Love the view from your living room as you work? Heed the downside

January 16, 2013
in Managing & Communicating

How many things in life are sweeter than sitting at home and working in your sweatpants? The silence, the focus, the mug of home-brewed hot chocolate at half past three: Telecommuting’s gifts are many, and more workers are seeing it not just as an unexpected privilege but something to be bargained and fought for. What many don’t realize, though, is that working from home just a little too often can transmit a subtle broadcast to the rest of the staff, and you might not like what’s on that channel.

Before you inform the boss that from now on, you’ll be available on Tuesdays and Thursdays “just by picking up the phone,” consider the viewpoint of those who are in the office all day, every day. You may get more done in your own breakfast nook because of the lack of interruptions, but many of those are from people who do need answers from you, and more importantly, need to engage you in the kind of back-and-forth, free-flowing discussions that can’t get off the ground electronically. Even simple yes or no answers should be available ASAP, but the real communication breakdown comes when there’s a more complex issue on the table.

When you make someone pick up a phone or send an email to contact you about something important, you’ve put them in the position of having to make a blind intrusion. Swinging by someone’s office can be a friendly, informal gesture, and within one second we can sense if it’s a good time to pop in or not. A call or message that springs up in an inbox, however, is like an unseen animal scratching at the door to be let in. You may find that certain people leave you entirely alone on your telecommuting days, putting off any contact till you return. It might be because they just don’t want to be the ones to send an escalating series of tiny irritations over the wires.

No matter how much you’re getting done at home, meanwhile, you can forget about ever taking home the award for Most Diligent Dynamo. If you’re not in the building each day, it’s a real hurdle to convey to the rest of the staff how much you’re accomplishing away from them, and your insistence that you’re knocking it out of the park may come off as hollow and defensive. The office-bound will always suspect the absent of popping out here and there for errands, lingering over lunch, and generally taking it down a couple of notches. A phone call or email that goes unanswered for longer than 30 minutes is guaranteed to generate unforgiving mental images in those waiting for a response. The habitual telecommuter is often resented, rightly or wrongly, for perceived idleness; life always seems easier for those who don’t spend as many hours in the physical trenches as others.

But it’s not just your own image that’s at stake. The sense of camaraderie and common mission among staff can dissolve when a company doesn’t rein in its telecommuters. The unnatural silence that falls on a half-populated office conveys one message: Few find it beneficial, or even agreeable, to be there. Telecommuters can disappear into their own jobs, becoming islands unto themselves and no longer bonding as much with others. They engage in fewer kitchen chats and informal brainstorming sessions. The unpredictable ideas and exchanges that happen organically in a beehive atmosphere no longer occur with the same frequency. Communication is hamstrung; “I’ll just wait till I see her tomorrow” becomes the norm, and no one is even sure where anyone else is at any given time. When you toil far away with the radio on in the background and the kids occasionally flitting past you on their way to destroying the house, you’ve chosen to connect in only the thinnest, most artificial way to your co-workers, and may even be inadvertently hinting that they’re an impedance.

Telecommuting raises the issues of what we owe to our co-workers in terms of face time and whether a company can truly flourish if people aggressively detach from it. Since you’re supposed to be working your full eight hours when you’re home—you are, aren’t you?—it can fairly be asked, Why don’t you want to be here? Is saving money and time on a commute worth degrading communication, inconveniencing those who need to truly interact with you, and sapping the energy that exists only in an office with full attendance? Don’t be too surprised if you occasionally sense whispers about your schedule and your work ethic, unjust as they are; it’s a natural reaction to those who seem to be always headed anxiously for the exit.

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