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If it seems like everyone is working from home these days, it’s because so many people are doing just that. Research from Global Workplace Analytics shows that telecommuting has ballooned almost 80 percent in less than a decade. The number of telecommuters could reach as high as 1.3 billion in 2015, according to Torsten Raak, senior vice president of Unify, which specializes in technologies for virtual teams.
Who are all of these “home workers”? They’re more diverse than you might think. While stereotypes suggest that women, parents, and young people care the most about workplace flexibility, a Catalyst report on Flexibility vs. Face Time found that employees of both genders, all ages, and with and without kids value opportunities to work flexibly. In fact, men and women have an equal likelihood of using a flex option during their careers.
Catalyst’s study also busted the myth that flexible work arrangements are the exception, not the norm. The vast majority of respondents (81 percent) reported that they have opportunities to work flexibly in their current job, enjoying options such as compressed work weeks, telecommuting, part-time, job sharing, telecommuting, and flexible start and stop times. For each company that offers no flexible options, four other organizations do offer flex work.
There are some solid reasons why so many employees and employers alike are jumping on the flex-work bandwagon. At the most basic level, telework allows people the ability to get the job done wherever they are, instead of just from the office. “What has greatly changed in the workforce is that people work from wherever they happen to be,” explains Raak. “There has been a rise of the ‘anywhere worker,’ a professional who works on devices which weren’t thought to be possible a few years ago.”
Another compelling reason for the growing popularity of telecommuting is that it makes people feel better. Boston College Center for Work and Family reports that flexible work arrangements may help ease workers’ stress by affording better job and life satisfaction, as well as improving work-family balance. And don’t forget the financial benefits—recent stats released by PGi show that a full-time, dual-income family can save the equivalent of 21 first-class airline tickets, 22 weeks in a beach cottage, or 500 rounds of golf by telecommuting.
But there’s more to successfully telecommuting than hanging out at home in your flip flops. One major challenge is ensuring that your boss knows you’re busy working when you’re offsite, without needing to make yourself available 24/7.
Here’s some strategic advice on how telecommuters can keep both their job and their sanity intact:
At the heart of every successful telecommuting arrangement is trust. When your supervisor trusts you as an offsite worker, you’ll be able to spend your time on the job working instead of trying to prove that you’re doing so.
Setting the tone for a virtual working relationship based on trust can be best achieved when it’s considered from the outset. When you start a new telework position, make an effort to arrange a face-to-face meeting between yourself and your new boss to get to know each other as individuals and establish a relationship.
“Take initiative to increase contact and interaction with your boss,” says Rick Lepsinger, president of OnPoint Consulting. “If it is not feasible to meet in person, use video or the phone and schedule informal virtual coffee chats or a virtual lunch to compensate for a lack of in-person relationship building.” Over time, Lepsinger recommends balancing tasks with more informal discussions to stay connected and build trust. You might try calling your boss periodically, sending instant messages, or leaving voicemail messages to informally check in.
Inform But Don’t Overshare
Telecommuters face a daily dilemma: keeping their boss informed without constantly checking in. How much detail should you provide to document your progress without burdening your manager with an overflowing inbox? While bosses of virtual employees appreciate regular updates and communication, they don’t want to be barraged, according to Chris Dyer, founder and CEO of PeopleG2.
“Some bosses may want more frequent updates throughout the day while bosses like me would say ‘thou doth protest too much,’” says Dyer. He recommends developing a mutually agreed upon system of status reporting and regular phone calls that allow the workflow to be transparent. This helps to reinforce your accountability as an individual contributor without being overbearing to either party.
In terms of the nuts and bolts, Joseph Terach, founder and CEO of career management firm Resume Deli advises that those working remotely send emails, copying the boss, spaced throughout the work day. “Be sure to attach progressively more complete drafts of your work when you do,” says Terach. “This is a virtual time-stamp…it’s as if you’re punching the clock several times a day. Even the most telecommuter-phobic boss can’t argue with such proof of your diligence.”
While devising an effective virtual communication system between remote workers and managers can be done the old-fashioned way simply via a phone chat and basic calendaring, today’s technologies offer a range of shortcuts for those who prefer them. Carrie Basham Young, principal at Talksocialtome.com, suggests that using an enterprise social network for a virtual team or entire company with remote members can create an efficient balance of information-sharing without interrupting a manager’s workflow by emailing or calling.
In a company social network, telecommuters can not only give status updates to their managers, they can also connect with other telecommuters and in-office teammates in a virtual space,” explains Young, who telecommutes from her home office as a single mom of a toddler. “The result is a unified virtual space where everyone can share and read about others’ work. Managers can log in when they’re ready, see what their teams are working on, leave comments or questions as necessary, and move on to their other work. Fewer interruptions mean more productive workdays for everybody.”
Dyer adds that project management tools such as Basecamp can also help manage virtual information flow, as well as shared documents in Google Drive. “Bear in mind that the fine details really depend on the company and job at hand, as well as how many virtual employees a boss oversees,” says Dyer. “The employee should manage up to seek to develop systems if none are readily available. It will help them in the long run.”
Establish “Check-in” Guidelines
Telecommuters also need to walk a fine line between being accessible to their boss, and being constantly available. To avoid any misunderstandings, Terach urges remote workers to set expectations regarding their availability from day one.
“If you don’t want your boss to expect you to be available around-the-clock, then limit your availability,” says Terach. “Except for rare occasions when extra hours are absolutely necessary, don’t answer emails or phone calls before 8am or after 6pm, for example.” At the same time, Terach emphasizes the importance giving 100 percent during your regular work hours.
To that end, it’s important to make yourself accessible to your boss at certain predictable times. Lepsinger recommends ensuring that your boss knows how to contact you and when you will be available. “Some organizations use shared calendar systems to help virtual workers with scheduling and managing accessibility,” says Lepsinger. “In addition, it helps to establish guidelines for how and when to check in with one another.” As an example, he notes that while it may not be necessary to have weekly status updates, it may be very important to ensure that there are mechanisms in place to connect with your boss when there are problems or when key decisions need to be made.
If you keep these tips in mind, you should be able to get on the same page with your supervisor even when you’re working in different locations. If all else fails, take Terach’s advice and stick to the numbers: “If you’re given a task at 9am Monday that will take roughly 20 hours to complete, and you finish by mid-day Wednesday, it’s clear that you’re working,” says Terach. “That simple math is all you need to know in order to assure your boss that you’re working—and not goofing off—as a telecommuter.”