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Jenifer McEnery

About Jenifer

Telecommuting is a 21st Century Possibility – Part 2

Does Telecommuting make sense for you?

What you should consider before proposing to telecommute?

It was almost 9 p.m. in Budapest when the bat flew passed my head. It was only 3 p.m. in Hyde Park, New York though and I had a meeting. Other than at the zoo, I had never been so close to this rumored bloodsucking creature. But because the doors didn’t close in my pre-war apartment, I had to suppress the desire to shriek and run so I could professionally participate in a project meeting taking place across the ocean.

I pulled it off successfully. I think. As my colleagues and I discussed the budgetary needs and importance of distance learning technology, no one seemed aware that a bat was dive-bombing my head. (Sidebar: I have since grown to love bats and appreciate their contributions to the ecosystem.)

Telecommuting isn’t the same as freelancing. Unlike freelancers, telecommuters work for an organization and not for themselves. Therefore, there are different expectations regarding where, when, and how you work.

In my case, I was expected to keep my regular business hours — Eastern Standard Time. That meant I was working from 2 pm until about 10 pm Budapest time. The good news is that as an employee you will likely be eligible for benefits including health insurance, retirement, and vacation. The not-so-fun business of paying taxes is also taken care of by the employer.

Depending on your personal work style preferences, the nature of your work and organization, telecommuting may or may not be ideal. If you thrive on the social aspect of office life, telecommuting may not suit you. I spent most of my days alone with very little human contact (save my husband and the barista at the corner café).

For those of you who have visions of lounging on a beach drinking margaritas while typing away on your grant proposal, I need to pop that fantasy bubble for you. First, you will work harder and longer hours than ever before to demonstrate productivity.

It isn’t that you actually have more work or that you don’t work hard already, but simply that your results will be the only indicator that you are working. You will need to make twice the effort to be heard and seen, and when technology acts up, you won’t be able to sit back with colleagues complaining about the IT department (not that anyone does this in the office). Instead you will be the one scrambling to troubleshoot errors so as to avoid any suggestion that the arrangement might not work.

If you have no problem working alone and the possibility of working harder, longer hours doesn’t intimidate you, then the next step is to assess whether the arrangement will work with your current responsibilities and benefit your organization.

There are several issues to consider when assessing whether you and your position can transition to a telecommuting arrangement.

Deal Breakers

  • Does your job currently require your physical presence? I probably don’t need to point out that telecommuting full-time isn’t going to work if your job requires you regularly access information or materials only available on site for security purposes, host regular site visits, or manage high-maintenance staff. However, you may be able to negotiate a part-time telecommuting position.
  • Have you consistently demonstrated high performance, and can you maintain the expected quantity and quality of work while telecommuting?  If you even hesitate to answer “yes,” reconsider telecommuting as an option. Telecommuting will require extra effort to keep informed about projects and on schedule with deadline related tasks. If you aren’t performing at a high level in the office, it is doubtful that you will be able to convince your employer that you will be able to perform at a high level out of the office. Furthermore, if you are unable to maintain the quantity or quality of work needed by your employer, it will likely affect the workload of colleagues and compromise the overall performance of the office.
  • Are you and your supervisor comfortable using the necessary technology to perform your job? If you plan to communicate and share written communication primarily through video conferencing, email, fax, or a document sharing resource, and neither you or your supervisor are familiar or comfortable using this technology, it will be difficult to achieve high performance. You will want to assess how comfortable other colleagues you regularly work with are with using the necessary technology as well.
  • Does the organization have enough IT support for telecommuter positions? This is an important consideration because although you may have access theoretically to the same systems on site as off, small changes in laptop settings, systems upgrades, etc. could wreck havoc on your seamless transition to a telecommuter. In addition, the need for IT support will likely increase because you will be using technology and related tools more frequently. If your system does not work and IT support is unavailable, you are simply out of luck.

Other Considerations

  • Does your organization have a telecommuting policy? A telecommuting policy may help protect employers against liability or the appearance of bias. In the absence of a telecommuting policy, it may be more difficult to negotiate a position. In my case, I wrote a recommendation for a telecommuting policy based on best practices instituted at other similar organizations. This step allowed the organization to move forward with evaluating my request without getting distracted by the policy-making process.
  • Do you need access to sensitive documents and will storing/accessing these documents off site (hard or electronic copies) conflict with the organization’s security policies? Compromising donor information is not good business. I was issued a secure login and a company computer for the sole purpose of storing sensitive information. Fortunately, most of the files I needed were available electronically through an electronic filing system.
  • Will you require additional office support and do you have a good relationship with your colleagues and supervisor? If you are not on site to retrieve signatures, gather documents, scan necessary supplementary materials, or even mail proposals or grants, you will likely need an office liaison who will support your position. I was fortunate to have some great colleagues who were willing to barter tasks and ultimately support my administrative needs in exchange for additional research and writing support. If you don’t have good relationships with your colleagues and supervisor, you will struggle to get what you need.
  • Are you a good communicator? If you want to stay in the loop, you will need to communicate regularly with your on-site colleagues. A significant amount of information in the office is shared by passing information along via the grapevine or informal conversation (rather than in a formal document or meeting). Finding other ways to stay on top of changes will require some creativity and the ability to ask the right questions. Instant messaging is a great way to send quick updates back and forth. This allowed me to catch up daily with the executive assistant for the vice president of my division and other colleagues. Using Skype, I could have a quick face-to-face chat with my supervisor over morning coffee. Even now that I am back on site, Twitter and Facebook status updates have become great resources for tidbits shared by employees throughout my organization.

If you are confident that telecommuting is still for you, then you are in a good position to propose and negotiate the position. In Part 3, I’ll share some tips for taking the next step.


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