By Vera Wilson

You probably know people who work from their homes, but are you - and your job - right for teleworking? 

Teleworking garnered attention in the 1990s after the Clean Air Act encouraged its use as a way to reduce pollution and save energy. The use of portable computers, high-speed telecommunications, mobile devices, and cloud computing further paved the way, and today, the majority of companies and workers alike now see it as a viable option. In fact, half of all interviewees inquire about teleworking, and a 2013 study revealed 48 percent of business managers worldwide worked remotely at least half the time. The federal government is a big proponent of teleworking, according to a 2013 survey that showed increased support by agency leaders and higher participation across all employee groups.  

Tele-what?

Also known as telecommuting, virtual work, and working remotely, teleworking is a work arrangement that allows the employee to perform their work at an approved alternative location, usually the employee's home or maybe a telework center or a satellite office. Most telework arrangements today are part-time but can be anything from full-time to just once a month. It can be permanent or for a designated period of time, like when an employee breaks his ankle and can't drive for six weeks. The average teleworker is college-educated and 49 years old, makes $58,000 a year, and typically works for a company with more than 100 employees. 

A balancing act

If you're the employee, a teleworking arrangement usually means a better work-life balance, among other benefits. Commute time is reduced drastically, meaning you can spend that extra time going for a run or helping your daughter with her homework. You save money on gas and your wardrobe, and you might even be able to take a home-office deduction on your taxes. There's total control over your workplace environment so no more subzero office temperature. 

The disadvantages are less obvious. Some studies suggest recognition of the teleworker suffers, from the spontaneous, “Great idea, John!” that one might hear at a meeting to being passed over for promotions. It might affect your relationship with coworkers who resent your arrangement or feel you're goofing off at home. Over time, the isolation can be a drag on productivity, because even though you were able to teleconference in for the meeting, you missed the spontaneous brainstorming that occurred at lunch that could've spurred on your creativity. It also can blur the lines between work and personal life, as your home office beckons constantly from the family room. 

The teleworker can take action to address these impediments: 

  • If you're local, a combination of working from home and in the office might be the ideal answer. Schedule regular time in the office when your team can expect your presence, not only for important meetings but just to reconnect and lay the groundwork for brainstorming. Then save the portable work like report writing and returning emails for when you're working from home.
  • If you're not nearby, show coworkers and management how available you really are by using the technology at hand. Ask them via video chat how the meeting went with the new client. Assure them you're pulling your weight by putting the proposal you just completed on the company's server. Check email and voicemail frequently to ensure a seamless working relationship with those stationed in the office.
  • Periodically ask your boss about the latest vision for the organization so you're aware of any future opportunities.
  • Make a specific work plan every day, and stay focused. Don't do anything you wouldn't do during normal business hours at work, like folding laundry. When finished with work for the day, shut your office door, so you're not tempted to write one more email. 

Determine what motivates you

Not everyone is cut out to work from home. For some, the hustle and bustle of an office environment is stimulating and working in isolation most of the day is a big demotivator. If you don't have someone figuratively looking over your shoulder all day, will you stare at the birdfeeder for hours? Ask yourself these questions before you pursue a remote arrangement: 

  • Can I work well in isolation?
  • Am I self-motivated and self-disciplined?
  • Am I confident I can communicate effectively with my work team and stakeholders without being there in person?
  • Do I have enough technical know-how to maximize use of the technology at my disposal?
  • Do I have dedicated space to work without interruptions?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, teleworking probably is not the best fit for you right now. 

What's in it for the boss?

An employer can have compelling reasons for supporting teleworking. Numerous studies show teleworkers experience higher job satisfaction, a greater feeling of empowerment over their work, and increased loyalty to their employer - all factors that reduce turnover. Then there's the cost savings. Employers don't need to provide office space (and all the costs that go with it) and even some supplies. And teleworkers tend, on average, to be more productive, due in part to more hours devoted to work rather than wasted on commuting time. 

But there are barriers to teleworking within an organization. Chief among them are managers, used to managing by observation, fearing they'll lose control. To be successful, the manager of the teleworking employee should: 

  • Develop clear work-performance objectives and communicate them to the teleworker. A written agreement that spells out benchmarks, communication guidelines, and work hours are essential to teleworking success, and the manager must hold the employee accountable.
  • Avoid micromanaging; trust your employee even though you can't always see him or her working. Ask for progress reports, but focus on the final result, not how the employee got there.
  • Ensure tools, like online meeting capabilities and shared calendars, are in place to allow the teleworking employee to properly do his or her job. Investments in new technology might be needed, requiring training for the whole team.
  • If you're managing more than one teleworker, appoint a telework program officer who can develop protocols and train others on best practices.  
  • Assure other department members the teleworker is no more or less important than other employees but that the arrangement is mutually beneficial for the company and the employee.

Proper planning and training can make teleworking a positive for all parties concerned. Just remember the motto “Work is something you do, not something you travel to,” and you'll be able to overcome any obstacles in your way.