Telecommuting isn’t all that new of an idea. I’ve been doing it to some extent since 2002 or 2003. And I’ve been telecommuting full time since 2016. Let’s take a look at some telecommuting pros and cons, as they can be significant.
I worked from home a significant part of the time from 2002-2009 and again from 2012-2014. Many of my colleagues did as well.
Telecommuting pros and cons for employers
There are significant telecommuting pros and cons for my last two employers. The downside is they interviewed me and I worked several weeks for them before I ever saw another employee in person. The upside is the same thing.
There are hidden factors in that upside, too. In both cases, the corporate headquarters is far out of state. In one case, I was the sole employee in the whole region of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. This helped us keep overhead low, as I worked from home and traveled as needed. We didn’t have to have an office building with support staff in the region.
Bigger talent pool
The upside for my current employer is the talent pool. My boss has assembled the best team I’ve ever worked on. They’re talented and good to work with. Each of us lives in a different state. Even if money were no object, I don’t think you could build this team in St. Louis or Kansas City or any other city smaller than Chicago. The talent pool just isn’t deep enough. When the time comes for our company to hire someone, we can scour the entire nation looking for the best person available, and that person doesn’t have to move. As long as our pay is competitive, he or she will probably accept the offer.
Greater employee retention
There’s another upside too. Employee retention increases. Employees who work from home tend to be happier because they don’t have to deal with traffic. They get sick less, since they don’t get exposed to sick coworkers. All of these things make it a lot easier to ignore recruiters when they come calling.
Cons of telecommuting for employers
The downside for most employers with telecommuting is they don’t know as much about your work habits. Some companies can get over that, while others can’t. I once worked for a company with a significant remote workforce, and its managers obsessed over whether their remote employees were actually working. They tried various things, including requiring employees to have their webcams on. That meant increased overhead.
Successful companies deal with it. They set goals, and if their employees hit the goals, then it doesn’t matter if they goof off half the day and work the rest of the hours at night, or not at all. I had one employer that didn’t even make me fill out a time card. They gave me numbers to hit. If I exceeded those numbers, I made lots of money. If I fell short, I made a lot less money. We figured out what we needed to do to hit our numbers.
I heard a story of a coworker who abused the system and they fired him. The details aren’t any of my business since I wasn’t involved in the decision, but the short version is he wasn’t getting his work done. Your employees need to realize that telecommuting is a privilege and if they aren’t getting the work done and clients or coworkers complain about it, they might lose the privilege, or possibly even the job.
When it comes to telecommuting pros and cons for employers, isolation is another problem. A tool like Slack or Hipchat helps. By setting up chat rooms for employees to collaborate in, they can get the help they need even if the closest fellow employee is three states away.
Telecommuting pros and cons for employees
I have no commute. I can set up my laptop wherever in the house I want to work, or if the weather is nice, on the porch. I’ve had jobs where I spent 90-120 minutes on the road getting to and from work every day. Losing the commute saves me a lot of time. It also saves depreciation on my car. The cars we have might last 20 years, as little as we drive them now.
And if you have a lull in your workday, you’re at home. You know that avalanche of five-minute tasks that chews up half your weekend? If a meeting ends five minutes early, you can take care of one of them.
There’s another big one. When I worked in an office building, easily 20 percent of my time went to dealing with what we called “drive-bys.” That was what we called someone randomly stopping at your desk to ask you a question. While there’s an equivalent for remote employees, being remote really cuts that down.
Cons of telecommuting for employees
In a word: boundaries. One day in 2004, I was deathly ill. My then-girlfriend came over to check on me and found me in bed, on the phone, with my laptop. I was sick, but I put in a full day. One week in 2015, I went on vacation. Two of my clients took that as an invitation to amp up their demands. I worked 40 hours by Thursday. So I resolved to work no more than four hours on Friday. I worked five.
When I wasn’t on vacation, people had no qualms about calling me at any time. Some of it made sense on a selfish level–people would call me on their way to work, or their way home from work to ask me to check on stuff. But that would mean phone calls as early as 6am and as late as 6pm. That was great for them. They could get a jump on their day or extend their workday by having me take care of something they forgot about. I even had a guy call me at 2am once, drunk. I wasn’t too wild about the 60-hour workweeks though.
The loss of office camaraderie can be significant. When you’re in an office surrounded by talented individuals, you learn a lot by overhearing conversations. If you don’t understand something they’re talking about, you can write it down and ask someone about it later, or punch it into Google.
Dealing with the cons of telecommuting
For me, the tipping point happened on Christmas Eve of 2015. It was 6pm, and I was stuck in an e-mail exchange with the last person in the world I wanted to talk to at that moment. He was bored and quite possibly drunk. He wasn’t being reasonable and there was nothing I could do to solve his problem at 6pm on Christmas Eve.
I closed my e-mail app and put my phone on silence. Everything he was complaining about was stuff that could wait until Monday, or longer.
One way my peers and I found to deal with death by a thousand phone calls is by scheduling a regular recurring meeting. This allows you to structure your week. You give everyone who needs to talk to you an hour of your time every week. There may be some followup items you have to do outside of that meeting, but you come out of that meeting with a to-do list. You take care of those things, then repeat.
Career coaches recommend spending an hour on Sunday night planning out your week. You can’t do this if you have multiple people calling you at random times all hours of the day and night. But if you force your schedule into some kind of structure, it means the really important stuff gets the time it deserves. And the less important stuff falls away. Some of it really is unimportant. I used to get a lot of phone calls about stuff that’s in an instruction manual somewhere. Rather than take those calls, I let them go to voicemail. Rather than calling back, I would respond by e-mail later in the day, copy and pasting the appropriate section of the manual.
Yes, it’s a little harsh, but we all have jobs to do. When calling Dave is easier than opening up a manual and hitting CTRL-F to search it, people call Dave. When Dave just responds by e-mailing back a page of the manual a couple of hours later, people open the manual and hit CTRL-F to search it.
Planning has upsides. It makes it easier to meet or beat your deadlines. It also makes filling out your timecard much easier if you have to fill one out. Come Friday, I may not remember what I did on Monday, or at least certain critical details like whether I spent 30 minutes or two hours on a particular task. But it only takes a minute to pull up my spreadsheet and look.
It’s OK to let your phone and e-mail wait sometimes
If you’re in the middle of a meeting, it’s almost always OK to let the call go to voicemail. There are exceptions, but that’s not the norm. It’s not fair to punish the people who were courteous enough to schedule time in advance.
Similarly, if you’re in the middle of something, it’s OK to let an unexpected call go to voicemail and return the call later in the day. If you don’t know it’s more important than what you’re working on at the moment, it probably isn’t. If you can answer the question via e-mail faster than calling back, e-mail instead of calling. Sometimes a phone call is quicker than typing back and forth, but if it isn’t, e-mail.
When I plan out my week, I try to leave a few 30-minute blocks open to return calls and e-mail messages. If the call or message contains a task, I slot that task into an empty spot on my calendar for the week. This helps keep work from piling up and never getting done. It also helps me keep from spending an hour on a three-paragraph e-mail message. If I have 30 minutes and three messages to return, each message gets whatever I can do in 10 minutes. That’s almost always good enough, and it saves everyone time.
Getting human interaction
We all need some amount of human interaction. If you live alone and work from home, you don’t get a lot of human interaction. If you work from home and your spouse doesn’t, you don’t get a lot of human interaction.
It’s possible to rent office space so you can bring your phone and your computer and work, and have the benefit of business-grade Internet and things like a copy machine and other office conveniences. There are other people around you, so you no longer feel like a hermit all day. Since you don’t all work for the same company, they won’t be assigning you tasks. So you can really get the best of both worlds.
Even if you can’t or don’t want to rent office space, you can still get some human interaction. Get up a little bit early and go out to breakfast before you start your day. You don’t have to do it every day but it can help occasionally. You can also take an actual lunch break, and use that hour to grab some lunch and run a couple of errands. This gets you out of the house, helps you clear your mind, and, again, not feel like a hermit.
Setting boundaries with your family
Sometimes working from home causes the opposite issue: too much human interaction. If you have young children, this can especially be an issue. My boss, coworkers and I all have young kids, so we understand if we’re on a call and our kids interrupt.
Our rule is that if we need to not be interrupted, we close the door. It takes a bit of adjustment, but overall is worth it.
Calling it a day
The other temptation is to never really call it a day. There’s always plenty of work to do, so it can be tempting to work well into the night and end up not doing much with your day besides working and sleeping. There is nothing at all wrong with ending your day after 8 or 9 hours of work.
Planning certainly helps with this. When 5pm comes around, instead of working two more hours to try to get ahead, I’ll pull up my spreadsheet, assess the work that I didn’t get done that day, and fit it into those remaining blocks.
The goof-off trap
The other temptation is to put off unpleasant work and goof off instead. Again, this is where planning helps. You goof off a lot less when you have some structure and you know you have eight hours of work to do and eight hours to do it in. It’s easier to save your goofing off for after hours then.
Telecommuting pros and cons: In conclusion
Overall I recommend telecommuting. Many of the problems I had with telecommuting had more to do with the company than they did with telecommuting in general. Some companies do a better job of coaching their employees on making the adjustment than others.
Most of the problems with telecommuting are solvable by planning and setting boundaries. Potentially I could have even salvaged my wasted vacation that way, by letting my calls go to voicemail and setting aside a couple of hours a day to deal with the biggest emergencies. Working 10 hours on vacation is better than working 45.