7 Tips for Productive Telecommuting

February 10, 2010

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If your area has been hammered by winter's icy fury and your employer offers the opportunity to work from home, then consider these basic tips for telecommuting success.

The snow storm that's being called "Snowmageddon" has forced airlines to suspend flights, schools to cancel classes and the federal government to cease governing. With winter's fury in full effect throughout much of the United States, more businesses are embracing telecommuting as a way to keep their snowbound employees off icy roads without sacrificing productivity.

Between 2006 and 2008, the number of U.S. employees who worked remotely at least once a month rose 39 percent to approximately 17.2 million, according to WorldatWork's 2009 Telework Trendlines survey. The global human resources association, which studies telework as a talent-retention tool, found that the sum of all teleworkers — employees, contractors and business owners — has risen 17 percent to 33.7 million in 2008.

In the five-year period since 2003, the total number of once-a-month telecommuters in the U.S. has risen 43 percent to 33.7 million Americans.

Yet, employees have found that telecommuting isn't simply a matter of rolling out of bed, brewing their coffee and sitting at their computer. Working remotely requires careful planning and discipline.

The following are some basic tips for telecommuting success.

  1. Secure a designated space in your home to serve as your work area. Neither the kitchen table nor the couch in front of the TV is an ideal place to work. "Choose a space that is your place and customize it for you and your needs," Challenger, Gray and Christmas' @Work blog advises. This might entail shelves, files, printer and computer space, Internet access, a dedicated phone line (unless you're strictly cell), good lighting, a window if possible, an ergonomic chair and privacy.
  2. Work out the logistics. Talk to your boss about what you'll need and who's going to pay for it. The Associated Press poses these questions: "Will you be using your own personal computer? If so, will you need to upgrade it to handle your workload? Will you need other equipment, like a fax machine?"
  3. Make a plan. Have a list of tasks to accomplish. "When you start your work day, don't just start working. Plan out what you want to do, picking out a few important tasks or projects, and structure your day efficiently, broken down into hour-long blocks," FreelanceSwitch recommends. "This will allow you to make the most of your work day, and ensure that everything necessary is taken care of."
  4. Set limits. "Set a starting time and ending time for work, or for several blocks of work if that's better for you. However you structure it, always have a finish time," FreelanceSwitch continues. Set a time limit for your task, and stick to it. "If you don't finish within that time limit, try scheduling more time for it later." Without a time clock and anyone watching over you, log your time and work, if not for your employer or your client, then for yourself.
  5. Communicate with your organization on a regular basis. Use work e-mail and the phone, but also instant messaging (e.g., Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, etc.) to let colleagues know what's going on in near-real time. "Keep your supervisor in the loop on project status, progress and especially any concerns that may threaten a deadline," Telework!VA recommends. "Out of sight, out of mind" is a real risk when it comes to telecommuting. Remind your colleagues and your managers that you're still contributing to the team, even if remotely.
  6. Minimize distractions. "A telecommuter needs to be able to schedule realistically, prioritize and be able to stay focused on work despite distractions like children, pets, even the refrigerator," AP says. If you can, turn off your personal phone and avoid your personal e-mail. Ask anyone else in the home not to interrupt you during your work time. Challengers' @Work blog recommends a "keep out" sign. "The best teleworkers [...] can shutout interruptions and anything that could be distracting," Career Trail Guide explains.
  7. Take breaks. "Stay on a schedule that would be in place at the employer's office," Suite101 advises. This includes taking breaks and lunch breaks, during which you can do chores or run personal errands that require attention. Don't accept personal calls while at work (except for emergencies) unless it's during your self-designated breaks. Pace yourself and take time to disconnect. When working in a non-office setting, time can truly get away from you, making burnout — or at least a productivity drop — a very real threat.

Telecommuting offers a range of benefits, but often it isn't as easy as it seems. Developing a sound strategy for working from home can help lead to a more productive telecommuting experience.

For ideas on how to manage telecommuting workers, see American Express's OPEN Forum for small businesses.

Earlier: Is Telecommuting Right for You?

Resources

Telework Revs Up as More Employers Offer Work Flexibility WorldatWork, Feb. 17, 2009

Telecommuting Trail Tips by Jan Marino @Work (Challenger, Gray and Christmas), Jan. 20, 2010

Learn to Telecommute Productively by Ieva M. Augstums The Associated Press, Jan. 31, 2010

20 Essential Steps for Telecommuting Success by Leo Babauta FreelanceSwitch, Aug. 14, 2007

How to Telework Successfully Telework!VA (Virginia.gov)

Telecommuting: This is Not Your Father's Workplace by Stephanie Kempa Career Trail Guide, Feb. 4, 2010

Follow a Schedule When Working at Home by Mike Virgintino Suite101, Dec. 7, 2009

How Telecommuting Works: Benefits of Telecommuting by Tim Crosby HowStuffWorks

10 Reasons to Telecommute by Jessica Brown HowStuffWorks

How to Manage Telecommuting Employees by Ben Parr American Express OPEN Forum, June 11, 2009

Five Handy Telecommuting Tactics for a Small Office by David Carnes Technology Translated (ArcStone), Oct. 20, 2008

Don't Sweat the Snow, Work from Home by Jeffry Scott The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jan. 7, 2010

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