Under The Microscope

Telecommuting for Beginners

According to the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, approximately 6.5 million Americans telecommute currently. Rates have been climbing every year since the early 1990s, with the number of telecommuters in the US doubling since 1995. Recently, I joined the ranks of the telecommuters for the first time.

After many years working as an in-house computer engineer, I took the plunge and began a telecommuting job with Rogue Amoeba. Since then, I’ve learned a great deal about telecommuting, both good and bad. I hope to help other telecommuting beginners by sharing things I wish I’d known before I’d started.

For me, working from home promised some interesting changes: setting my own hours, working to my own deadlines, being able to work weekends or odd hours without the office being locked, and taking breaks on my own schedule. To a large degree it also means being your own boss in terms of organizing your work and your day-to-day schedule. It seemed very clear and achievable. After reading a few quick articles on the web, I decided I was a pro, and away I went.

When the dust settled, I realized there were a bunch of things missing from those articles. I’m going to detail some of the more intelligent tips I’ve read that applied to me, and add the things I’ve learnt so far. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, because I’m still learning myself. Hopefully, I can help other telecommuting beginners find their way.

Office Area

The first thing you’ll need to work from home is a place to work. Setting up a proper office area, space or room is imperative. No working when you’re lying on the bed or slouching on the couch. Your workspace doesn’t need to be an entire room, but it should be quiet. Avoid the main thoroughfare of the house and ideally have a door you can close.

The reasons for this are two-fold: First, a professional working environment will put you in the right frame of mind mentally. It’s far too easy to trivialize what you’re doing and get distracted without a proper work space. Second, you can make sure everyone in the family knows that your office area is out of bounds when you’re working. I have a door I can close, which means no interruptions (though my three Yorkshire terriers often ignore that one). The door generally stays open, but I’m comforted knowing that if the house gets too noisy, I can take steps to get my concentration back.

You’ll want a desk, lamp, organizers, shelves, drawers, and more. When I set up my home office, I got a large L-shaped desk with plenty of room, paper trays and organizers, an HP LaserJet printer/scanner I’d wanted for years, a rolling drawer unit, and all the pens, pencils, stationary, staples and push-pins I was always struggling to find at home. At my previous office, I also had access to a large white-board that I used frequently for lists, as well as drawing designs, graphs, and weird cartoons of Moomins. I found some accessible space on a wall and bought one of those too.

Working from home is an investment, and many web articles overlook that fact. It may cost you some money to set things up, but it’s well worth it.

Tools

Whatever tools you use day-to-day, make sure they’re the best you can comfortably afford or get from your employer. Even if your employer supplies you something such as a laptop, try and get the best that you can. Inefficient or lower grade tools cheapen the work-from-home experience.

I’ve had a dual monitor setup for a long time, but when I started telecommuting, I upgraded to larger screens. Now I feel like I have a better working environment than any office I’ve ever worked in before! Coupled with my other upgrades, it’s a big confidence boost. I feel like nothing will hold me back, and that I have everything I need to attack my work.

Change Your Routine

Many articles tell you that you should prepare for work the same way you always did, advising you to shower, dress in your office clothes, and have breakfast before you begin work. Despite the frequency with which this advice is mentioned, I didn’t find it to be very valuable. When I worked in an office, I worried about maintaining an image. At home with my family, that’s less important. Telecommuting is different from office work, so changing your behaviors to better fit your new lifestyle makes sense.

Hygiene is good obviously, but breaking from the hard and fast routine hasn’t been detrimental for me. Now, I do what feels natural to me. I’ve changed my clothes, because I never enjoyed getting dressed for the office. While I never wore a suit, I did always dress in business casual. Now, I’ve switched to much more comfortable clothes. The fact is I’m more productive when wearing my lovely warm fleecy pajama pants. Heck, sit there naked with your feet in a bowl of warm custard, if it works for you.

Many articles imply that doing this is akin to “dropping your standards”, and that before long you’ll become a slovenly couch beast who no longer works. That certainly hasn’t been the case for me. This is all about personal choice though. You no longer have to answer to any corporate dress code, so do whatever makes you more comfortable to work. If that’s following the normal office morning routine, then do it. If you’re like me and want to change things up, however, don’t be afraid. It’s helped me immensely.

Support

Working in an office can be a very social experience. In a normal office, computer programmers often ask each other questions if they’ve never done something before, or if some API is unknown to them. We might ask each other to look over our code when we can’t find a particularly stubborn bug, or sit in design meetings when a team must build something new.

I didn’t realize just how much I’d miss this until it was gone. Our team uses Slack for nearly all communication, and while we certainly help each other out frequently, it’s a very different experience. Without an office, you are physically on your own. Maturity and experience help combat this, and I think being confident is essential to telecommuting.

For me, the change was initially a knock to my confidence. I quickly learnt the magic that is Google, and certain sites like Stack Overflow have proven to be helpful friends. I’ve also bought more reference books in the last six months than I have in the last six years. That can add up, so choose wisely! Over time though, I realized I was better than I thought, and that I had the experience and skill to hack it on my own. Now, I pat myself on the back for each little triumph, and my confidence grows daily.

Don’t Go Crazy

Most of us do that in the office anyway, but working from home can drive you crazy fast! The biggest missing thing about telecommuting is general human contact. Whether you have family members at home during the day or the house is mostly empty, you’re likely to have a lot less human contact than in a traditional office. Make an effort to get out and socialize. The amount of contact you personally require will vary, but pay attention to how you’re feeling, and take steps to increase your human interaction as needed.

Personally, I’ve found that small things can help. It sounds silly, but I now meet the postman each day when he delivers our mail. It only takes a few minutes, and now our conversations have crept up to the weather! It gives me a little bit of human contact mid-afternoon. When I can, I also run brief errands during the day. It gets you out of the house, and affords some human contact. If you previously ate lunch with your workmates daily, then go out to lunch somewhere you really like. Bonus: No one will complain that you already ate Mexican twice this week.

Distractions

No matter how well you prepare yourself, you will get distracted working at home. In an office, your focus is generally on work throughout the day. When you telecommute, your mind is free to wander and think about licorice birds floating in a sea of Jello…ahem. Sorry about that. This is one of the biggest problems to master when you first start.

My problem was the web. I would often start my day at the office by browsing my favorite web sites, catching up on the news, checking my eBay listings, reading a few blogs, and so on. I suspect many people do that for a few minutes before getting down to work as they become conscious of everyone else in the office doing the same. At home, there is nothing to stop you browsing the web, or reading that book, or flicking through that magazine, or making that personal phone call.

Even once I got started working, I found myself going back to the web multiple times a day. To fight this distraction, I decided to ban personal chores on my work computer. I have other computers in the house that I can do those things on after I’m done working, so I made a bargain with myself. On my work computer, I would only Google work things, read work-related blogs, and save my shopping for later. This system isn’t foolproof, as my attention does wander. But when you set fair rules for yourself, you’ll feel a more useful guilt when browsing the web. This restores the motivation to get back to work, just like the positive influences in the office.

Family and home life can also be a big distraction. Each family dynamic is different, so I can’t recommend any specific advice for you and yours. But I mentioned the definite advantage of a door to your workspace, which allows you to set a rule that everyone in the house understands. Even when my door is open interruptions should be minimized, but if it’s closed, don’t bother me unless the house is burning down! Over time, you’ll likely find that the family will respect your office space, and interrupt you less.

Your smartphone is another distraction. If you need it for work, then bad luck. I’ve been tempted to put mine in another room when I’m working. Even when I put it in airplane mode, I pick it up when I’m thinking now and then and start a game. Again, it’s about discipline and making bargains with yourself. Just don’t leave these things unaddressed in your mind.

Control Your Expectations

I spent a lot of my first few months feeling guilty that I was working differently at home than I had in an office. It took a while for my thick skull to come to terms with telecommuting being a distinct experience. In fact, change is necessary when you telecommute; you just cannot work the same way at home as you do in a social office.

For example, I found myself feeling incredibly guilty when I took breaks. Was I taking more breaks than I would in an office? Was I working fewer hours? Should I postpone that errand, even though I’m desperate to leave the house right now? I began to count my hours much more than in the office, just to make sure I was putting in at least 40 hours a week – and then was 40 hours enough? Better work another 15 to make sure.

When I was really wound up about something, my wife would tell me I could take an hour or two off, or even the afternoon off. When I was hired, Rogue Amoeba tried to make it clear I could manage my time in exactly this way, but I initially didn’t due to the aforementioned feelings of guilt.

When I eventually tried it, the improvement was obvious. I returned to work refreshed and my productivity shot up. When you’re in an office and something particularly difficult lands on your desk, you might get frustrated, but you can’t just take a few hours off to unwind. In my case, I would stay angry and unproductive the rest of the work day, come home and tell my wife what a rotten day I’d had, and be angry that evening too.

Telecommuting allows me to manage my time to be most effective. I know how I work and how my brain works. I work better at math problems in the morning than the afternoon for example. When I get wound up over something, I will stop being productive until I wind down. I know what motivates me and the best hours for me to work. So long as I’m visible on Slack, I can manage my time to suit my productivity and stress levels.

Don’t feel guilty about doing things differently than you did them in the office; telecommuting offers advantages that allow you work much smarter, more relaxed and more productively. You’ll likely do things that you’re not always allowed to do in a typical office environment. That’s a good thing!

Working Too Much

You probably think I’m mad, but it’s a real problem. When I first began, I worked a massive number of hours a month. Weekends, late into the evening, couldn’t sleep? I sat at my desk and worked. At home, there’s no restriction on office access, so you can be at work at any time. When you aren’t finished with something at the end of the day, you just tend to carry on . Before you realize, it’s 11 PM and your significant other is not pleased with you.

It was my wife that alerted me to this problem, by literally smacking me across the head. She told me things were getting ridiculous and that I didn’t even seem to notice that my hours were creeping up. I eventually made a concerted effort to reduce the excessive hours I was working, in favor of family time. I also made a deal with myself that when I finish in the evening, I don’t go back until the morning, even if I can’t sleep.

I still work more hours than 40, but I’m much more dynamic. When my family interrupts me in the middle of the day, I can often finish up my work and go do things with them. If anyone complains when I work on a weekend, I stop immediately and don’t go back. That closed-door policy stays the same, but I make a concerted effort not to close the door on weekends, nor on weekday evenings. This also means that I don’t start anything new that will catch my attention past 4 PM, just to make sure I don’t work late into the evening.

There’s another more crucial point here that I didn’t realize at first. If you set yourself up well to work at home, you can actually be more productive than in an office. It’s like 60 minutes of home time is equivalent to 75 minutes of office time. Take care to set up your home office and adopt good habits, and you’ll feel like you gained a superpower!.

Closing

I’m still new to this working from home thing, so that’s it for now. I don’t have all the answers yet, and I’m sure not everything will apply to your situation. While I did see problems with other articles out there, you should certainly read other posts to get a wider perspective on the subject. I’ve now been working from home for approximately six months. When I’ve gained more experience, perhaps I’ll write another article to tell you how things have changed, what new insights I’ve found, and note if anything I’ve said here turned out to be bunkum (entirely possible for me). Until then, good luck telecommuting!

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