Telecommuting road rules

I’ve been telecommuting for the past 4 years and since it appears to be a growing trend, (indeed, the future of knowledge working) I figured it would be helpful to put down some of the more helpful tips I’ve learned for anyone starting out.

1. Connectivity

This might seem obvious, but having a good, reliable, and fast internet connection is absolutely crucial if you want to do any real work. Look for the fastest service available with a trusted provider. Don’t be afraid to shop around every couple of years to make sure you continue using the best provider. You’ll want something that can handle video and audio streaming.

As you work remotely, you will also want to invest in mobile equipment like a good laptop ((..and netbook! It is also important to note that you’ll be better served with backups. It is far better to have 2 $1,000 laptops rather than 1 $2,000 laptop. If one breaks, you have a spare. Remember, downtime is your enemy.)), laptop bag ((Essential when you are not just working remotely from your house which you’ll want to do eventually to take full advantage of your telecommuting freedom)), and data-enabled cell phone for the times when you want to take a “telecation” ((This is a vacation where you plan on working relatively normal hours, but you are able to take breaks in between work to join your family in normal vacation activities.)).

Finally, the ability to receive and respond to simple emails and text messages has now become an expectation. Not that you have to necessarily respond to each email the minute it comes in, but you do need to at least be mindful of what’s going on in your office so that you can be prepared when you get back to your “office”.

2. Communication

Most managers are still very leery about the amount of work that a telecommuter actually gets done compared to the employees they can walk around and watch (and, in some cases, micromanage). Sit down with your manager(s) and get detailed expectations on tasks you are expected to perform.

Use a variety of forms of communication, don’t just rely on email. Sign up for a Skype, AIM, gTalk, etc. account for instant communication. While you’re at it, you might want to get a program like Pidgin or Digsby to help you manage all those accounts. Take web conferencing tools like WebEx and GoToMeeting out for a spin, use them to “conference” with distant relatives or friends to get a feel for it.

Ping your coworkers and supervisors regularly to gage how things are going. It is far better to be proactive and risk learning that someone is unhappy with your performance than it is to bury your head in the sand and assume all is well. Remember, out of site is often out of mind and if you haven’t been heard from recently then it is easier for you to be targeted by office politics.

3.  Discipline

There are a variety of professional skills that are helpful to develop in order to help you succeed, but none is more crucial to the telecommuter than discipline. One of the greatest blessings and curses of the telecommuter is distractions that can, if left unchecked, threaten to destroy your productivity.

The blessing is that you generally get to spend time you otherwise wouldn’t get to spend with your family and kids. For example, when I am working from home my children often come downstairs to my office to tell me good morning and to let me know when breakfast and lunch are ready. This also means I get to eat lunch and breakfast with them during the day rather than with my coworkers. Not that I have anything against my coworkers, but I would much rather spend the time with my children and wife. After all, this is one of the major incentives of telecommuting.

The curse is that the less time you spend actually working, the less productive you are and the more your employer starts to wonder whether it’s worth it to have you work remotely. If left unchecked for too long, time spent away from the work you are getting paid to do begins to look like you are essentially stealing from the company that you are working for rather than providing them with a valuable service on mutually agreeable terms.

Set time limits, both with personal interruptions (my children know that during the day Daddy has to work) as well as work-based interruptions (in poorly managed companies, telecommuting has a tendency to turn into a license to expect that you’ll work around the clock). Prioritize your work, remove distractions, and make a conscious decision to stick with your set goals and tasks.

Ultimately discipline is a form of self-control which, like a muscle, has to be built up bit by bit.

Telecommuting is fun and very rewarding. When talking with a fellow teleworker recently about office space and work environments we both agreed that no window office in any part of the building can beat the window office in our home office.