so inclined, to buy books on the subject or attend training to help you. Even a professional organizer might be a good investment to teach you some important skills.

Anita said...

Thanks for your comments. It really helps to hear first-hand accounts, so I appreciate you sharing.

Esther said...

Being telecommuter will never wrong.
Thanks for the article, Anita

Esther said...

Being telecommuter will never wrong.
Thanks for the article, Anita.

Carla said...

I've been telecommuting for a little over 2 years now and it has truly been a blessing which allowed me to save money on childcare expenses. However, I don't see myself working remotely from home for the rest of my life. My passion and goals involve helping others in the community so i would rather work hands on with individuals. Great post

Aaleeyah said...

Nice post! I enjoyed reading the details. Telecommuting is definitely the best known working model to manage work life balance.