Telecommuting: Principles for improved performance working from a home-based office

homeoffice

Shortly after taking the helm of Yahoo in 2012, CEO Marissa Mayer announced that work from home arrangements of hundreds of employees were coming to an abrupt halt. Mayer’s move bucked a trend—and still seems somewhat odd for an “innovative” tech company—and opened anew the debate of whether the home office was an appropriate option for those desiring flexible work schedules. A number of studies have indicated the positives of telecommuting (see DuBrin, 1991; Duxbury, Higgins, & Neufeld, 1998; Gerstner & Day, 1997; Raghuram & Wiesenfeld, 2004; Sousa-Poza & Sousa-Poza, 2000; Standen et al., 1999; Viswesvaran, Sanchez, & Fisher, 1999). So was Mayer out of her mind to risk alienating so many good employees in a single fell swoop? Time will tell, but we won’t answer that question today.

Gajendran and Harrison (2007), in a more recent meta-analysis of the psychological mediators and individuals’ consequences of telecommuting, tempered their findings of many overwhelmingly positive outcomes of work from home arrangements with several qualifiers and caveats. Without getting too detailed, I agree with Gajendran and Harrison that there are many cautious positives to telecommuting, but when I spent nearly two years working from home I discovered several principles that helped me to improve my performance working from a home office whether for my own business, for a contractor, or for a remote employer. I trust some of these principles will help you be a more effective telecommuter, remote worker, or home office executive.

 

Check in with the boss

When telecommuting, don’t fall into the out-of-sight-out-of-mind trap by forgetting your coworkers and your boss. Although you may use the phone, IM, email and social media to communicate and collaborate with your coworkers and fellow team members, the most important contact at the other end is your immediate superior: the boss. You should always have regular contact with your supervisor be it daily, every other day, or weekly via video chat, Skype, telephone, texting, or an email summary report. They will want to especially be kept in the loop on your progress with projects and special assignments. Most will also want to know when you’re struggling and need additional resources and help to get the job done.

Some ancient management theory type managers will want to know that you’re being kept “busy”—busy for them equals money well spent—while modern management types will want to know that you’re being effective and efficient at your work. While old school managers will want an itinerary type listing of activities—you’ll want to look busy, modern managers will value more thorough details such as those relating to your activities that strongly indicate purpose and progress in your job. They will not value more veneer minutiae such as a simple report of clock hours. So keep regular contact with your immediate supervisor and make sure they know you’re doing your job well.

 

Dress up for appointments and meetings

You have probably heard the stories about someone working from home in your pajamas. Although I sometimes do this myself, I’m neither a huge fan of doing that every single day nor the philosophy behind that way of thinking. I will allow that you can probably get away with dressing down on most days, but you need to at least be halfway ready if you get called into the office for a face-to-face meeting. A good rule of thumb might be to dress as you would for casual days at the office.

Whether I plan to attend an in-person meeting, a virtual meeting via Skype, or a teleconference, I always got into the right frame of mind by dressing up for the occasion—as I would if I were going into the office for a face-to-face meeting. I may be old fashioned, but I still believe that you feel a certain way—more business-like—when you dress up. There’s a certain level of confidence that comes with looking your best. I know for some of us that may takes more work than for others, but I feel it is important if for no other reason than your self-respect.

 

Avoid all annoyances

In any home environment, there are a number of potential distractions that need to be addressed. Your family and friends must understand that you are actually “working.” Constant interruptions will not allow you to be efficient and effective. This is not to say that you shouldn’t have some advantage to actually being in your home while you’re working—there can be—but you’ll want interruptions to be the exception and not the rule. You’ll also want to ensure that your family understands how important the “time and space” set aside in your home is to your career and those for who you work. Make this work for you and your employer, not everyone else.

You should have a specific room or space set aside for your office. For me, I kept mine as far away from the entertainment and sleeping quarters as possible. You may not always have this luxury, and those areas of the house may not be a temptation to you. It may be the exercise room or the kitchen. I love dogs, cats, and other animals—I’m an animal lover—but I have never been a big fan of animals in the house. They make noise and make messes. These are unnecessary distractions. If you have pets, make sure they are located far from your office. This is part of the tradeoff of convenience and inconvenience. It’s all perspective and priorities.

 

Keep regular hours

You may get some guidance from your boss, but beyond those general guidelines, make sure you have scheduled yourself each week to be productive. If you have a 40 hour job, schedule yourself for no less than 40 hours per week. If you have an exempt position, always schedule yourself at least 50 hours of work and scale back as appropriate. If you have a genuine telecommuting position, you will probably have flexible work hours that allow you somtime managmente freedom of when you complete your work. I will talk more about structuring your schedule in due course.

I recommend that you determine when you get your best work done. Try to capitalize on those times to work more consecutive hours. Save other times for errands, doctor’s appointments, and grocery store runs. But don’t be too stingy with your best hours or eat your lunch at your desk every day. Make sure to save some premium time for your family who well-deserve your very best too!

The “best working times” may not be the same day-parts for everyone, and this is precisely why telecommuting can be so effective. In the traditional grind, the drones all collect and disperse at the same time every day regardless of whether they are at their best or not, but when telecommuting you can work at your best by selecting to work those hours when you know you can get your best work done.

 

Note Deadlines and Always Make appointments

I have found that telecommuting is much more effective when your time is structured with some flexibility. Along with keeping regular hours, you can structure your days with a schedule—a schedule that is anchored by appointments, meetings, and deadlines. Set deadlines and stick to them—don’t let the kid’s school call and take advantage of your situation. After all, you made the choice of having a home office, so make it work to your advantage.

There are several books and whole doctrines of research on time management, but I have one simple tip that will be relevant for most any telecommuter that I learned from Frank Bettger. In his classic book, How I raised myself from failure to success in sales, Bettger details his journey from rags to riches as a salesperson, but one time-management principle particularly made sense to me: appointments. If someone wants to see you, make an appointment. If someone wants a teleconference, make an appointment. And then treat those appointments as organically as you would if you were actually sitting in the same office building. Keep those appointments without fail. People will expect that if anyone can be flexible, it ought to be you. So when you make an appointment, make them happen.

 

Conclusion

The jury is still out as to whether Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made the right decision curtailing the work from home arrangements of hundreds of employees, but telecommuting and home offices continue to be a growing trend. If you and your employer decide that this arrangement might work for your mutual benefit, consider carefully all of the tradeoffs and the consequences of your choices. There are more than just “good” or “bad” choices per se’. There are usually a few bad choices, some really good choices, and then there are the best choices. Hopefully these principles I have shared will assist you as you consider if working from home is the right choice for you, your family, and your employer.

 

 

References

Bettger, F. (1992). How I raised myself from failure to success in sales, New York: Touchstone.

DuBrin, A. J. (1991). Comparison of the job satisfaction and productivity of telecommuters versus in-house employees: A research note on work in progress. Psychological Reports, 68, 1223–1234.

Duxbury, L., Higgins, C., & Neufeld, D. (1998). Telework and the balance between work and family: Is telework part of the problem or part of the solution? In M. Igbaria & M. Tan (Eds.), The virtual workplace (pp. 218–255). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Gajendran, R. S. & Harrison, D. A. (2007). The good, the bad, and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of psychological mediators and individuals consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(6), 1524-1541.

Gerstner, C. R. & Day, D. V. (1997). Meta-analytic review of leader–member exchange theory: Correlates and construct issues. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 827–844.

Raghuram, S. & Wiesenfeld, B. (2004). Work-nonwork conflict and job stress among virtual workers. Human Resource Management, 43, 259–277.

Sousa-Poza, A. & Sousa-Poza, A. A. (2000). Well-being at work: A cross-national analysis of the levels and determinants of job satisfaction. Journal of Socio-Economics, 29, 517–538.

Stanton, J. M., Sinar, E. F., Balzer, W. K., Julian, A. L., Thoresen, P., Aziz, S., et al. (2002). Development of a compact measure of job satisfaction: The abridged Job Descriptive Index. Educational & Psychological Measurement, 62, 173–191.

Viswesvaran, C., Sanchez, J. I., & Fisher, J. (1999). The role of social support in the process of work stress: A meta-analysis. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 54, 314–334.