As much as I love telecommuting (here’s why), it does have its downsides. I have discovered these disadvantages during my tenure telecommuting for the ALMA project. I hope that by voicing these problems, people thinking about telecommuting full time will be able to consider both the cons and the pros. I also briefly discuss how I deal with these issues. Here are some difficulties I have encountered while telecommuting:
I’ve heard many work-at-home people say they’ve had problems with motivation. And, admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to get work done without the boss looming nearby. I’ll be working out on the porch and just get distracted looking at the flowers or the sky or the people on other porches. I find this happens much more often when the project I’m working on is less interesting than I’d like (shocking, I know). Unfortunately, the hours won’t work themselves, and the work won’t finish itself, so telecommuters have to learn pretty quickly not to let the mind wander too far.
I also have the opposite problem, at times. Without some distractions, like other employees dropping in, I sometimes find I get sucked into a project too much. I tend to over focus, hunching uncomfortably over my laptop keyboard and not noticing the head, neck, or backache I’ve developed from overdoing it. Yes, the work gets done this way, but it’s not healthy.
In fact, recent studies have shown that frequent short mental breaks are required for optimal productivity. This New York Times article elaborates on this idea, suggesting options for “cognitive recharging” that even include short naps. However, the article does caution against taking too many breaks.
Telecommuters have to strike a balance when motivating themselves. Some days, I find that I can’t concentrate more than 20 minutes at a time, so I spread my workday over a longer period with many more breaks. Other days, I am very focused, and have to consciously force myself to take breaks. On these days, I cram more work into a shorter time period. It’s all about finding the right balance to fill the weekly work quota.
Disconnected from the Workplace
Sometimes it can be a little difficult to keep track of what’s going on at the office. For instance, my boss was out of town this week, and I didn’t even know it!
Things change at the office, and the telecommuter may be completely unaware of it. Maybe a policy change affecting the telecommuter occurs, but nobody informs them. Or perhaps somebody has left the company, but nobody thought to inform the telecommuter, who is wondering why their e-mails to the former employee are now going unanswered. People rarely intend to leave the telecommuting worker out of the loop; it’s just a simple case of out of sight, out of mind. Intentional or not, it can be very frustrating to find out things after the fact, especially when they affect my productivity.
Communication with people back in the office presents a number of challenges. First of all, it is not always easy to get your point across through e-mail, or even via a phone call. This is doubly true when working with very technical documents. There have been times when I’ve asked somebody a question, but I didn’t understand the answer. So I had to ask for clarification. In some cases I’ve had to ask for clarification several times, which is frustrating for everyone involved. Dealing with these sorts of issues face to face would probably speed thing up and lower the frustration levels quite a bit.
Another problem is that e-mail and phone communications aren’t always timely. You’re always waiting for that return e-mail, and often left wondering if the recipient received it at all. Furthermore, and e-mail conversation takes much longer than the same conversation in person. You can always call, but it’s not guaranteed that the person you’re trying to reach will be available, or that they’ll even return the call.
Finally, it’s much easier to ignore e-mails and calls from somebody who is telecommuting. After all, they’re not in the office to bother you in person, and you can always say, “Oops, sorry I must have lost that e-mail.”
Hours Not Always in Sync with Others’
I love that I am able to work at 2 a.m. if I am so inclined. However, if I find an issue that I need somebody else to deal with, I have to remind myself that it will have to wait until the next day. The same goes for e-mails being sent to other time zones. If I e-mail Charlottesville at 4 p.m., I shouldn’t expect a response until the next day because it’s 5 p.m. there, and the person has probably already gone home. Finally, there could be problems if somebody sends you an urgent e-mail and you aren’t able to receive it because you’re not working at the same time they are.
Therefore, every week I make a point of working during normal work hours for Socorro, Charlottesville, and Chile, so that on those days at least, I can be reached and I can reach anyone with relative little delay. I also have my phone set to check my work e-mail address on a regular basis, so if an emergency does come up, I’ll at least know about it within a reasonable time frame.
I hope this article helps anyone facing this issues as a telecommuter or helps someone decide whether this life is right for them. I encourage any of my 3 readers to post in the comments with any similar experiences or tips for dealing with them. As always, thanks for reading!