Where are you working right now? On your sofa? In a coffee shop with your earbuds in? From your tablet on an outdoor patio? If you work virtually—that is, "telecommute"—you're part of a fast-growing trend in the modern workforce. But like any new working practice, making telecommuting part of your usual routine takes some discipline and diligence.
According to research by the financial software company Intuit, nearly a quarter of U.S. workers telecommute for at least a few hours every week. Today, 67% of companies allow at least some employees to work at home occasionally, up from 50% in 2008, and 38% allowed some workers to do so on a regular basis, up from 23%, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In some places, telecommuting is already at the heart of the employee experience. About 43% of Aetna’s employees take part in work-at-home and other virtual arrangements, which the health care company has allowed for the past two decades. The software company GitHub boasts a fully distributed workforce of over 260 people working across the globe.
Those and other organizations see telecommuting as a great way for employees to keep a healthy work-life balance. But that flexibility can also create a few new challenges. Here are five strategies for working effectively while you're telecommuting.
"Communication is both the biggest obstacle and the solution to developing trust within remote teams," Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, tells me. Don't try to use only one tool to connect to your colleagues. Email, chat, phone, web, and video conferencing each have their own place. Pick a communication tool that will make sure the type of message you need to convey is heard and understood.
Email is great for tactical information, project updates, and sharing data. The phone works well when you need to brainstorm or solve a messier problem. Video conferencing is ideal for several people tackling a challenging topic and for sharing difficult news. Not only will you need to get comfortable using each of these technologies, you'll have to decide which ones work best in which situations. And don’t wait for your manager or co-worker to initiate a conversation—get ahead of the ball and reach out first.
If you're a manager, it can be difficult to stay present and available when you're telecommuting. Reach out to your team members regularly to set clear goals and expectations, offer support and assistance, and show you care about them as people, not just employees.
"When team members work remotely, it can be challenging to see the connection between their individual contributions and the overall success of the company," says Sutton Fell. Checking in consistently is key. When I worked remotely for a company before starting my own firm, my manager and I had regularly scheduled weekly phone calls. He also spent one day a month with me in my sales territory and always offered support and encouragement via email and voicemails. He even knew my dog’s name!
Working remotely means you can't count on passing a colleague in the hallway or in the break room to interact. You have to be deliberate about reaching out and connecting with your co-workers. Join the next team call a few minutes early just in order to chat and catch up. Schedule virtual lunch dates with your team members. Ask your manager for regular check-in calls or video conferencing sessions to share progress reports, review goals and bat around ideas.
There are plenty of free tools to help you do all this. ProBoards, for instance, is a free message board that's simple to use and has Android and iOS mobile apps. Otherwise, you'll soon find the old saying "out of sight, out of mind" holds true.
One of the virtual teams I work with has team members spread across six different countries. Many of them have never met their colleagues in person despite working together for over five years. When a new manager took over this team, she quickly realized the members needed to get to know each other outside their professional roles in order to form more solid working relationships based on trust. She now starts each team meeting—which takes place via video conference, so everyone can see each other—with one team member sharing photos from a recent vacation or outing or by sharing a favorite recipe. That may not sound like much, but it helped boost team members' engagement, making them more effective and efficient overall.
"It is important to recreate that 'water cooler' conversation that naturally occurs in a traditional office," Sutton Fell explains. Staying focused on work is important, but taking a moment to ask your colleagues about their weekends, hobbies, families and other personal activities strengthens those bonds and leads to a higher-functioning team.
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, made headlines when she scrapped Yahoo’s remote-work policy. But was telecommuting really to blame, or were Yahoo's productivity and engagement problems the result of company culture and poor management? Sutton Fell believes it probably wasn't "the 'remote' part of the work policy that was the problem; it was lack of oversight and clear definitions around work productivity, engagement, and communication."
Management gurus Carli Ressler and Jody Thompson pioneered an approach known as ROWE, or "results only work environments," where an employees' performance and productivity are measured only by the results they deliver. In order to hold workers accountable that way, companies first need to clearly define the output criteria and communication expectations for each role. Dynatronix, a ROWE-certified technology company, now averages a 90% on-time delivery rate, a 20% increase since piloting the ROWE method. At Choice Translating, a linguistics company, gross revenue grew 13.3% after switching to ROWE.
However a company chooses to do it, replacing vague expectations with concrete ones is even more crucial in virtual work environments, where the problems badly defined goals create are likely to be amplified.
There's a flip-side to that coin as well; a measure of personal responsibility goes a long way when telecommuting. Your productivity shouldn't flag by your own standards—your company's notwithstanding. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and adjust your routine to suit.