Living

Working From Home

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Working from home
Several months ago I took advantage of my company’s telecommuting policy and now work from home, but it’s isolating and not nearly as productive as I thought. How can I make it work?

By Karen Wright
First published in Chatelaine’s August 2002 issue.
© Karen Wright

You might feel alone in your frustration, but your problem is more common than you may realize. The grass always seems greener for telecommuters–being in complete control of your time, working without distractions and not having to conform to the rules and work styles of others seems like Utopia for most–until it becomes reality. Then the loneliness, lack of direction, lack of stimulation and sense of being trapped in your own home start to take over. Here are a few ways to make virtual work work:

Keep your work hat on
Most of the distance or virtual workers I know (no matter whether they work for a company or independently) struggle with the many distractions available at home, especially when faced with a difficult work assignment. Sometimes even doing the laundry can look more appealing. Try to remember, though, that you’re at work, even if you’re at home.

A strict routine can help. Get up at the same time every day, have breakfast and go the office just as if you had to commute, even if your commute is four metres down the hall in your bunny slippers. Set up your workday the same way you would if you were in an office, with coffee breaks and a lunchtime. Leave the domestic tasks until after work hours or put in that load of laundry during a coffee break. If you’re easily distracted, implementing some structure in your day will be critical to making your virtual arrangement work.

Keep contact with the outside world
No matter what new technological advances increase our ability to work at a distance, humans still need to connect with other humans.

Set up regular meetings in your company’s office so they still remember your face. Put on pants with a waistband, a top with buttons and real shoes, just to make sure you still remember how. Get out for lunch once a week or so to keep your network alive and to maintain your ability to converse with other people. Look for projects that require working collaboratively, even at a distance, in order to ensure you’ve got the stimulation and energy that come from working on a problem with others.

Beware of e-mail
Working from home can make you feel lonely, which can cause you to do odd things such as booking bogus cable-repair visits or waiting eagerly at the door for the FedEx guy, just so you’ll have someone to talk to. Most often, though, the virtual worker falls prey to one common time vampire–e-mail. To avoid this time drain, keep your e-mail program off except for a couple of specific times during the day when you’ll read and respond to whatever you need to. If you find yourself gravitating to e-mail often, it probably means you’re either trying to avoid doing something difficult or you’re lonely and you need to connect, either by phone or in person, with someone else. Sometimes all you may need is just a few words of support and encouragement to keep yourself on track.

Ask for what you need
Since telecommuting is a relatively new workplace phenomenon, most employers are learning about it as they go, right along with the telecommuters. The opportunity lies in being the one to take the initiative and help your employer construct virtual work arrangements that will suit everyone concerned. If you need different kinds and frequency of information than you did when you were working in the office–such as a weekly e-mail giving you important updates and feedback–ask for them. If the occasional real meeting with live people will facilitate the progress of your work, set it up. Tell your company what changes could be made to make the arrangement work better, so the company learns along with you.

The more aware you are of what you need, the greater your chances of making telecommuting a success. Knowing your strengths and limitations, and configuring your work to accommodate both, will make the new arrangement a winning strategy for everybody.

For more information about working virtually, check out Free Agent Nation (Warner) by Daniel H. Pink or Work Naked: Eight Essential Principles for Peak Performance in the Virtual Workplace (Jossey-Bass) by Cynthia C. Froggatt.

Through her company, Parachute Executive Coaching, Karen Wright helps people in career transition achieve their goals.