Ever since my full-time gig as Community Manager for Ziff Davis Media ended back in June, I’ve been looking around for a new gig by checking various job sites. I’ve been dismayed at how many job descriptions state that you must be in the office and that telecommuters are not invited to apply.
This strikes me as incredibly shortsighted on the part of these companies, particularly if the job in question involves managing online communities or dealing with social media in general. Why on Earth would you hire for a job that requires someone who basically eats, sleeps and breathes online, and then demand they spend part of their time actually going to and from an office instead of being online and in touch with your customers?
I’ve been telecommuting for the most part for the last 15 years or so either as a freelance writer or online community manager. (For a good overview of my career see my public LinkedIn profile.)
During that time, I’ve written for lots of different sites and publications, and almost never actually met my editors face to face. I’ve also worked as a freelance online community manager, and never met my bosses or most of the folks that participated in the communities that I managed.
Over the years, I’ve used mostly e-mail, instant messaging and phone conference calls to stay in touch, plan content, and do all the rest of the stuff that my work entailed. And the folks I’ve worked for and with have been all over the place. Some here on the East Coast of the U.S., some on the West Coast, some in Europe, and some in other places. Never once did I ever have a problem getting my work done; I was always at least as productive (if not more) than the folks that were back in the office.
In the next section, I’ll take a look at why telecommuting makes so much sense for businesses and employees.
Why Telecommuting Makes Sense
There are a number of reasons why telecommuting makes sense for employers and employees. Here are some that resonated the most with me, please feel free to add your own in the comments section below.
1. No office space needed. We’re in a tough economy right now, and employers need to cut costs wherever they can. One glaringly obvious place is in office space. Telecommuters don’t require physical space in your offices, they don’t require employers to pay for the electricity they use while on their computers, and they don’t require employers to pay for heating or cooling.
2. Fewer distractions. One of the things that used to drive me up the wall when I was working in an office was continually being distracted by other employees. This involved everything from people talking loudly on the phone to people coming into my work area to share office gossip or otherwise engage in some chitchat. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to socialize with your coworkers. But those distractions can cost you valuable time when you’re trying to work. At home I can simply go into my office, close the door and focus on the task at hand. If necessary, I can shut off my iPhone or simply turn down the ringer.
3. No commute. Driving to and from work is one of the worst wastes of time ever. It’s also a waste of gasoline, adds to already severe traffic problems, and puts a lot of unnecessary miles on the employee’s vehicle. Not to mention the stress it puts on the employee as he or she has to constantly fight the traffic each day to work. Why put people through all of that?
4. Equipment savings for employers. One of the great things for employers is that most telecommuters already have their own desktop or laptop and generally don’t require them from their company. When I telecommuted, I had my own desktop and laptop computers, and an iPhone—I remember that Ziff offered to buy me a laptop early on, but I simply didn’t need it and I really preferred to work on my own machines.
I also tend to prefer Linux or Mac OS X to Windows. Windows is what it is and I’m glad some people enjoy using it. I generally don’t, as I am more productive with either of the other two operating systems. Don’t get me wrong, I have Windows available via virtualization if I need or want to use it, but I’d rather not bother with it for the most part.
Each of my computers has VirtualBox, VMWare, and Parallels installed, so I have the maximum range of operating system flexibility at any given time.
I understand that some employers prefer to require a telecommuter to use the company’s equipment. No problem there, if it’s really necessary—I’d do it and I’m sure any other telecommuter would too. But if the company doesn’t care and can save money by not having to buy you one, that’s yet another reason for companies to hire telecommuters.
Next, I’ll take a look at the tools I’ve used for telecommuting over the years.
Tools for Telecommuting
If you’re just starting out as a telecommuter or if you’re thinking about asking your boss about telecommuting full or part time, it’s a good idea to first step back and make sure you have everything you need to do your job from home.
Try to anticipate what your employer will require and then make sure you have all of the bases covered. It’s critical that you make sure that you won’t have to make excuses for not doing your work because you didn’t have the right tools for your job.
Let’s take a look at some of what I’ve used during my time as a telecommuter for Ziff Davis Media and also as a freelancer for various other companies over the years.
Broadband Internet. Fast, reliable broadband should be right at the top of any telecommuter’s tool list. It’s been absolutely, positively critical for my work, for downloading large Linux distros I’ve reviewed, and so on. But because I don’t live in an area that has FIOS, I had to make do with Comcast Internet. I’ve experienced annoying outages a few times but, for the most part, Comcast has served me pretty well.
Cell phone. This might be the most obvious item on the list, but I’m putting it here anyway. If anyone needs to get in touch with you during work hours for any reason, even if you have to step out for a while, this guarantees they’ll be able to. A smartphone that gives you access to e-mail, instant messaging, social media, and other useful apps gives you even more flexibility. Invest in a good cell phone that can serve as a mini-computer in your pocket. My preference right now is the iPhone, but your mileage may vary.
Multiple Computers. I have three Macs that are my main work machines. Why three? Convenience plays a part: I have one in my office, one in the living room, and a laptop I can use wherever. You need to have backup machines ready to go, too, in case a hardware problem incapacitates your main work machine—as a telecommuter you can never allow yourself to fall into the embarrassing trap of having to say to your boss “well I couldn’t get that work done because my computer died.”
Mice and Keyboards. Don’t overlook the importance of having backup input devices, too. It might sound silly, but you never know when you’re going to have a mouse die on you, or when you might spill some liquid into your keyboard, or when a parrot pecks apart your keyboard. I’ve had all three things happen—the parrot even ate the cable on my Microsoft Trackball. (He likes Microsoft’s keyboards so much that I’ve given him one of my old ones to chew on whenever he wants—as he is right now.)
E-mail. Ziff Davis uses Microsoft Outlook internally. But I was able to run the Web version of Outlook, and that worked reasonably well for e-mail. I also used Gmail as well, mainly because I prefer its interface to Outlook’s. Web-based e-mail works better for me, as I prefer to be able to access e-mail on any of my machines. Because I switch machines and operating systems so frequently, I’d probably go insane if I had to use a local mail program.
Office Software. I never bothered installing Microsoft Office during the time I worked at Ziff Davis Media—I had OpenOffice.org on all of my Macs, and that sufficed for my office needs for the most part. I also used Google Docs to write columns. Since leaving Ziff Davis, however, I decided to get Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac. I decided I need to have it available because it’s still the standard, and I wanted to make sure I’d avoid any potential document formatting problems that could be caused by using different word processing programs. But for most basic word processing, Google Docs and OpenOffice.org work great.
Instant Messaging. I have both AIM and Yahoo Messenger accounts, so I use iChat to run both at the same time and stay in touch with everyone I need to via instant messaging. Instant messaging provides an immediacy that e-mail lacks, and it lets folks get a hold of me right away on those occasions when an immediate response is necessary.
Skype. Skype is a handy (and free) tool to use for weekly conference calls so you won’t have to burn your cell phone minutes. It’s also ideal for videoconferencing, so you should have it on your computer even if you use your cell phone for regular audio conferencing calls. Whether your company uses Skype or another similar program, you should install it on all your machines.
Virtualization. As I mentioned above, I have VMWare, VirtualBox, and Parallels on my Macs. As far as my work for Ziff Davis went, I needed a computer that could run Internet Explorer, and that meant Windows. Thanks to virtualization, it was no problem for me to run Windows right alongside Linux on my Macs. I highly recommend always keeping apps like VMWare, Parallels, or VirtualBox on your computer if you are a telecommuter. You never know when you may need to run another operating system.
Cisco VPN. Another tool that was very important to me at Ziff Davis was Cisco’s VPN client for Macs. I used it frequently to securely connect to Ziff’s network. The interface was never elegant and stood out as rather ugly compared to other Mac software, but it was functional and reliable—and that’s what really mattered.
Quickbase. Ziff Davis uses Quickbase for managing its editorial calendars. It’s a tool that makes it easy to log in and see what stories or reviews are slated for a particular day each week, and you can add one whenever you want. It’s a useful, feature-rich way for workers to collaborate and schedule—whether they’re at home or in the office.
Next, I’ll cover how to handle telecommuting slackers and reluctant bosses.
Dealing with Telecommuting Slackers
I understand that some managers are nervous about allowing people to telecommute. They have nightmarish visions of their employees sleeping late, lounging by the TV and just generally not doing what they are being paid to do. But these fears are quite irrational, and usually point to either inexperience managing telecommuters or control issues on the manager’s part.
If you are a manager and you have a telecommuting slacker to deal with, you’ll know it fast. Work is either getting done or it’s not, and if it’s not then a pattern will be quickly established. You can then act to get rid of the slacking telecommuter or return him or her to the office where you can keep a closer eye on them.
My feeling is that if somebody cannot be trusted to telecommute, then he or she is probably also being nonproductive at the office as well. Basically, you probably have a problem employee on your hands that should probably be dealt with regardless of where he or she works.
How to Deal with a Telecommuting-Shy Boss
Back when I first was hired to manage Ziff Davis Media’s forums in 2001, one of the guys I was going to work for seemed a bit nervous about working with a telecommuter. My sense was that his management style was such that he was simply more comfortable working with people face to face on a daily basis than he was somebody who was far away.
I’m pleased to say that over the course of eight years, I believe I brought him around on the issue, and convinced him that telecommuters could be even better than in-office employees.
Well I made sure that I was super-sensitive to what I thought his goals were, and that the work I was doing conformed to those goals as much as possible. I made sure that everything got done like clockwork and that he never, ever had to worry about what was going on in the forums at any given time. I basically lifted from his shoulders the burden of even having to think about the forums, and I think he appreciated that.
Of course I tend to be a type A personality about work anyway, so it was in my nature to hover over the forums and make sure everything was fine. But the lesson here is that if you are dealing with a boss that’s skeptical about telecommuting, then you must make sure that everything is taken care of to his or her satisfaction—and then some.
It’s 2009, not 1989. If you’re a manager or an HR person in need of great talent, you should definitely welcome and encourage telecommuting.
When you write your job description don’t lock out potential star employees by stating that they must live in a particular location or must sit in a chair in your office each day to work. You’ll be opening the door to excellent workers you might not have even known about—and you’ll be saving lots of money at the same time.
Smart companies hire telecommuters, foolish companies don’t.
What’s your take on telecommuting? Are you a telecommuter? Tell me in the comments.