There’s a difference between working from home when you’re a freelancer and working from home as an employee. Generally speaking, the phrase “telecommuting” refers to the latter. In my career I have experienced both. Although there are some differences between the two, many of the best practices are applicable to both.
Not everyone works well from home. Although there are plenty of studies that show that productivity can be enhanced when certain types of employees are allowed to work from home, a recent decision by IBM to start recalling some of its telecommuters back to the office is an indication that in some cases, telecommuting might not be working. The IBM case is significant because that company is a pioneer of telecommuting.
IBM’s telecommuting policy began in 1979 at one of its labs in California where its researchers found themselves fighting for access to the lab’s mainframe computer. This was before the era of personal computers. In response, the management installed terminals in the home of five of its researchers.
At the same time, something similar was happening at its divisions on the East Coast of the US where systems engineer and even sales representatives were finding it difficult to get access to the office mainframe. Some two dozen remote terminals were then installed in employee homes to ease the congestion.
Those two developments ushered in the era of telecommuting at IBM. And it spread fast. By 1983, more than 2,000 IBM employees were working from home. The launch of the IBM Thinkpad laptop in 1992 launched an avalanche of telecommuters and by 1995, the company had 10,000 telecommuters. In 1998, telecommuting had been implemented in its offices worldwide, bringing the total number of mobile workers to 88,000. A 2009 IBM report entitled Working Outside the Box revealed that by then, some 40 per cent of IBM’s 386,000 employees in 173 countries had no office at all.
IBM not only pioneered telecommuting, it was a champion of the practice and promoted the idea of telecommuting for other companies as well as for the government. Then, in March this year, came the surprising announcement that IBM wanted thousands of its workers back into the office. It wasn’t alone. Other companies like Yahoo, Reddit, Aetna and Best Buy had also scaled back its telecommuting practices.
Could all those studies that showed the benefit of telecommuting be wrong? Actually, whether telecommuting works well or not depends a lot on the nature of the work that you’re doing. Freelancers work from home — they usually don’t have offices unless you consider Starbucks an office — and they do just fine. That’s because freelancers usually work independently and do not have to collaborate so much with other people.
It’s different if you’re an employee and you have to collaborate with others and don’t typically work in isolation. An employee who’s used to working in an office environment might find it challenging to get work done at home. It’s not that they’re necessarily goofing off or taking advantage of their newfound freedom but it could be just that they’re not used to working remotely and by themselves.
Based on my personal experience of working from home, both as a freelancer and as a telecommuter, I have figured out some best practices that would make the home-working environment both productive and efficient.
Here are five key telecommuting tips:
1. Set up a home office or work corner
I don’t think it’s a good idea to work from the living room or kitchen table or bedroom. If you’re going to work from home, you need to either set aside a small room just for work purposes or at least a corner somewhere which is meant for work. Psychologically, when you are in such work places, it’s easier to get into “work mode” and thus easier to focus on what needs to be done.
2. Get the necessary infrastructure
If you want to work from home, you’ll need to invest in the necessary equipment to make it possible for you to do productive work. Of particular importance for telecommuters are communication and collaboration
tools. High-speed Internet and a powerful desktop or laptop computer are crucial for smooth teleconferencing and for downloading and uploading data, documents and digital files of all kinds. So is collaboration software like Dropbox. You cannot afford to be stingy on such things because as an employee working from home, you need to be able to effectively communicate and collaborate with colleagues.
3. Remove distractions
If you have a home office, you can keep distractions like kids and the TV set and the refrigerator out of sight. But another form of distraction doesn’t have anything to do with people moving about or the temptation of TV or food. It’s our addiction to the Internet and especially social media.
In the office, we don’t browse social media as much because we don’t want to be seen as goofing off. But in the home, there’s no one stopping you from spending hours on the web. There are special applications and software that are designed to block social media for a set period of time when you’re supposed to work but frankly, if you need something like that to keep you disciplined, you really aren’t cut out for telecommuting. You just have to tell yourself that from a set time period, you will not browse the Internet unless it’s related to work.
4. Take breaks and naps
One of the reasons working in an office environment is not as productive is that workers are often tired and sleepy in the afternoon but are forced to keep their eyes open lest they be accused of sleeping on the job. So they carry on like zombies until that sleepy wave goes away. Imagine how much productivity is lost because of that.
Although some enlightened companies have “siesta” policies that allow workers to take power naps, most workplaces still frown upon the idea of employees napping, even if only for 15 or 20 minutes. That’s not a problem if you’re working from home. So, if you’re tired and need to catch some shut-eye, do so. Then wake up fresh and do your work with gusto.
5. Schedule some outside meetings
Working from home doesn’t mean being a hermit and never stepping outside. It’s important to have live interactions too because some things are still much easier to discuss in person. Besides, it’s good for you to get out once in a while. You could arrange to meet associates and colleagues in a coffee joint or you could even go into the office every now and then.
If you prefer to set your own time and work in the comforts of your own home, telecommuting is a great option. I personally find it hard to imagine working in a 9-to-5 office environment again. But if you’re the type who needs the discipline of set hours in a formal office environment, or if you get easily side-tracked and distracted, or if you simply prefer having colleagues around when you’re working, then maybe telecommuting is not a good option. It’s certainly not for everyone, as IBM has found out the hard way.