For all of its advantages — maybe even a better love life, as I mentioned last week — there are some challenges that come with working from home.
But it is possible to overcome those problems, and several readers have tips to help the pajama-clad telecommuters of the world do just that.
They wrote to me in response to my recent column about a survey of more than 2,000 employees conducted by Utah-based VitalSmarts in partnership with Training Magazine. It was designed to capture people's impressions of colleagues who work remotely, and respondents said they thought those remote workers were three times more likely than people in the office to miss deadlines, not follow through on commitments or mislead co-workers. Respondents also said that remote workers were four times more likely to give a half-hearted effort, make changes without notice or not fight for priorities.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this survey struck a chord with several readers.
For example, a reader named Steve sent me an email to say he spent six years working from home in Utah for a California-based company.
"I loved it, for a few years at least, and then slowly, imperceptibly, I started noticing how distanced I was feeling from the team," Steve wrote. "I was in denial, because I enjoyed the benefits of working from home so much, but in the end I felt it was really affecting me professionally — negatively."
That realization fully hit him when he took a new job and started enjoying the greater connectivity of working in an office again.
"I just didn’t know it," he wrote. "But that six-year stint was a great experience for me and the family that I wouldn’t trade for the world. But you live and learn!"
True enough, Steve. While remote work seems to be growing more common, I'm sure many people will have times during their careers in which they spend most of their hours in an office. What I hope is that people will have options to work in a way that helps both them and their companies excel.
Another reader, named George, wrote in an email that he appreciated the six tips to help leaders of remote teams, as offered in the earlier column by David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts and co-author of "Influencer," "Crucial Accountability" and "Change Anything."
George wrote that he recently retired after spending 12 years as a remote manager of a technical services team for a health care company. In this role, he had nine to 15 programmer analysts, installation analysts and project managers working for him throughout the country. All of his management peers and support personnel were also remote to him.
Despite those challenges, George wrote, he was able to create an effective team. To do so, he especially emphasized the importance of Maxfield's suggestion to "overcome gaps in information by overcommunicating."
For example, after he was hired as a remote manager, he took several steps to make sure his boss would feel comfortable with his arrangement. That included using his Outlook calendar to schedule his tasks and sharing that calendar with his boss. George wrote that he also made sure he answered every time his boss called, and he met all deadlines with more information than was requested.
Furthermore, George wrote, he made sure he was completely prepared for every meeting and was available to his boss, day or night. And he would do whatever he was asked to do, whether it was his job or not.
"If (my boss) called with a request, I took it to be important," George wrote. "So whether it was to call a customer with a problem, work a problem or provide a status on some issue, I would do what he asked and then immediately return and report. I would never wait longer than 30 minutes to get back to him. Even if I had no information, I would let him know what I did."
These are great suggestions. I've found that communication has been key to the success of my own remote work arrangements, both as a manager and as an employee.
George offered three more tips to add to the six from Maxfield. First, he suggested that remote workers need to create metrics to measure performance. Second, he wrote, managers should conduct periodic performance evaluations that include both metrics and peer reviews.
And finally, George wrote, managers should "be anxiously engaged in assisting the team in solving problems."
"When the team was engaged in problem-solving sessions, I would engage myself as well," he wrote. "Even though I would probably not be providing any value-added assistance, by me being engaged asking questions — what my team was planning, why they were troubleshooting as they were, etc. — I would see them in action.
"I found that by adding these three items to your list, I was able to create a high-performance team and was even recognized as such by my company."
Again, George, these are excellent ideas. Thanks for sending them my way.
Another reader left an online comment on the original column, echoing George's emphasis on communication and metrics.
"A person can be just as isolated in a cube farm as if they were engaged at home, particularly if the work effort is heavily computer-based," this reader wrote. "The biggest obstacle, and the best bridge to that obstacle, is effective communication of task metrics to the work group.
"When team members see their accomplishments illustrated in visually descriptive presentations, cohesiveness and trust are engendered. When goals are diffuse, poorly defined or contradictory, or when productivity is not effectively communicated, trust and team cohesiveness suffer regardless whether the work is home-based or collocated."
Again, communication leads to understanding, and that builds trust and improves productivity. If we keep this in mind, we should be able build stronger teams, no matter the location of our co-workers. And that, in turn, should help people find the work-life balance they crave.