We can all learn from Gareth Roberts’ painfully honest account of what went wrong when he first started working from home. Telecommuting is great, but there’s lessons here for employees and managers alike.
Between 2007 and 2009, I lived and worked 200 miles away from my line manager, and 5,000 miles away from my company’s office. As a telecommuter, I didn’t even share a time zone with most of my colleagues, much less a building.
I Can Has Walkies?
Like many who live that lifestyle, I found the freedom and flexibility improved my life immeasurably. My dog, in particular, found my working from home to be the best idea ever. However, as time went on, it became clear that telecommuting wasn’t the complete solution to the problem that is Work.
The first thing noticed was that the camaraderie of the workplace was gone. To someone who’s never tried it, being away from the chatter of the workplace might sound like Heaven. Getting on with people, though, is key to working effectively with them; email and conference calls are no substitute for sitting down for lunch with your team, and talking things through.
But there was no team; there was only a scattered bunch of individuals. Individuals I liked, but I’ve had better working relationships with people I’ve loathed.
I became aware that a huge number of decisions were being made before I knew anything about them—decisions I would liked to have influenced. In the office, you may occasionally feel this happening if, say, a group of smokers begin having private discussions outside, leaving others out of the loop. It’s not deliberate, it’s not malicious: it’s just that the immediacy of these little huddles tends to preclude seeking the opinions of people who aren’t to hand.
If you telecommute, all decisions are like this. You can be so far out of the loop that you don’t even know there is a loop. I wasn’t being consciously excluded: out of sight, I was out of mind.
This doesn’t only affect your day-to-day work, it affects your career. If there’s a promotion or expanded role you’d like to take, you’ll hear about it too late, and aren’t nearly visible enough to be an advocate for yourself. Even if you’re able to apply for the position, those recruiting will have a harder time thinking of successes you were involved with, because you’re so out of the loop.
Alimentary, my Dear Wilson
Of course, it wasn’t only the office that was a problem. In isolation, I too became a problem.
Any skill you don’t exercise regularly begins to atrophy. I was talking to other people way too little; and in a professional context, not at all. I remember distinctly a period where, having been left in the house alone by my family for two weeks, my only source of human contact was a box-set of House.
I kind-of became Dr. Gregory House: surly, rude and sarcastic, to the point where I had to apologise to a colleague for writing an IM that I realised was totally unacceptable just after hitting send. If you work in isolation, you need to take care you have sufficent social outlet.
As I gradually became a Problem Employee, none of the common systems to help struggling staff seemed to be available. In an office environment, if a member of staff is having problems, and their work is suffering, the manager will swing into action to identify the problem and solve it—or at least give a formal warning that serves as a wake-up call.
My own failing performance, however, was seemingly overlooked, until circumstances came to a head. My recent performance was evaluated, and I was informed that my services were no longer required (my contract allowed termination at will).
I cannot, in all honesty, fault the decision. I had, however, become blind to my own faults, and there was no system in place to correct them.
So, Working from Home Considered Harmful?
Do I now believe telecommuting to be a flawed idea? Not at all. But companies and employees need to be aware of the pitfalls, and prepare for them.
If you telecommute: be acutely aware of your own state of mind, because there’s no professional social network of colleagues to support you.
If you manage telecommuters: remember that your workers are isolated, be an effective advocate for them regarding their career and contribution to the company, and be sure that you’re providing adequate feedback and supervision.
Many of the earliest adopters of telecommuting will have been people best-suited to it; but when it’s more widely available, expect to see a far greater proportion of people suffering these problems.