Telecommuting is back in vogue, as an increasing number of companies are helping employees cope with the gut-wrenching cost of filling their tanks. For many, working from home is an attractive option: Imagine curling up on the couch with a laptop and a cup of tea, shooting E-mails to clients as the laundry and dishes get clean. Ahh, telecommuting—might as well call it tele-comfort, or tele-convenience.
But there are uglier images lurking beneath the surface—the temptation to take care of nonwork-related tasks, the sense of isolation, a boss who has no idea what you're doing. Here are some ideas from the experts to help you avoid potential telecommuting troubles:
Problem: You're out of touch with your boss, who's beginning to rely more on coworkers back in the office.
Managers have grown accustomed to managing by line of sight, says Minda Zetlin, author of Telecommuting for Dummies. That means that when you're not in range, someone else may get the summons. People who work from home often get better and better at doing less and less, Zetlin says. Each assignment turns out to be a winner, because you have fewer of them. There are two problems with this: You may be missing out on good projects, and your coworkers probably resent having to pick up the slack. To address the "out of sight, out of mind" issue—or even to convince your boss to let you telecommute—craft a business plan before you begin telecommuting, Zetlin suggests. You and your boss should agree on scheduled times for daily check-ins. The phone calls should take place with greater frequency in the beginning and ease off as things move along. Staying in touch with coworkers can help you, as well. Take the extra time to chat with them when you're back in the office.
Problem: Your wife wants you to pick up the dry-cleaning.
Ordinarily, employees with corporate jobs aren't home during the day unless they're in bed with the flu. So when an able-bodied adult starts playing project manager from the living room, a spouse may call with requests: Call the plumber, shop for groceries, organize the linen closet before the weekend guests come. Telecommuting will probably require a conversation between partners, says Pamela Slim, who pens the blog Escape From Cubicle Nation. A not-uncommon expectation is that if somebody's working from home, "the other partner expects that they take care of a lot of things," Slim says. "They wouldn't have that expectation if a person was going into an office." Before you even begin working from home, have a talk and be clear about the nonwork tasks you'll be doing there during the day.
Problem: Your home office doesn't feel like an office.
You may underrate the importance of your physical environment in the beginning. You think you can work from anywhere. "For some people working from home the first time, they want to make sure they have a clearly delineated space," Slim says. Keep the area clear, and make sure you have the tools you need—that your phone will work for teleconferences or that your Internet connection will carry bandwidth-heavy work applications. Be straightforward about marking your territory. Jane Pollak, an entrepreneurship expert and coach, says she loves her renovated home office. "It really staked a claim that I'm serious, that this is my office," she says. "I have friends who write 'World Headquarters' on the third bedroom door. It's a way of saying: 'This is where I go to do my work.' "
Problem: You are simply lonely or unhappy.
Try working from home just a day or two each week in the beginning. It's a bad idea for businesses to mandate telecommuting, because it's really not for everyone, Zetlin says. Great telecommuters are generally the best, most-motivated employees who would do top work anywhere and without supervision. Some telecommuters, particularly those who live alone, feel cut off during the day. Slim suggests finding a coffee shop at which to spend a few hours. Coworking—sharing a communal work space with other telecommuters, freelancers, or writers—is also an option for lone workers. Of course, if you can afford the gas, you could also just pop back into the office.