Having telecommuted for some time, I definitely learnt some lessons on how telecommuting can be awfully difficult. No doubt, there are great things like being able to choose your own work space, not having to deal with traffic, having flexible work hours and being more productive (more on these great stuff in another blog post). But there are also difficult lessons I had to learn to make sure not only my productivity maintains, but that the entire team is unaffected by the fact that I am no longer co-located in the same work space. If you’re telecommuting for the first time, or if you’re considering doing so any time in the future, here are some personal lessons I have learnt from telecommuting, which I hope would be useful to you:
- Maintaining Visibility - One of the best things about a co-located workspace is the spontaneous discussions and informal comments you can experience. Taking this component away could increase work efficiency, but it could also decrease work efficiency if people find it difficult to reach you or to include you in discussions. If that happens too frequently, your work appraisals will soon suffer. So make sure you maintain visibility, be it via email, video calls, or instant chats.
- Ensuring Regular Communication – Not only should you be always visible and “ready to chat”, but you need to actually communicate to maintain that connection with the rest of your team. Many first-time telecommuters state that feeling socially isolated is one of the most unexpected negative parts of telecommuting – not that they expected to be chatting the same amount, but the extent that it happens is greater than predicted. So make sure you communicate more – email might not be enough – video chats and ‘live’ brainstorming sessions might be required for people to “remember” you.
- Earning Trust – Like it or not, human beings are hard-wired to trust things they see more than things they hear. This also applies to you not being physically around, thus earning the same amount of trust of your team will also take extra effort. If possible, try to make sure you meet your team physically at least once early on in your appointment, if not every once in a couple of months to maintain visibility.
- Sustaining Work-Life Balance – I know you’re comfortable at home, and you don’t “feel” like you’re at work. But working at home is still working, and your brain is being utilized to solve problems all the same. So make sure you still take regular breaks as you usually do when working in an actual office space. Even stepping away from your table / computer (or bed, if you’re working in bed) is essential to keep yourself refreshed when you’re working from home.
- Setting that “Space” - working from home can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you can have the comforts of home while you work, not having to dress too formally, nor having to remember to keep your feet off the table. On the other hand, your home will become your office! That’s not always fun, because you might feel perpetually at work (instead of the other way round), which then brings away the joy of being at home. It is critical to set a fixed office area even at home, so you don’t grey the areas of knowing when to work and when to step out of it and end your ‘work-day’.
There are many companies that have some portion of the team or work that involves remote communication. In fact, 83% of American employees already spend a portion of their work hours working from home. Project management technology evaluation company, Software Advice, performed a survey with 247 working adults who regularly work with remote team members, to find out more about how they deal with communication in a remote setting. This includes an even distribution of adults across the age range of 25-54 years old. Results of the survey revealed the following preferences in communicating remotely:
- Communication is the main problem observed in virtual teams. Of the 247 working adults surveyed, 38% indicated that communication is their top concern when required to work with a virtual team. This ties in closely with the next two concerns, mainly technology to facilitate communication, as well as productivity that could be indirectly affected by the lack of communication.
- The most popular choice of communication is email. 77% of all respondents selected email and phone calls as their top communication choices, with email winning the race with 41%. It is, however, interesting to note that email is also raising significant problems in communications. 23% of users cited long email threads as a top communication challenge, acknowledging that it is not effective in many cases. At times like these, discussion forums or short chats may help ease the load on emails and prevent a huge log of emails from discussions. It is thus essential to choose the optimal communication platform or tool for each specific communication purpose, maximizing the effectiveness of communication with what each tool can offer. Ideally, having one single online collaboration platform that allows multifaceted approaches for team communication (e.g. chats, task management, calls) would help maximize the effectiveness of collaborating with remote teams.
- Preferred communication mode changes with age group. It is interesting to note that the preference for the type of communication tool utilized varies across age groups. Most notably, younger working adults from 25-34 years of age preferred email and virtual conferencing while older working adults from 45-54 years old preferred using the phone for direct conversations. This could reflect a trend of changing technologies over the years, with the older employees more familiar with the phone, while the younger Y-generation employees grew up with and are most comfortable with email and virtual conferencing. Taking this knowledge into account, it is good for a team leader managing a team of members of different age groups to consider the possible different communication preferences, and to cater to each person’s needs and desires whenever possible.
- Task management is the biggest communication challenge. Most responders indicated that task management was a main communication challenge while working on virtual projects, saying it was difficult to discuss tasks. Tools that effectively communicate regularly are needed to help teams gain better project visibility of the workload and efficiently discuss processes and progress. Chats that can be “tagged” to virtual projects and tasks can also facilitate more effective and clear communication amongst team members.