Professionalism is a state of mind, and the best workers employ universal habits to get the job done, whether Big Brother is watching or not; whether they're in an office or working at home. Here are some of tried-and-true traits of truly effective telecommuters:
1. They spend time in the office. This first tip will be more of a challenge for employees who work remotely because they live remotely, but still, there are unquantifiable benefits to occasionally working in the office so you can absorb the culture, learn professional expectations and build rapport with your colleagues and supervisor. Does your boss work with a closed door in the late afternoons so she can concentrate? That's a nuance you can't glean unless you're present to witness it, but it's good intelligence that you can take back home and use to adjust how and when you make requests of her.
Coming to the office intermittently can also facilitate proper training. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has one of the most prolific and successful telework programs: 65 percent of its employees work away from the Alexandria, Va., campus between one and five days each week. Danette Campbell, telework senior advisor, reports USPTO staff receive extensive training before they're deployed to work remotely. "We want to ensure the success of our remote workers," she says.
2. They have a workspace. You've envisioned rolling over in bed, booting your laptop and logging onto your work network while rocking your jammies, but that's a down-feathered, slippery and slothful slope, plus it compromises obtaining a professional mindset. Instead, start each work-from-home day the way you would a work-from-the-office day: Get out of bed at a set time, change clothes and "commute" to a designated workspace—a private home office, the dining room table, even a kitchen island. "Many frequent business travelers and other mobile users tend to work in unfamiliar areas all the time, having to turn on the productivity button wherever they are," says Melanie Pinola, a freelance writer and the guide to mobile office technology at About.com. "When you only telecommute occasionally, your strategy may be as simple as creating a portable work station—a laptop, accordion file folder, tray of essential supplies."
3. They have clearly defined goals. Establishing benchmarks is complementary to staying focused on any job, but they're practically mandatory if you want to remain on task remotely. Aimless "Groundhog's Day"-type work isn't conducive to staying plugged in all day, every day.
Stanford University did a study monitoring how working from home affected employees and employers at CTrip, a Chinese travel agency. Volunteers from the company's call center were randomly selected to work from home for nine months, during which there was a 13 percent increase in performance. At-home workers also reported that their job satisfaction improved. According to John Roberts, one of the study's co-authors and the endowed John H. Scully chair and professor of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business, the goal-oriented nature of the CTrip employees' work might have boosted their productivity at home. "It's important to remember that the workers were motivated to work," he says. "They were paid more when they got more work done. Of course, they would have been motivated to work when they were in the office, too. ... But [when working at home] they ended up working better and more. It was quieter at home, so they could get more done."
Campbell also notes that some of USPTO's success with telework may be in part because its work is goal-oriented. "The nature of the work lends itself to telework," she says. "Patent examiners and trademark attorneys are productive-driven employees. They know every bi-week how many patents they have to evaluate. We have very clearly defined performance metrics."
4. They invest in good office equipment. You don't have face time to proselytize for your efficiency. Your Internet connection vouches for you, and if it's regularly malfunctioning, you have a problem. Ideally, the IT department will issue frequent teleworkers comparable equipment to what in-office workers use. At USPTO, employees receive a universal laptop, docking station, mouse and keyboard. Additional equipment is also distributed depending on position and job requirements.
If you don't receive loaner equipment but you do plan to telecommute regularly, you need to stock your home office with the best supplies necessary to do your job well. And in either case, you'll need a contingency plan. Do you know whom to contact in the office if you have problems with loaner hardware? Where's the closest back-up coffee house/library with Wi-Fi so you can work if your Internet goes down? Find out.
5. They establish a routine. Do you like to start out slow by catching up on emails and tying loose ends, or are you an early bird who likes to crank out crucial tasks first? Figure out your modus operandi and embrace it. "Work your best hours," Pinola suggests. "I find I work best either in the early morning or late at night, so when I can, I save my most important thinking projects for those times."
Discuss and negotiate your best working routine with your clients, colleagues and supervisor, and if necessary, establish compatible hours when your schedules will overlap.
6. They take numerous breaks. The compulsion to shirk off at home is almost natural. And it's OK to indulge in a little TV or the occasional nap. Really. "Everything is fair game, as long as it doesn't hamper your productivity and it's not something your company would frown upon if they found you doing it," Pinola says. "For example, naps are great. The most productive people in the world take naps. But you can't take a nap and skip your daily 12 p.m. Skype meeting in the name of productivity."
Think of it this way: If you were in the office, you'd (hopefully) take a lunch break, walk across the street for a fresh cup of java and catch up with colleagues in the break room. Periodic short breaks are also important when your office is in your house.
And it's a myth that juggling home duties with work duties—like doing a load of laundry while reading a work report, for instance—is a bad idea. "When you're a telecommuter, you might have to be even more available than you would be as an on-site staffer. So get your laundry done, go walk the dog, cook an elaborate lunch. But make sure during those times you're covered and people won't freak out if they can't reach you. Also, of course, get your work done," Pinola says.
Which brings us to the seventh secret of a good telecommuter...
7. They're transparent. The convenience you're experiencing thanks to working from home shouldn't inconvenience your employer. Tell your boss that you like to take a 45-minute nap during your lunch hour. Or that you work extra hours each night since you help your kids with their homework in the afternoon. Your employer will be more receptive to you having a flexible schedule if you keep your boss in the loop and she sees that your performance hasn't diminished.