Telecommuting: the Time Is Now

And the time is still now, even if you're in a different time zone from all of your coworkers!

I've had a blog post in mind for months about how to most effectively work remotely, as I've been doing it for virtually the last ten years; in fact, I've been in my current organization over nine years now and of that time, all but eighteen months has been either partially or fully remote, mostly from more than a thousand miles away. Before I get to that post, though, I want to do this shorter one about why exactly it's valuable to work remotely for both individuals and the organization. It's been said before, of course, but it is absolutely an area where I have some expertise and I'm willing to commit it to a keyboard.

First, the obvious proviso: it's not for every organization or every employee. Everyone has their comfort level with the idea of telecommuting, and like everything else there isn't necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution. Second, the other obvious one: not every job can get away with a lack of physical presence. I'm coming from a tech-job point of view here. Don't @ me.

What it all boils down to, for both sides of the employment equation, is that the vast majority of the white-collar workforce now has within its grasp the technological capability to work from anywhere. Laptops and tablets have surpassed the previously ubiquitous desktop, workstation, terminal, what-have-you. Emails can be answered from a mobile phone, and I hear those things can be used for voice and video chat too. Every major carrier in the States offers an unlimited data plan, to boot. Further, even though our wired and wireless data speeds might lag behind some other nations, we Americans by and large have internet capabilities more than sufficient to turn meetings of any size into fully-decentralized affairs, and even in organizations that don't allow telecommuting most project management likely happens in a cloud-based way, making it easily distributed across the world as well.

So, that said, where can people maximize their benefits from telecommuting? Both organizations and individuals can see a lot of the same improvements, albeit from slightly different angles. I'll outline what I consider the two biggest here, with several subcomponents to explain why they're such a boon.

The biggest benefit, in my experience, is that telecommuting means no (or less) real commuting. The ways in which this improves everyone's work experience are myriad, so I have to break them down a little further.

  1. It saves time, and potentially lots of it. The last time I was in an office setting, I was going in two days a week. I could only miss peak traffic one way, and I lived quite a ways out from the city (due to my physical office moving from the suburbs to downtown during my stay). On those days in the office, I was seeing round-trip commutes ranging from 90 minutes on unicorn-rare days up to a more common two hours, and every once in a while I'd be staring down the barrel of a three-hour round trip day. Not everyone is properly served by mass transit or carpool options, either, making that kind of time just utterly lost. My days in the office actually usually came out to about six hours' worth of work, even when sacrificing lunch times to stay at my desk. Those three work from home days were the days where I was able to properly get things done.
  2. There's a genuine possibility to save your carbon footprint in a meaningful way if that's one of your priorities (as I try to make it mine). Obviously you're not some sort of horrible person if you have to drive yourself to work every day, even if you don't have a fuel-efficient vehicle. We all have to do what we have to do. And while mass transit and carpooling help that, as well as the benefits of having multiple people share a space like an office, our own personal homes tend to be smaller and can be even more self-contained than an office. And, even if you're gone, your home is still using energy while you're away, so the differential of using more to work while you're there is at worst on par with a larger office where not every space is being used all the time either. In my case, my home office is about 120 square feet as opposed whatever my portion of the thousands of square feet of my mothership once was.
  3. Responding to urgent matters can happen any time. In my line of work, we're dealing with multiple businesses that operate solely on the internet, obviously 24/7/365. By having my entire workflow happen in the same building where I eat and sleep and spend time with my family, I'm rarely more than a few minutes away from being able to respond to an emergency. Naturally, this sometimes results in dealing with some things that might look like emergencies but aren't, but those things can happen in a centralized office as well, and they're still faster to dismiss by walking down the hallway versus jumping in the car.
  4. The cost savings should be obvious having read the first three points. Telecommuters don't require a tank of gas (or two, for those folks who absolutely have to drive a Chevy Suburban) a week, parking fees, or a monthly transit pass. They don't require buying lunches at the corner fast-food place, and frankly, they don't require large outlays for wardrobe - if you're in the kind of place that has a dress code to begin with, of course. Under current tax law, people who set up dedicated space in their home for employment can even reap some tax savings. For employers, it's a little more complicated, of course; office space is leased with years of planning in mind, so it's not always easy to shrink that footprint to reduce lease costs or overhead. With the right amount of planning over time, though, a good facilities and IT team can absolutely reap savings from having things like a smaller office with non-dedicated workspaces to account for only a portion of the company being on-site at any time, and once established, those savings can snowball very quickly.

Another multifaceted benefit is around employee happiness. Again, not everyone will be happy with limited face-to-face contact with their colleagues, and that's understandable. But for those who can roll with that lack of direct physical presence, you get a lot of other things that make employees more content.

  1. You're going to see a lot less sick time. I personally take maybe one or two sick days a year now, which isn't bad for someone who has a kid in the germ-warfare playground that is a public elementary school. I see a lot of my colleagues choose to work from home on days where they feel they might be contagious, or are just generally not 100% either. A day that was once 100% lost to a sick day now might be only 20%, 40%, what-have-you lost, and anything better than "totally gone" is better than the alternative.
  2. Not being in the office can sometimes be less stressful. I don't care much for the term, but I think we've all heard someone talk about needing to take a "mental health day" to avoid being burnt out. I find it's easier to not fall into that mindset when I have more control over how my work goes from day to day, and that is far easier to attain when working remotely.
  3. People like having job flexibility. Things like flex time obviously help that a great deal, too - who doesn't like to be able to schedule their day to miss traffic, or to be able to tend to family needs without feeling like they're dropping the ball at work? Telecommuting is just a step beyond that; outside of scheduled meetings, of course, it is the most possible flexible arrangement for working hours, even making it more likely to be able to pluck employees from a global talent pool. In my organization, I've been an hour behind the mothership for most of my tenure, and we now have employees in just about every western hemisphere time zone, to say nothing of our other offices around the world.

All of these things can contribute to employee happiness, and it's not hard to understand the benefit of that. Happy employees stay in their jobs longer, and are more likely to be willing to use their social networks to solicit new blood when it's needed. They'll review better on Glassdoor too.

I once felt vulnerable as a remote employee, to be perfectly honest. I'd question whether my contributions were as recognized as folks who had full facetime in the office, or whether there were questions about whether I was working as hard as I could be. Those things take time to get over, and good communication with peers and management, which absolutely requires a different skillset than coming to a centralized location. As I say, it's not really meant for everyone, and it definitely requires someone who feels secure in their role and responsibilities, especially if you're the only person doing it. But as we move forward, none of us is likely to be the only one; while I was one of only two or three in the entire company when I first started working remotely, my current vertical has probably close to 75% engagement with remote work between folks who are never in the office and folks who work from home a couple days a week, and we are an incredibly productive team. This situation is ripe for the picking, and more people need to take the time to discuss it with their organizations to test the waters. My next post will go a little more into detail about how to prepare yourself and your organization to take that step.

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