5 ways to make telecommuting work for you

Mother and baby in home office with laptop iStockphoto

(MoneyWatch) Everybody thinks it's the dream job -- a position that both pays the bills and allows you to telecommute from home. Yet the 10 percent of the U.S. work force -- some 13.4 million people -- who actually do work at home at least part of the time know that the reality is more complicated, according to a recent survey by Regus, a company that provides business services to telecommuters.

That reality may include neighbors and relatives assuming that you're free to help them move or to babysit their kids when you're not trudging into an office in a business suit. And the dog really does sometimes chew up your work or decide to bark incessantly while you're on a conference call with your most important client. The Federal Express delivery man is likely to interrupt your concentration with a package, and there's a good chance it's not even for you. You don't mind signing for a neighbor, who doesn't happen to be home, but who you -- because you're home and obviously bored -- won't mind tracking down later, right?

The lack of tech support creates a whole new series of issues for telecommuters. If the phones or Internet connection goes down in the office, everybody just meets for coffee while someone in the technology department works their magic. Printer offline? Fax machine or copier inexplicably jammed? When you work from home, you are the tech department. If you have no technological skills, you better learn them fast or find a reliable subcontractor who can pitch in at a moment's notice.

Meanwhile, where telecommuting might have meant slacking off in the old days, today it's more likely to mean that you're working a 50 or 60 hour week.

Despite such challenges, done right working from home can be the best way to both earn a living and balance the often pressing demands of a family. I speak from years of experience. When my first child was born, I set up a home office and convinced my employer that I should be allowed to telecommute. Over the ensuing 22 years, I faced virtually every telecommuter's challenge, and forged a few strategies to conquer them. Now working from home is just how I earn a living.

If you're thinking about telecommuting from home, it helps to know the problems -- and some good ways to solve them. According to the Regus survey, the most common problems telecommuters cite in trying to get their work done are:

- 58 percent say they're distracted by kids and other family members demanding attention

- 44 percent cite pets and others interrupting work calls

- 27 percent report computer, printer, fax, copier, Internet, phone or other equipment problems

- 25 percent say they are disrupted by people at the door or noisy appliances

- 23 percent say they're distracted by the TV, which they keep on for company

How can you combat these and other telecommuting perils?

Get a sitter (or day care provider): If you think working from home will allow you to save the cost of daycare, you're kidding yourself. Yes, your baby will nap sometimes, and you may be organized enough to get a lot of work done in that hour or two. But the other six hours that you're supposed to be working will be horrible if you don't have someone dedicated to caring for your child so you can attend to your work.

On the bright side, if your child can't go to daycare because he or she is sick for a few days, or the daycare center has a holiday that's not recognized by your company, you may not need to take the full day off. You can let the little ones watch videos while you get some work done -- just don't make a habit of it. If you do, you'll either be a really bad parent or a really bad (former) employee.

Set physical and psychological boundaries : Your friends and family need to understand that you're working even when you're working from home. The best way to get that message across is to have regular business hours and rules. Among the rules -- you can break for lunch and close your office door (or files) at a set time each day. Since one of the big benefits of working from home is being able to spend more time with your family, put them on your schedule for lunch. But be disciplined about telling them that you can't socialize during the rest of your work hours.

Separate personal and professional: You need a dedicated business phone line and office space. Think you can manage with the one personal phone line? When I first started working from home, I thought so, too. But then sources started to call me at 5 a.m. (After all, it was 8 a.m. in New York.) When there was breaking news, they might call at 2 a.m. or at midnight. They figured they'd just get somebody's office answering machine. I, however, would get startled out of a deep sleep, thinking there was some emergency with my family. (Who else would be calling in the middle of the night?)

When I was writing about the failure of Executive Life Insurance Co. back in the early 1990s, one of the victims of the failure -- a widow named Dorothy -- would call me every weekend. Why? She was lonely and needed to commiserate and I, stupidly, consistently answered the phone because it was my home line. Needless to say, Dorothy and I became close. And then I got an office line and appropriated the den as a home office. That way I could close the door and stop answering the phone when my work day was over. Phone lines, even with unlimited calling, and a little office space are cheap, especially when you compare them with the cost of a nervous breakdown.

Keep in touch: Telecommuters often have problems with their employers because the bosses figure either A) that if you're not on site, you're not working; or B) they forget all about you, which means they forget about your raises and promotions, too. Combat the out-of-sight/out-of-mind phenomenon by calling or emailing your boss, ideally daily, to fill him or her in on your schedule. A quick note at 8 a.m. saying, "Just want you to know that I'm working on XYZ today and expect to have it to you by..." will help your boss know what you're up to and likely make him or her more comfortable with letting you work remotely.

Have a back-up: If you have vital office equipment that would leave you incapable of working if it suffered a technological failure, consider getting a back-up. I've had a desktop computer and a laptop since the first time the hard drive on my desktop failed. I can't count the number of times that I needed to switch while one was getting fixed or replaced. Again, this may seem costly, but it's cheaper than being out of work.

Watch yourself: You wouldn't turn on a television or watch movies on your office computer during the work day if you knew your supervisor was watching. When you work from home, you are your own supervisor. Act like it. If you allow yourself to get distracted from your work by the TV, the laundry, the dogs or anything else, you're likely going to do a rotten job. If you like working from home, realize that you have to be your own toughest boss. If you don't have the discipline to work a real eight-hour day, just like you would in the office, your telecommuting days are numbered.

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