Telecommuting – it’s the dream of everyone who has sat in traffic each morning. Being able to wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and sit on your back deck, slipper-clad feet propped up, with your computer on your lap answering e-mail and working on your documents. And you could probably sell it to your organization as a way to be eco-friendly, more productive, and reduce the size of their office. It may also help as the company expands office overseas. But there is a catch (there always is, isn’t there?) – the dream may not match reality, and not knowing what to expect can lead to a rude awakening when you start working remotely.

Before you start working virtually (as opposed to virtually-working), assess yourself – are you the type of person that gets easily distracted? Do you need the interaction of your fellow office workers? Are you a face-to-face person and will struggle if you don’t have that communication with your fellow workers? What is the culture of the organization that you are working for and their expectations? Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses will help you understand what you need during your virtual workday.

  • Keep your morning routine. This may seem counter-intuitive for the telecommuter. “After all,” you think, “I’m not actually travelling to the office, so who cares what I look like (let’s assume that you aren’t using video conference calls from your webcam)?” Getting up at your regular time, showering, and dressing will help you feel as though it is a “work” day as opposed to a weekend day. By keeping your morning routine, you will feel more professional and it will feel more like work.
  • The laundry can wait. Remember that you are still working, and that you will probably have pressures that will try and pull you away from your work. The laundry will need to get done, the groceries will need to be purchased, coupons will need to get clipped. If you don’t separate your two worlds, you could get sucked into doing the domestic tasks instead of the true work. Establish rules with your family – when you are “working”, you can only be contacted through Instant Message (IM), e-mail, etc. Being at home doesn’t mean that you can just pop-off and pick up the kids from soccer practice, and then stop by and pick up groceries, etc. Remember, these things don’t get done when you travel to the office, so why do they take higher priorities on the days that you work from home? Answer – they shouldn’t. To combat falling prey to this, I have found that going outside the house and working remotely helped me a lot (next tip below).
  • Go to your “office”. While you will not be traveling to your company’s (or client’s) office, you need to go someplace that you can separate work from home. This may be a room in your house that you have created as an office, or it may be the local coffee shop or lunch establishment with free WiFi. The point is that you have to feel as though you are in a work environment instead of just being at home. And if you are working from the local coffee shop (or bookstore) for several hours, patronize the establishment. Not only will they be happy to have you there for the hours that you are there, but you are keeping them in business (which effectively lets them provide the establishment – your “office”). One more point – know when it’s appropriate to be at the coffee shop. You don’t want to have to get on video conference and have people making faces behind you on your webcam, or deal with the coffee-shop-vibe ambient noise.
  • Get comfortable with technology. You are not going to have 100% access to the office-guru who knows how to configure your e-mail client when you cannot connect. Know how to research computer issues and to support your own laptop, cable-modem, router, etc. And any time that you are using technology, make sure that you test it first – you don’t want to be presenting to the CIO when you learn that you need to download the latest version of the plug-in and it takes 15 minutes to download and install it.
  • Have regular checkpoints with your team. This is very important. Being a virtual worker means that you are not punching a clock. You have deliverables to produce, and the strength and quality of your deliverables are what you are going to be judged by. So, if you have a document that is due in 10 weeks, the ninth week is not the time to find out that you are only 10% complete. You want to be able to ensure that you are progressing on schedule. Week 1 should be 10%, week 2, 20%, etc. By ensuring that the team gets together on a regular schedule, you will be able to assess progress and make adjustments as necessary.
  • Polish your written communication. Your documents have to be even MORE polished and exact, because you will not have the immediate interaction with your team. I’m not saying that you should not have document turnover reviews, but as questions arise, your team members cannot stop by your office to discuss a confusing section of your document. Point is, the document has to be even more exact, maybe even more so than what you are used to. Making the documents that you write now more exact will help when you make the transition.
  • Understand the limits of technology. Sometimes, the e-mail chain just goes on and on and on and on (you get the idea). If it goes on for more than 3 back-and-forth replies (or if people are pulling the “reply to all” option), maybe e-mail is not the best communication to share the message. A better idea may be to set up a conference call so that the entire team can get together and discuss the situation and come to a common understanding. And when you do have a conference call and key decisions are made, make sure that someone (and it usually falls on the BA) documents the decisions and sends to the team for review so that all of you on the team are aware and have documentation of the situation.
  • Put the face with the name. I’m not saying that all of you should be on Facebook, but it’s nice to be able to put a face with a name. I have been training classes in organizations in which the first time that virtual team members see each other face to face is in my class. And this is after working together for years. Having a face to put with a name helps establish a relationship with the other person, instead of having them as a faceless entity. Think about it – when someone asks you for something, it is far easier to turn someone down or not respond whom you do not know than it is with someone who you have a relationship. While it’s great to be able to get together with the team every so often, maybe you can’t (such as working with a team overseas). Is there a way that you can have a directory with photos? Maybe a bio of team members so that you can help establish connections? It really helps for people to know each other.
  • Set work-time expectations. Noone is going to be checking up on you to see if you are going to be at your desk by 7:00am each morning. Set the expectations with your team so that they will know when you are going to be at your “desk”, and when you will not. And stick to your commitments. Be there when you say that you will be there, and people will know when they can expect a response from you and when it will have to wait until the next day. And since they cannot see you, update your status on your IM or iChat if you are going to lunch (and don’t forget to eat lunch, either! You’d do it if you were at work). This way, they know why you are not responding immediately to their request.
  • E-mail is not the only communication tool available. My daughter’s friend said, “no one uses e-mail anymore” but there’s no way that she can be in a business setting because it seems as though everyone thinks e-mail is the only tool to communicate. Sure, it’s convenient, but to my point above about understanding the limits of technology, it might not be the best medium for every person. You lose the non-verbal communication and tone-of-voice that communicates 90% of the message. Sometimes, picking up a phone and having a conversation works wonders. How about a video iChat? Facetime? Technology and broadband Internet connections are making video much clearer and usable for business. Use when appropriate. Also know the communication style of the person that you are communicating with. Some prefer e-mail, some phone, others text. Knowing the best way to communicate with each person will not only get you the information that you need faster, but it will help establish trust since they are using their preferred communication tool.
  • Plan your day. Just because you are at home, doesn’t mean that you just fire-up the laptop and start pounding away at your e-mails. You still have to plan your day and set priorities to make the best use of your time. This might be tougher since there’s no one there to look over your shoulder; you have to be extra-mindful of the planning that is required so that you can get your work completed.
  • Support a “pull” methodology for team documents. It’s far more convenient for all of the project team artifacts to be stored in a location where the entire team can access them. If they are all stored on a server in the “cloud”, team members can access the artifacts when they need them, where they need them. By e-mailing file attachments all over the place, you’ll find that it’s inconvenient to get the file when you need it, as well as run the risk of having the wrong version of a document. Waiting for a document can delay a project, and designing a solution using an incorrect version can be a disaster.

What do you think? Are there other tips that you have found that work well for you as a tele-worker or virtual worker?

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