Lessons for telecommuters include planning, commitment

No matter what our job, most of us work at home at least some of the time these days. Whether it’s sending e-mails from the home computer, having a phone conference with clients halfway around the world or just reading industry materials, many of us have taken our work home with us at one time or another.

At the same time, however, many employers balk at the idea of employees working at home all the time. Whether it’s some antiquated notion that employees can’t possibly be working if they’re not physically in a cubicle at work or the fact that managers may favor employees who are in the office more, telecommuting often fails for some very simple reasons.

Nancy DeLay, an organizational psychologist and telecommuting expert at Kenexa, says that one of the biggest problems is that employees themselves don’t set up their home-based work to be successful.

“I think the biggest mistake is that employees don’t personally define their boundaries – both physical and psychological – while working at home,” she says. “You’ve got to have a dedicated space that not only helps others recognize that you’re working, but you’ve also got to be able to walk through a door at home and know that it’s time to put your work hat on.”

Further leading to problems is the fact that those who work from home also fail to set up boundaries regarding their work schedules, DeLay says. Specifically, telecommuters may check their work e-mail at midnight, or even take work on vacations. “It can become very difficult to separate the work life and the private life,” she says, adding that such work habits can quickly lead to burnout.

DeLay also argues that telecommuting can fail if not fully supported from the top down. That means that if a company says it supports employees working from home, then the CEO needs to make sure that direct supervisors are following through with that support.

“You shouldn’t be managing someone who telecommutes differently than any other employee,” DeLay says. “You should be looking at productivity, not who is in the office every day. Mid-level managers can very subtly kill the program if there isn’t good support.”

DeLay also notes another problem that plagues telecommuters: isolation. Workers who labor from home can become so distant from co-workers and bosses that their ability to move up may be hampered.

That’s why it’s important, she says, to clearly define how the telecommuting arrangement will work so that both the employee and the employer benefit. She suggests:

  • Remaining visible. Telecommuters often find it the most beneficial to only work from home two or three days a week. “This seems to best balance the time spent at home and time spent in the office with co-workers and the boss,” DeLay says. “While you can be very productive working at home without all the distractions, some things are just better done face-to-face in the office.”
  • Managing expectations. “I let co-workers know that when I work from home, they need to schedule meetings with me just as if I was in the office,” she says. “At the same time, they know that when I’m working from home, it’s a quiet, focused time and I don’t want a lot of interruptions.”
  • Leave the door open. Telecommuting is not for everyone. Some workers find they feel lonely, isolated and unable to concentrate. They need the structure of a formal working environment in order to thrive. “Never feel like a failure because you decide to go back to the office,” DeLay says. “Some jobs are just not conducive to working at home.”
  • Consistent technology. Any home office should be equipped not only with the physical pieces (computers, faxes, phones, etc.) you need to get the job done, but the tech support needed to make sure work flows smoothly. “Technology should facilitate, not frustrate,” DeLay says.
  • Child care. Many companies require telecommuters to have proof of outside child care for children under the age of 5. DeLay says that anyone who thinks caring for children while working from home is imagining the impossible.

“Really, the bottom line is that in order for telecommuting to be truly successful, it must become part of the fabric of the corporate culture,” she says. “It must just be considered a way that you do business.”

Anita Bruzzese is author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy…and How to Avoid Them,” (Perigee). Write to her c/o: Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, Va. 22107. For a reply, include an SASE.