The Disadvantages of Telecommuting

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:

Motivation Issues

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 Problems

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!

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Networking for the Socially Challenged, Part 2: Shy

Here is Part 2 of my two-part series, “Networking for the Socially Challenged.” This segment will feature tips for the shy on how to deal with networking situations (as well as other types of social interaction).  If you are new to the series, I suggest reading my previous posts on introversion and shyness; although frequently confused with each other, they are not the same thing! Also, I suggest reading Part 1: Introverted if you haven’t already.

As always, I encourage all three of my readers to join the conversation via comments.

Now, without further ado,

Networking for the Shy

My shyness (or, if you prefer, social anxiety) has been an obstacle in my life for as long as I can remember, but it reached its worst ever right after high school, and it took me years to get where I am now. For example, I used to be so scared to eat alone in my college cafeteria that I would skip multiple meals in a row if I couldn’t find somebody to join me. Furthermore, in my university, it wasn’t altogether unusual for somebody to stay cloistered in their dorm room, only emerging for classes and meals. This situation only reinforced my shy behavior–I could justify it because “everyone else was doing it.”

This may be skirting the edge of “too much personal information,” but I want to show how crippling my social anxiety was. I’ve evolved to the point where I am able to go to a networking event or meetup with total strangers and only panic a little bit deep down inside. It was a very difficult for me to get to this point, and I hope that the tips I provide here will help others approach their shyness and eventually conquer it, as well.

Instead of approaching this post as a list of tips like I did in Part 1, I will be addressing some of what my worst obstacles have been in networking situations.

I’m not sure how to get started!

First of all, keep in mind the tips in Part 1. They’re mostly from an introvert’s perspective, but they also apply to the shy among us (especially the parts about starting conversations and asking questions to let the speaker carry the conversation). Also, many of the socially anxious are also introverted, as is the case with myself.

Start small. Don’t try to go to a 50-person banquet or a packed disco–even if you make it through the door, you will either flee out the door immediately or huddle miserably in a corner the whole time (I am speaking from experience, here). If that happens, you will only end up feeling worse about yourself, which will only make your anxiety worse. Remember, most shyness is based in hyper self-consciousness or self-judgment–don’t give yourself any more ammo to use against yourself.

So do little things first. If necessary, go all the way back to one-on-one interactions. Go to the post office and chat with the people in line. Hand in your rent in person instead of mailing it. Order a pizza over the phone instead of online. Basically, do all of the stuff in person that you otherwise avoid by using the Internet or other means. This will go a long way toward building up your confidence.

Once you’ve established single-person interactions within your comfort zone, try for a larger group. Perhaps a poetry reading at a coffee shop? Maybe a book club? Maybe you can volunteer for a cause you feel strongly about. If you are still in school, join a club. All of these suggestions have two things in common: 1) they will all be relatively small groups; and 2) they are groups bound by a common interest. If you find a group with a common interest, you not only know you have something to talk about, but you will already be (possibly unconsciously) within your comfort zone. It’s always easier to talk confidently about a topic you know and/or feel passionate about.

From here, just keep joining progressively larger groups until you feel you’re able to handle giant international conferences. The key here is don’t give up!

But they’re all judging me!

They’re actually not, and you know this on an intellectual level. I realize it’s tough convincing your fluttery stomach and heart palpitations otherwise. Let me see if I can help.

First of all, you’re not going to say or do the wrong thing. Once you’ve gotten that to sink in, half the battle is won. If you’re asking them questions and letting them do all the talking, you can’t possibly say the wrong thing. If you let people talk about themselves or their interests, they will remember you as a conscientious, attentive conversational partner. In short, they’re too busy lauding themselves to judge you.

Now here’s an exercise for you: Think of the last social gathering you attended. How many names do you remember? How many faces? How many words do you remember out of how many conversations? Chances are you remember very few details from that event, least of all specific details about the people and their behavior. Well, it’s the same for everyone. Most people won’t remember you once you’re out of their immediate vicinity. It’s not because you’re uninteresting; it’s just because that’s how people are. They can’t truly be judging you if they won’t even remember you!

On the other side of this coin, if you’re at a networking event because you need something (like a job), you WANT them to remember you! So, in the unlikely event that they were judging you, it is actually a GOOD thing! I know it sounds extremely after school special, but just be yourself and act like an adult and you’ll be fine.

But I don’t want to impose on anyone!

You’re not imposing on anyone by just talking to them! They’re there to socialize. If you can’t get over the feeling that you’re somehow inconveniencing them, try this: compliment them (but be sincere!). Say you like their hat or hair or shirt. Whatever, as long as you mean it. This will already give them a positive impression of you, and inconvenience will be the last thing on their mind. Furthermore, they might compliment you on your shoes or something, which will make you feel good about yourself!

How do I deal with the anxiety before and during the event?

This is a big one. If you’re on your way to an event and the anxiety builds up, you might not make it through the door. This could be very discouraging and make you feel worse about yourself. Alternately, you might make it through the door before the anxiety hits, but find yourself on the verge of a panic attack. This is one of the toughest situations I’ve found myself in. Here are some things I’ve done to help avoid the pre- and during-socialization freak outs.

  • Wear comfortable clothing! Being physically comfortable will go a long way toward being psychologically comfortable. Of course, you need to wear something appropriate for the event, but that doesn’t mean you have to eschew comfort options. Instead of wearing super high heels, just wear some reasonable professional flats. Try a lighter/heavier fabric if you know you’re typically too hot or cold. Furthermore, clothing is armor. If you know you look good and feel good, you’ll feel better about socializing.
  • Find a conversational “comfort zone.” Pick a topic or story you know you’re comfortable with and stick with it if you can without derailing ongoing conversations. This is why it’s important to start the conversation–you can steer it to topics you’re comfortable with. You can even mentally prepare some scripts to stick with in case you become tongue tied. However, if you are interested and informed about the topic, you probably won’t have problems talking about it.
  • Take a friend. A friend can help you get through the door if you hesitate. Your friend can also make introductions and help you get started in conversations. Your friend is essentially an extension of your comfort zone.  But DO NOT let your friend do all the work for you. You will not make any progress if you let this happen. You have to take control of your anxiety–your friend cannot do this for you. Make sure this friend knows about your anxiety issues, and let them know ahead of time how best to react to situations that may come up (such as impending panic attacks).
  • Get away from the crowd if you start to panic. The sweating, shortness of breath, shaking limbs, increased pulse, impending tears–the all-too-familiar symptoms of GET THE HECK OUT RIGHT NOW. It’s hard to fight. The best thing you can do is excuse yourself and get away from people. If you have a friend with you, tell them where you’re going (they should know ahead of time that you need to be alone at this point). Go get some air or get a drink. Once you’re alone, concentrate on your breathing or perform some muscle relaxation. Once you’re calmed down again, go back inside. Also, instruct your friend to call you after a pre-determined duration to make sure you haven’t fled the scene.
  • Have somebody “on call” who can help you through the panic. Sometimes you just need to know you have somebody to talk to. Have somebody available whom you can call to talk through your anxiety. Ideally, this person will be aware of your shyness and will provide the encouragement you need to get back to your socialization. I’ve always had my mom on call because she’s dealt with her own shyness and knows how to react.
  • Don’t give up! Giving up and leaving the event before you intended (or worse, not getting there at all), is the worst possible thing you can do. Why? Because it feels good. When you avoid or leave a situation that makes you anxious or uncomfortable, you feel a very pleasurable rush of relief. The relief is FAR preferable to the panic and discomfort, so you’ve essentially rewarded yourself for giving up. Do not positively reinforce this bad behavior! Instead, think how good you’ll feel when you’ve stuck it out! You be able to say you accomplished something despite the discomfort, rather than giving in to feel relief. This will be much more effective in the long run, and you’ll ultimately feel way better about yourself because you didn’t give up.

And then what?

Then just practice, practice, practice. The more you manage to get through these sorts of events, the easier it will get. You’ll feel less anxiety and discomfort, the heart palpitations will become less frequent, and before you know it, you’ll be more or less comfortable networking.

Do I still think about turning around at the door? Of course, but it’s momentary and I know that I’ll feel much better about myself in the long run if I go in. I’ve even started enjoying myself and sticking around willingly!

Focus on the successes. Sure, you might run from a room on the verge of tears and a panic attack. But don’t dwell on it. Instead, think about all the times when you managed to make somebody laugh or when somebody complimented your hat. Nobody is perfect, and you don’t have to be, either! Stop beating yourself up and go have some fun!

Networking for the Socially Challenged, Part 1: Introverted

As promised, here is Part 1 of my two-part series, “Networking for the Socially Challenged.” This segment will feature tips for how to deal with networking situations (as well as other types of social interaction) as an introvert.  If you are new to the series, I suggest reading my previous posts on introversion and shyness; although frequently confused with each other, they are not the same thing! Also, you can find Part 2: Shy here.

As always, I encourage all three of my readers to join the conversation via comments.

Now, without further ado,

Networking for the Introverted

If you are an introvert, networking can often be difficult because you have trouble drumming up enthusiasm about the activity. To begin with, you don’t even want to meet people in person–you’d much rather chat online or even simply e-mail them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t cut it. Furthermore, once you get into a networking situation (a meetup or conference, for example), you are often uninterested in socializing. These tips are meant to help kindle your interest in networking, or at least help you convince others you’re interested.

List your networking benefits and goals

It’s much easier to stay motivated to do something if you remember the benefits, so take some time and write down the reasons for networking and your end-goals for doing so. Do you need a job? Do you need a hire? Perhaps you just want to build your network now so you can draw on it later.  If you know of a networking event but are thinking about blowing it off, refer to your list before deciding.

Also keep your list in mind while you’re at that event you didn’t blow off, and try to focus your networking to meet those goals. For example, if you need to hire somebody, disseminate that fact as much as possible. With specific goals, you are less likely to get bored and distracted.

Right now, I’m mainly networking because I need a job–this alone is a huge motivator. But I also want to get my name out there as somebody outgoing (despite being an introvert) and willing to help out–because that’s who I am behind all the introverted shyness. Finally, I want to continue maintaining my network after I’m employed so that it is available when I have some other need to fulfill. Keeping this all in mind helps me get my butt to networking events when I’d much rather be reading by the fire. Yes, even in the summer.

Have a good conversation starter and use it

If you are able to find an in-progress conversation and seamlessly join it, great! However, if you have trouble doing that, think of an interesting conversation starter you can use to get your own going. Then look around the room–there is probably another introvert there trying to find a conversation. Go talk to them! Use your conversation starter to initiate the conversation and proceed from there. Chances are, more people will join in your conversation, and things will evolve on their own from there. The hard part is getting started.

When I was at the Society for Technical Communication (STC)  2012 Summit, I had two related conversation starters. The first was my conference badge. It was printed when I still lived in Albuquerque; I crossed that out and hand-wrote “Chicago” beneath it. Most people would check where I was from, and many asked why I had Chicago written there. Instant conversation.

My other conversation starter was specifically for use at the Summit’s Hospitality Table, which was manned by members of the Chicago STC chapter. Here I just walked up to somebody who didn’t look busy and basically said, “Hi, I’m new!” This led to an explanation of why I was in Chicago, and the conversation evolved from there. It was very easy to converse with a topic already in mind.

Pretend to be interested if you really aren’t

Ideally, you’ll find yourself discussing topics you enjoy. But that obviously won’t always be the case, and an introvert gets sick of conversations pretty quickly if its something they don’t care about. Do not let your disinterest show! You will leave the best impression if you continue to look interested in the conversation and the people having it. There are several ways to accomplish this:

  • Smile and nod – It’s cliche, but it is the easiest way to look interested. Also lean toward the speaker a tiny bit. Insert “Yeah?” and other verbal indicators of interest at the appropriate times.
  • Try to shift the topic to something more interesting – Being introverted, you may find this difficult without being too abrupt and irrelevant, but it will make the conversation much more appealing.
  • Ask questions – Most people are all too eager to carry a conversation about things that interest them (especially themselves), so encourage them to do so by asking relevant questions. They will probably remember you as attentive and interesting.
  • Keep your mind on the conversation – This is vital–do not let your mind wander! Mine does all the time, and I have to rein it back in. If you don’t pay attention, you may be unable to respond appropriately to a question. Or worse, you’ll respond inappropriately: “And then my dog died!” “Haha, that’s great!” Do not let this happen to you!

I happen to be a lucky introvert who finds most topics interesting, and I prefer when others carry the conversation. Regardless, I have had to resort to these techniques on occasion, and the person just keeps on talking, so I guess they worked.

Recognize when you need a break and take it

If you’re starting to feel drained, excuse yourself. Go grab a drink or move elsewhere (outside, if possible, or at least a vacant room) for a few minutes. Do what it takes to be alone and ease the over-stimulation in your brain meats. If you don’t take a rest, you may become exhausted too soon and have to leave before you’ve made progress toward your goals. Alternately, it may become more difficult to keep your mind from wandering from conversations, which could lead to a catastrophic faux pas–like laughing at somebody’s dead dog.

My reaction to over-stimulation is to literally shut down. I will fall asleep no matter where I am, how interesting the conversation is, how many people are there, or how loud it is.  This is obviously incredibly rude, so if I feel the urge coming on, I have to get up and move around until I’m revived.

Reward yourself

This is the easiest advice for an introvert to follow, but don’t understate its importance. If you managed to get through a harrowing network event, reward yourself! You need to follow that experience with positive reinforcement so you are even more motivated the next time you have to go out and network. So buy yourself that book you’ve been meaning to read, go take a candlelit bubble bath, or do whatever it is your introverted heart desires. You’ve earned it.

I hope this advice helps make networking more tolerable for you. I realize there are eleventy-billion posts on the same topic, but everyone is different; what might work for one introvert might not work for the rest. I hope something in here works for you.

Did these tips help you?  Do you have any to add? Please leave a comment (or contact me privately, if you prefer) and let me know!

What is shyness?

The last couple of weeks have taught me quite a bit about successful networking, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned. To that end, I had planned a 2-part series on networking for people who are shy/introverted.  However, during my research, I realized that–despite the apparent shared stigma toward them–shyness and introversion are actually very different things, and people may want to know the difference. So I will set up the series with a couple of posts describing these concepts.

In short, introversion indicates a lack of interest in most socialization, while shyness (also called social anxiety by the psych types) is characterized by a fear of social interaction. I have both.

Shyness (and probably too much personal information) after the cut.

Continue reading

What is introversion?

The last couple of weeks have taught me quite a bit about successful networking, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned. To that end, I had planned a 2-part series on networking for people who are shy/introverted.  However, during my research, I realized that–despite the apparent shared stigma toward them–shyness and introversion are actually very different things, and people may want to know the difference. So I will set up the series with a couple of posts describing these concepts.

In short, introversion indicates a lack of interest in most socialization, while shyness (also called social anxiety by the psych types) is characterized by a fear of social interaction. I have both.

Introversion after the cut.

Continue reading