Advantages

How To Be a Top Telecommuter

Even reps who aren’t full-time telecommuters sometimes work remotely. Here are success tips everyone can learn from. By Melinda Rizzo

Some were outraged by CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision in early 2013 mandating that all remote Yahoo employees return to the office. That sentiment makes sense. People have various reasons for working offsite, and with discipline and a positive attitude, their work doesn’t suffer as a result.

Studies show that telecommuters can actually be more productive. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnaylytics.com, more than two-thirds of employers report increased productivity among their telecommuters.

One in five is the number of Americans who work from home at least part of the time, with that number expected to explode over the next five years, according to a Forbes online business report.  What follows is savvy advice from those who make a living where they live.

Allow Wiggle Room

Flexible schedules and flexible workstyles are among the top reasons cited for choosing to switch to work from home. This paradigm shift makes telecommuters a growing force with which to be reckoned.

“Balancing work and personal time is a definite plus,” says Kim Titka, customer support representative for Proforma Green Marketing (asi/300094). In addition to schedule flexibility, which was a goal for Titka when her family needs became more demanding, taking advantage of her body’s natural rhythms allowed her to be a more productive employee.
   
“I am a night owl, and my schedule allows me to work off hours when there are fewer interruptions. But to be successful, you have to be disciplined,” Titka cautions.

Allow deadlines to drive the work day, but plan enough wiggle room for such emergencies as caring for a sick child, doctor’s appointments, or other life interruptions, she says. This perspective may bring more balance between the work vs. home life struggle many office workers regularly face.

If the goal is to provide more family time (no commute!) or to cover a crisis such as a lengthy illness or recovery or surgery, telecommuting may offer a temporary flexible work option, too.

It goes without saying, too, that telecommuting is a green employment option as fewer car trips translate to a smaller carbon footprint. Other cost savings might include fewer work wardrobe costs and fewer daytime restaurant meals. Initial set-up office costs could mean an investment in the home workspace, but those one-time costs may be tax deductible, provided they are dedicated exclusively to work, says Cheri H. Freeh, a certified public accountant and a principal of Hutchinson, Gillahan & Freeh, P.C. in Quakertown, PA.

Set Up Shop and Establish Routines

The sweetest success is mined from setting a regular routine, having a designated workspace for most tasks and creating a framework that gets results.

The home office should be usable and efficient. By the same token, it needs to be off-limits to anything other than business uses. This cardinal rule is especially important if deductions are claimed for federal or state tax purposes.

Efficient equipment is key. High-speed internet access, WiFi, a laptop or desktop computer with large memory and storage capacity, reliable phone and voice mail, along with any company-supplied software or hardware is a must for telecommuters.

Emily LaRusch, founder of Back Office Betties, a virtual receptionist company based in Phoenix, AZ,  says she invested in a Plantronics headset with a noise cancelling feature, along with a large, second computer monitor.  “Add a wireless mouse and keyboard and I’m good to go,” LaRusch says of her work setup.

According to LaRusch, virtual employee retention is higher, too. She says her staff finds the flexible lifestyle worth the trade-off of a “few dollars more per hour” working for an onsite call center.

Despite the flexibility, however, it’s important to establish a routine, even though you may veer away from it occasionally. But that’s no different than working onsite.  A company work day sets the home office stage, but deadlines are another matter.

For those with deadline-driven work, getting the job done could mean creating an unconventional schedule, like Titka did, which optimizes her natural creative times. For others, matching home office hours to a headquarters-based time zone means shifting the workday to accommodate schedules.

“I work and am logged into the same hours as my peers, offset by the time (difference),” says Carol Jecmen, Century Club sales support representative for Kaeser & Blair Inc. (asi/238600). Jecmen works remotely from St. Louis, MO, using the company phone system to report to the home office in Cincinnati, OH.

Stay Top of Mind

Nancy Lewellen, another Century Club sales support representative for Kaeser & Blair Inc., says she faces the same challenges as any onsite office employees, plus a few others. She has 38 years in the industry, 17 with Kaeser & Blair, and works from a home office located in Red Oak, IA.

Lewellen says instant and text messaging keep her in touch, but that it’s not the same as being in an office environment. “It can be lonely,” she says, of the lost face-time and group interaction with peers.

But there are ways around it and plenty of opportunities to stay in sight and in mind. Remain engaged with clients and colleagues by using Skype, webinars or other team meet-up opportunities. Be available whenever possible for onsite meetings, or find other ways to stay engaged. Of course, telecommuting sales reps will still meet regularly with clients and prospects.

“Make the effort to hold regular group meetings that have all team members in attendance, whether in person, or by phone or video,” says Jean Cook, TAB business coach and certified facilitator.

Set Up Boundaries and Manage Distractions

A regular work schedule then validates the home office, cues colleagues and clients, and makes it clear to family and friends that work hours are off limits for anything but emergency interruptions.

Chris Clark, managing director for Print it Promote It (asi/303927), began telecommuting in 2005. Clark says his biggest challenge has been managing family members’ needs while working from a home office. “You can’t allow personal life to interfere with your job,” he says. “Having a schedule you and your family respect makes it all work.”

Nancy Brumm lives in Troy, MI, but telecommutes as a Century Club sales support representative for Kaeser & Blair to the home office in Batavia, OH. Her top tips, like Clark’s, include: training family and friends that telecommuting means working. “During working hours, you are not available for drop-by visits or personal phone calls,” she says and agrees it’s important to regularly stay connected with superiors or clients.

Minimize distractions by taking the work seriously. While it’s easy to do household chores while checking an email or sending a fax, resist the temptation to multitask, and the loss of focus it can bring.

In addition to those personal distractions, the technology that has made it possible for telecommuters to work remotely can also be a double-edged sword and can create a sinkhole of distraction and reduced productivity, according to Maren Kate Donovan, chief executive officer of Zirtual, based in Las Vegas, NV.

Donovan says scheduling activities and planning calls, along with setting up parameters for handling email, go a long way toward keeping the workday organized and productive and reduce distractions. “Block off specific times of day when you are allowed to check email,” Donovan suggests. That said, it’s important to provide various ways in which bosses and colleagues can contact you.

Donovan says hiring an in-person assistant or a virtual one to help with routine tasks, actually helps entrepreneurs keep on track and increases productivity.

Note that there are also tools to help you stay focused while online. One, in fact, is aptly named StayFocusd. Others include KeepMeOut and Cold Turkey. Google “online tools to block distractions” for more options.

Taking Care Of Business

For firms offering flexible work options, including telecommuting, retaining valuable talent is good for business. According to a study by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, $10,000 to $30,000 is the employee cost to companies who lose a key staff member.

Jecmen has been working from home for about a year and a half.  A Kaeser & Blair Inc. 14-year veteran, she moved back to St. Louis to care for aging parents, convincing management she could telecommute and keep her job. “I wanted to be closer to my parents who are in their 80s,” Jecmen says.

Jecmen’s move set the stage for others to follow suit. “I work remotely from St. Louis, and there are about a half dozen of us now in the field,” she says. “I pitched the idea and management bought into it.”

Telecommuting can be a way for those with disabilities, too, to become or remain employed, according to Dana Marlowe, principal partner of Accessibility Partners, LLC. “It can provide the best accommodations for our employees who might not be as productive in a typical office setting,” Marlowe says. “People with disabilities make up 20% of the population in the United States, yet they are dramatically underutilized in the workforce.”

Melinda Rizzo is a PA-based freelance writer.