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Summary:

When telecommuting, how do you stay connected to your peers?

On first glance, telecommuting is a dream gig. You get to draw a regular salary, dress in comfortable clothing (shoes optional) and come and go as you please with no one looking over your shoulder.

Ask any telecommuter for a downside, and they’ll likely start talking about the isolation. It’s more than discussing last night’s game around the water cooler. When you’re physically in the office simply doing your job, your presence is a constant reminder to the rest of your team of the value you add to the company. No virtual project management site can replace the spontaneous collaboration that happens in the hallway. And when the boss is looking for someone to play a role on a key project, odds are her first thought isn’t going to be that guy sitting 200 miles away.

So how do you sit in your pajamas all day and stay connected to your peers?

It depends on the company, and it depends on you.

It Depends on the Company

It’s not about you or your job. It’s about the culture. How much conversation typically happens in the hallways? Do folks tend to work from home in the evenings or take their work on the road? How much work is planned in advance vs. what happens spontaneously?

If you want to work for a telecommuting-friendly company, consider working for a nonprofit organization or a vendor that services nonprofits. In general, you’d be hard pressed to find an industry more conducive to non-traditional work environments than the nonprofit sector. I’ve attended a number of nonprofit conferences where I continually meet folks who, like me, work full-time for geographically-distant causes.

Of course, if you are working to provide a direct service you need to be where that service is. However, there are opportunities to work for organizations where they may be grateful to have your expertise without the overhead of having you on site. While nonprofits do traditionally pay less than comparable jobs in the for-profit world, the compensation is not as bad as you might think. And you have the warm fuzzies of working for the greater good. Check out the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) for more information about working in the nonprofit technology world.

Regardless of the sector, whatever you do, don’t expect the culture to change to suit you. If your co-workers rarely log in to a project management/collaboration web site; if they never have conversations via IM or Twitter; if emails are rarely longer than 5 words; if their idea of an impromptu conference call involves a cell phone in speaker mode…they’re not going to change for you.

Last week I was visiting my office, as I do each month, and I asked my co-workers to share with me any challenges they’ve had working with a telecommuter. They expressed that they feel bad that I miss some of the casual hallway conversation, but for the most part not much is different. They IM with me just as much as they IM with each other. In fact, after over three years we’ve developed our own shorthand language that works well for SMS and IM. We use a variety of web-based tools to keep in touch and stay organized. It’s just part of our culture, regardless of where everyone is physically.

If you can’t figure out a way to comfortably work in the culture of the company even when you’re not there – without expecting anyone else to change their habits – then you may be wasting your time. Even if you are perfectly comfortable with telecommuting, have an ideal home office, and have your supervisor’s buy-in, you will probably feel frustrated and disenfranchised in the end.

It Depends on You

So you work for a progressive company that loves to communicate via instant messenger or Skype. They use web apps or VPN and nothing important happens in the office anyway. Home office here I come, right? Not so fast.

Your coworkers can’t see that you’re busy. They can’t tell when you’re in a good mood. Except for scheduled or impromptu phone calls or web conferences, you have to be comfortable showing who you are almost entirely in written communication.

There are some people who are able to comfortably write emails that aren’t too long, aren’t too short, and it’s the same as if they were standing in front of you. They make ideal telecommuters. And there are others who have difficulty coming across as they intend in writing. Those folks should stick close to the office.

Here’s something you don’t want to hear: The successful telecommuter practices Inbox Zero. That’s right, you need to make sure that every email is read and dealt with in a timely manner. You’ll need a system for quickly responding to IMs and other messages, even if it’s to say you can’t deal with it at the moment. Superior electronic organization skills are key to a telecommuter’s successful relationship with peers.

If you can’t keep up with your email and other electronic communication when you’re face-to-face with your coworkers, forget working remotely on a regular basis. You’ll have all your typical email from the outside, plus additional communication from co-workers who can no longer just shout at you from down the hall. Imagine how your coworkers would feel if they asked you a question in person and you routinely ignored them for a few hours…or a few days? Whether it’s IM, Twitter, Skype, the telephone or the inbox, you need to get on top of the communication tool that’s as readily accessible to you and your coworkers during business hours as conversation. It’s not always realistic to expect people to call you for everything.

Fellow telecommuters: any advice you’d give to someone just thinking of taking the leap?

By Judi Sohn

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  1. Nice work Judi!

    I’ve been a telecommuter for more than 10 years and completely agree with everything you’ve written here. In particular, being comfortable with written communication is absolutely essential. The ability to set context with words since body language isn’t there to help do it for you and avoiding ambiguity in the written form are both critical.

    I’m a big GTD fan and practice Inbox Zero myself. People have to feel like they get more out of you remotely than they do face-to-face peers and responding promptly is a great way to do that.

    The other advice I have if you are starting out remotely is to build in some virtual water cooler time when you can. Calling someone up and asking them about their weekend or that vacation they just took shows that you are trying. When you are the one with the privilege of working at home, the impetus is on you to build strong relationships with those who aren’t as lucky.

    Pete Johnson
    Hewlett-Packard Company
    Marketing and Internet Platform Services IT
    Portals and Applications Chief Architect
    Personal Blog: http://nerdguru.net

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  2. If you’ve been successful being remote, you will know that there’s no substitute for occasionally picking up the phone. For as much as electronic communication can be informative, sometimes you really need to talk to people in Real Life.

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  3. @JD, Absolutely. In fact, sometimes there’s no substitute for Real Life which is why once or twice a month I wake up at 4 am to catch a 6 am train out of Philly to DC, work the day and then catch a 6 pm train home, walking in at around 9 pm.

    But the reality is that 80-90% of the time my communication with my coworkers is electronic. While phone calls are often necessary, it’s just not realistic or practical to spend hours a day on the phone.

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  4. Transition time in the way we work across boundaries of time and space, I think. Technology is the enabler, making virtual work possible, but people are still the key. Company cultures range from the occasional day to work from home and catch up on performance reviews, to virtual companies that may actually be an alliance of multiple virtual companies.
    In a few years when the collaborative technologies truly are ubiquitous, often also across generations, I’ll be still amazed in what a short time technology, people, and work have transformed one another.
    Trina Hoefling
    author, Working Virtually
    chapter author, The Handbook of High Performance Virtual Teams.

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  5. @Trina Agreed that this is very much a transition time. The next few years will be very interesting. The economy at the moment is going to accelerate these changes to the way that we work, IMO.

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  6. Yes, it will! Other financial crises have been the driving force behind virtual work expansion, and this will be no different. The worry comes in for career pathing for cultures not used to it. It will be a great ride.

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  7. Right now I moved to my house to keep my job, no rent to pay

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  8. My favorite part of the article: “don’t expect the culture to change to suit you.” In fact, there’s not much room to slack as a teleworker— it’s all on your shoulders. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Telework forces you to be proactive about your responsibilities and your career. And that makes teleworkers more productive and efficient!

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  9. Picking a good and cheap telephony package is a good way to keep home/office expenses low. I ran across an interesting article titled “Talk Is Cheap” reviewing top VoIP programs at DealDogs.net. This is the article link here to read a description and see videos about top webchat programs.

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  10. thanks for the VoIP article. And Telesaur’s comments? Home-based workers set the bar for productivity. Maybe we should capture that data somehow? If easy, wouldn’t that be fun. Put down the myth and worry, “Are they really working?” once and for all. Whether virtual entrepreneur or virtual employee or just home-based in a sea of commuters, we are the antithesis of the myth. Good thread of comments….. I’m new,and enjoying it.

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