Put on Some Pants: A Telecommuting Primer for Parents

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Image CC BY 2.0 - Tina Lawson
Mr. Meowgi silently judging your work-from-home wardrobe. Image CC BY 2.0 – Tina Lawson

I am fortunate to have a job that allows me to occasionally work from home. By my job, I don’t mean writing for GeekDad, which is a job in the same way that playing guitar in the subway is a job – doing what I enjoy and sharing it with others, only with less pay. I’m talking about my regular nine to five. It’s an arrangement that I have enjoyed, off and on, for almost two decades now, and in that time I have found that while various industries, companies, and supervisors all have different requirements when it comes to telecommuting, there are a few things that are universal.

First, an important point. Telecommuting is not freelancing.

When I say telecommuting, I’m talking about working for an employer, either as a contractor or a standard W2 employee, on a semi-regular schedule, usually as part of a team. If you are paid for your time, you are a telecommuter. If you are paid for a deliverable, you are a freelancer.

Aside from the initial requirements meeting and occasional subsequent status update calls, freelancers are, well, free. They work their own schedules, using whatever methods make them successful. If you are a writer who works best at 2am in your underwear, third scotch in hand and Nickelback blaring in your headphones, you’re likely a freelancer, and these tips don’t apply to you. You also might be in need of professional help (for the Nickelback, not the scotch).

I’m just joking. Freelancers can’t afford scotch.

Now that all the freelancers have spit their lattes into their screens and have skipped to the comments section to bang out angry retorts on their mechanical keyboards, let’s talk about telecommuting. I have had coworkers who refuse to work from home. They have tried and are unproductive, or they claim that “out of sight, out of mind” makes them vulnerable. These are real dangers with telecommuting, so why would you want to do so in the first place?

Why Telecommuting Is the Greatest Work Arrangement Ever, Short of Inheriting Billions and Becoming a Vigilante Superhero

"What is it you'd say you actually do around here?" via batman.wikia.com
“What is it you’d say you actually do around here?” image copyright Warner Bros. via batman.wikia.com

The benefits of telecommuting, for both the employee and the employer, are vast. Those include the constant improvements in team communication software, voice and video conferencing, and cloud infrastructure. Its greatest drawback – lack of team cohesiveness – is quickly fading. Aside from being able to join conference calls in your Wonder Woman pajamas, a benefit which really shouldn’t be understated, working from home provides a number of other benefits to you as an employee, including:

  1. Significantly reduced commute. On a good day, my drive into work is 25 minutes. Working from home, I can get to work in about 15-30 seconds. Road rage is a thing of the past, and the worst traffic I have to deal with is the early morning zombie teenagers shuffling down the hallways.
  2. Personal privacy. Being able to relieve yourself without having to walk in on Leonard’s cacophonous morning post-coffee-and-Egg-McMuffin sabbatical. This is about on par with the next item, but the 10-year-old in me couldn’t resist listing it as number two.
  3. Improved lunch hour. Besides saving money on gas and reducing wear and tear on your car, you can also save money on food and reduce wear and tear on your health by having your whole kitchen available at lunch and not dropping $10 a day on whatever gut bomb everyone agrees on after fifteen minutes of, “I don’t care, where do you want to go?”. You can save up to 30 minutes of your lunch hour by reducing discussion, travel, ordering, waiting, etc.
  4. More options for spending those saved 30 minutes.
  5. Increased productivity. While face time with your coworkers can be good, let’s be honest: many interactions with people in the office are not exactly what you’d call “productive”. Just a few of the many interruptions you can avoid while working from home are:
  • Whatever Kim Kardashian is doing this week.
  • The accomplishments or failures of itinerant athletes who happen to be playing in your city during this phase of their contract.
  • Why Donald Trump and/or Hillary Clinton are Satan and/or Hitler.
  • Your coworker’s latest trouble with their child/spouse/neighbor/colon.
  • This guy.

Employers also benefit from their employees telecommuting. They can save money on facilities including electricity, parking, real estate, and coffee. Work from home employees are also generally happier, more productive, and may even be willing to take a pay cut for the ability to telecommute. If you’re an employer exploring telecommuting for your workers, check out the research by Global Workplace Analytics.

So, now that you’ve shared that article with your boss and have joined the ranks of the telecommuter, here’s how you can be successful.

You Are Not a Freelancer

CC BY 2.0 - Jenny Ondioline
CC BY 2.0 – Jenny Ondioline

I know what you’re thinking.

“Um, didn’t you just say that?”

No, I said they are different. Here, I’m saying, “Don’t act like a freelancer if you’re a telecommuter.” Your job is not to just turn in a completed project at the end of a deadline. That may be your assignment, but your job is much more. It involves staying in communication with both coworkers and management, helping your teammates when they need it, and participating in company meetings.

It also includes staying in contact with people outside of your team. “Out of sight, out of mind” is an actual risk if you don’t manage your interactions. Ask questions of other departments, or even better, volunteer to be the one that helps Steve in Marketing with his software issues, or send a thank you e-mail to the HR Director for her work organizing the company softball team. This is less of a risk if your entire department telecommutes, but if you are part of a small portion of the team that is not in the office regularly, you need to make yourself visible in other ways.

If your company uses video conferencing, you also need to maintain a professional appearance at all times. Follow the company dress code (at least the parts that are visible on camera), and be presentable. Leave the scotch in the bottle until five, turn off the Nickelback, and put out the cigarette. I get it that you’re in your own house, and you’ll smoke if you want. (Or vape, solve a Rubik’s cube, juggle kittens, or whatever else it is you may do in your household. I’m not here to judge.) However, while on a video conference is not the time to do any of these things. It’s at the very least distracting and borders on unprofessional.

A professional appearance does not end at your person, either. Your workspace is also a reflection of your professionalism. Obviously every company is different, so use your best judgment. If you work for a startup, that Megadeth poster on the wall and 15″ Harley Quinn statue on the end table might be acceptable. Working for Billy Graham Ministries, probably not. If your workspace is cluttered or contains questionable items in the background, and that’s what helps you work well, grab your laptop and walk into another room or even invest in a chroma key backdrop.

“I’m Trying to Work Here!!!”

CC BY 2.0 - Personal Creations
CC BY 2.0 – Personal Creations

Working from home becomes even more difficult for those of use who have families, particularly during the summer or other times when the kids are home. You cannot expect everyone else’s life to be put on hold simply because you’re telecommuting. Similarly, you have to set boundaries and expectations for the rest of your family. This is your job, and if you’re not at least as productive as you are in the office, you should not be telecommuting.

The first step is choosing your workspace. In my case I am fortunate enough to have a home office, but it is not a dedicated space just for work. It is also where our primary home computer resides. It’s unfair for me to take away my son’s ability to play games or my wife’s ability to work on family photos. I had the room, but I needed the space. In addition to the desk where the home PC resides, I have a large drafting table for my various projects. This would be a perfect place to work if I were the kind of person who can start a project and actually finish it. As it is, my work table is almost always covered with electronics bits, gadgets, photography lights, fabric, glue guns, unread snail mail, books, tools, and all the other things that make me a GeekDad and that make my wife want to comparison shop roll-away dumpsters.

Until recently, I just kind of shoved everything around until I had a laptop-sized space and made do. It was sufficient, but forced me to sit on a drafting stool all day. For the last three years I have used a standing desk at work, and reverting to a chair was causing the back issues I thought I’d kicked. Then, I was contacted out of the blue by the people at Loctek about reviewing one of their monitor arms. The Locktek D5DL is a full motion dual monitor arm desk mount that clamps to the edge of any table. Setting it up took just a few minutes, and I can now work from home, with two displays, either sitting or standing, without the need to have a large work surface available. The cable management keeps everything looking clean, and it’s easy to swing out of the way when I’m not using it. Toss in my Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse, and I have a workspace that is nearly as nice as my $500 Varidesk for less than a third of the price and without using up all of the surface space.

Loctek In Action

Note: if you’re interested in the D5DL, GeekDad is giving one away.

If you don’t have a home office, any room dedicated specifically to you during work hours, such as a bedroom with a decent workspace and a door, will suffice. Reclining in the living room with your laptop while your kids watch anime or play Call of Duty is a recipe for failure. Similarly, while the large flat surface of the kitchen table can be tempting, for most people the kitchen is the center of household activity. Traffic alone can be distracting, even if your family is not asking you to let the dog out, answer the door, get them a glass of milk, help them with their homework, or the thousands of other parental duties you’re used to performing when you’re at home.

This is one of the hardest parts of telecommuting. Everyone in the family needs to understand that, during work hours, you are not there. You are at work. Little ones in particular will have a hard time understanding why Mom or Dad can’t come play with them when they’re right there in the other room. I have gone as far as asking that, if someone needs something, they hit me up on Google Hangouts just like they would if I were at the office. Whatever rules you set in place, stay consistent and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by what’s going on around you. If you don’t own a good pair of headphones, I highly recommend picking some up. Anything with decent noise reduction like a good pair of earbuds or some over the ear cans are fine. One trick I found useful is to hook up my microphone and use Hangouts for all of my phone calls (available to Voice or Google Fi users). I can plug my headphones in and use them for my music or white noise, and if I do get a phone call, I can quickly click over to it and take it (or more likely send it to voicemail) without walking away from my work. This setup also allows me to leave my phone charging in the other room so I’m not tempted to get on Instagram, Feedly, or other non-work related distractions.

"As you can see from this chart, our earnings from last quarter were...um, excuse me, I need to step away for a moment."
“As you can see from this chart, our earnings from last quarter were…um, excuse me, I need to step away for a moment.”

Where Do I Start?

You’ve convinced your boss to let you work from home, set up your space, and worked everything out with your family. Now what?

If your employer is already used to people telecommuting, there’s little else you need to do. Find the pattern that works best for you through experimentation. Do you prefer your face-to-face work first thing in the morning and prefer the afternoon for uninterrupted productive work, or do you like to roll out of bed straight into your tasks? Put a coffee machine in your office or use these break times to visit with your family for a few minutes? Working from home successfully is a series of small improvements. Don’t give up. It takes some work, but it’s more than worth it.

If you are one of the first to telecommute, it’s going to be up to you to set a good example and prove that it’s a feasible work arrangement for your company. Keep in contact with your boss as much as, if not more than, you do while in the office. Be responsive to all communication, again at least as responsive as you are in the office. Likely, you’ll need to be even more on top of responding to other people. There will be an assumption by some coworkers that you’re sitting in your underwear, playing video games, and just checking your phone every once in a while. Others might think you’re spending all day with your kids, using telecommuting as an excuse to save on child care costs. Respond to instant messages immediately, even if it’s with something like, “Let me look at that when I get to a good stopping point.”

In addition to communication, there may be infrastructure that needs to be set up for telecommuters. Many companies have VPN access for their employees or are moving to a decentralized solution for all work resources. If you have input into the decision process, I recommend the second. Your IT team may be awesome, but they will never be able to affordably provide the up-time that a commercial solution can. If you find yourself more than once making the excuse, “The VPN was down,” for why you couldn’t do something, you probably need to give up on telecommuting or convince your employer to move resources offsite. Here are just a few of the cloud solutions I either currently use or have used successfully in the past. Some are software development specific, but do a little research, and you’ll probably find something that fits your needs regardless of your industry.

Slack: Instant messaging that can replace interoffice e-mail and phone calls altogether. Go with the paid plans for access to archives and more file storage as well as group voice calls. You can also integrate custom applications such as RightGIF to share fun animated GIFs or build your own custom integrations. (I created an XKCD Fetcher Bot that fetches XKCD comics by number, search term, or randomly. You know, the important stuff.)
Join.me: Voice and video conferencing with chat and screen sharing.
Visual Studio Team Services: Single source for work tracking, code repositories, and continuous integration. Integrates into Visual Studio.
BambooHR: Time off requests, benefits information, and other HR resources.
Salesforce: CRM.

Working from home can be challenging, particularly as a parent, but with these tips and a little extra effort, the rewards can be…fulfilling.

Sky rockets in flight…

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