On the Clock

How to Work From Home—And Not Be Forgotten

Working remotely comes with challenges that could ruin what would otherwise be an excellent opportunity.

You’re one of the lucky ones. You landed a well-paying project manager role at a deep-pocketed tech firm. You not only get access to a robust benefits package, game room, and gourmet cafeteria that are standard features of digital employment, but you also get the freedom to work from home. Whenever you want. It sounds pretty sweet, doesn’t it?

Working remotely in the United States has grown 115% in the last decade, nearly 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce, according to research firm Global Workplace Analytics’ most recent “State of Telecommuting” report. Companies that offered remote work options to employees increased 40% from 2010 to 2015. And yet, while working from home seems common, only 7% of companies currently offer the benefit to all or most of their workforce, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

“People work from home when they need to concentrate.”

No doubt, there are well-documented benefits of working remotely for both the organization and employee—from saving money on real estate to attracting and retaining talent, to higher engagement and better work/life balance. But be warned: Working remotely comes with challenges that could ruin what would otherwise be an excellent opportunity. With that in mind, here are a few things to consider before setting up shop in your hammock.

Understand the history.

It wasn’t until recently that organizations began viewing remote working as a strategic rather than practical benefit. Historically, it was looked at as an option that arose as a way to cut costs. As a result, there usually isn’t a training program for employees around remote working, and many companies are just now coming around to writing policies on how and when people can work from home. “To the extent that companies and employees can be clear about how and why they are doing it, the more confident they will be in it,” says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. Organizations are now taking a cross-functional view and involving IT, HR, marketing, and other operations to communicate and design remote work programs that can help achieve business goals.

Know your occupation.

Certain industries and occupations are more suited to remote work than others. Tech workers, for instance, can collaborate virtually. Lawyers, by contrast, need to be in the same room together, and retail managers must be able to walk the floors to ensure quality control. “If the company is command and control, where butts need to be in the seats, working remotely just won’t work,” Lister says. According to GWA’s report, remote work is most common in industries including tech, healthcare, education, and finance.

Butter up your manager.

Understanding management’s expectations is critical to any remote working relationship. “The real reason you’re not allowed to work from home is that managers at all levels are fearful of change and especially fearful of change that requires them to step out of their comfort zone,” writes Liz Ryan, author of Reinvention Roadmap: Break the Rules to Get the Job You Want and Career You Deserve. Indeed, just because the organization permits working from home doesn’t mean your manager has to like it. Employees and managers must walk a delicate tightrope between autonomy and control. If an employee plans to work from home four days a week and the manager expects them do so twice, that’s going to be a problem—most likely for the employee. Your best bet? Starting small, and proving to your boss that you actually get more work done at home by answering emails promptly and starting work earlier since you’ve omitted your morning commute.

Make a fair trade.

Remote work invokes bipolar images of, on the positive side, a home-office paradise where you’re a star employee who gets things done with little oversight, and, on the negative side, a barrage of emails, calls, video conferences, instant messages, and more, all while the dog is barking, the baby is crying, and the FedEx guy is at the door. The reality for most is probably somewhere in the middle. As with any trade, you have to weigh what you need with what you are willing to sacrifice. Can you be as productive and engaged despite being removed from the company’s culture and spirit? Data suggests that most people want to work from home when they need to concentrate and work from the office when they need to collaborate. As Virgin Group chief executive Richard Branson—who’s been known to work from home and take breaks with a tennis match or kite surfing—wrote in a blog post, “Too many companies don’t realize the monotony of a lot of people’s day-to-day life at work. I try to encourage chief executives worldwide to make sure that there’s as much flexibility in the workplace as possible.”