Some companies are reassessing their work-from-home policies, but you can make it work for you. Use these five tips for telecommuting.
When you think of telecommuting, you might picture yourself padding downstairs to your home office in your PJs, sipping freshly brewed coffee from your favorite mug. You envision peacefully tending to your projects without the nerve-rattling aftereffects of a bumper-to-bumper commute or the distracting chatter of colleagues. And, to a certain extent, you’d be right.
But there are also challenges that may not come to mind so readily: the blurred line between personal and professional, the possibility of being passed over for plum projects because you’re not in your manager’s line of sight, not to mention your boss’ fear that you’re actually trolling Facebook or catching up on housework when she can’t reach you.
Without question, telecommuting can be a huge plus for designers who want to spend less time in their cars and more time with friends and family or pursuing outside interests, but it requires intense discipline. You need to up your communications game since you’ll no longer be able to have casual, desk-side conversations, and you’ll also have to set reasonable boundaries for your coworkers and clients if you want to avoid being on-call 24/7.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t pursue the comforts of working remotely. With a little dedication and some careful planning, you can make your home office a truly productive work space. Following are five tips to consider as you strive to work from your home base:
1. Time it right.
Telecommuting works best when your employer knows you well and trusts your work ethic, and you’ve established relationships with the rest of your colleagues. When you’re just starting out in your career, face-time is more important, since you’re learning not just design but also preferred communication styles, how to navigate office politics and what it takes to get ahead.
Christopher Hanley, an independent designer who works out of his home in Dallas, advises new designers to think twice before telecommuting. “To learn the ropes, you need to get in the office,” he says. “Get a job in a good company. That’s how you build up your relationships and network.”
Likewise, Kristina Hendrickson, a graphic designer who works remotely, didn’t set out to telecommute initially. She worked full-time on site for Maranatha Baptist Bible College and Seminary in Watertown, WI, for two years until her husband secured a job 600 miles away in Grand Rapids, MN. Hendrickson thought she would have to find a new gig when she and her spouse made the move, but was pleasantly surprised when her employer offered the option of telecommuting. “The thing that helped me work remotely is the fact that I was there before I moved—I know the ins and outs and the people,” she says.
That’s not to say telecommuting a day or two a week is out of the question when you’re fresh into a new job: Many companies offer this as a perk and expect their designers to take them up on it. But, if you’re a newbie, keep in mind the words attributed to Woody Allen: “80% of success is just showing up.”
2. Get into a routine.
Many people work remotely in an effort to reduce commute time and enjoy greater work-life balance. But that balance can swiftly slide to the side of work if you don’t establish a routine. “With work only a few steps away, there can be quite a temptation to work all the time rather than signing off when you need to,” says Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group. “It’s important to build transitions into your day.”
Hanley agrees with this sentiment. “You need to get up at the same time and pretend that you’re going to the office,” he says. “I try to get up at 7 a.m. every morning. I have a cup of coffee and get ready to start work at about 8. I pretend that I’m at a company office rather than a home office.”
For Hanley, that also means letting his clients know when he’s available and when he’s not. “My No. 1 tip is to keep clients informed of your schedule,” he said. “At first, I thought that would scare them away. But they understand if you have a good relationship.”
If you’re a full-timer, the pull to respond to coworkers around the clock may be even stronger. “I feel like I have to prove something to the people in the office— I’m still on top of things and worth having—so I always want to respond,” Hendrickson says. “But sometimes, you just have to say ‘no.’ Always checking your email can stand in the way of getting your job done.”
Conducting business in a designated space and not carrying your laptop or tablet from room to room can help you disconnect when your office hours are over, advises Hendrickson. “This year, I’ve really been focused on trying to leave my job at the end of the work day and enjoy being at home when it’s time to make dinner,” she says.
3. Stay visible.
Designers are visual people, and one of the most challenging aspects of telecommuting can be that you suddenly become much less visible. When your creative director is looking around the room to decide who should work on a new project or account, for example, you could miss out simply because you’re not present. To combat this “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome, you need to communicate more actively than usual. It’s all about fostering great business relationships.
“Reactive communication just doesn’t work when you’re telecommuting,” Domeyer says. “You need to raise your hand and volunteer for projects. Make an effort to attend team meetings whenever possible, and look for ways to make a memorable impression with those you work closest with, whether it’s offering to take on a difficult project or sending cookies to the office.”
For Hendrickson, who also oversees a couple of other designers, weekly meetings conducted via Skype help her stay connected. “I feel like Skype is important because I’m a visual person, and I like to see faces,” she explains. “I communicate with my hands, my face and my body language. Over text, you lose some of that personal connection.”
4. Take advantage of technology.
Like Skype, there are many technologies that can make telecommuting easier, from video-conferencing to file-sharing and other collaboration tools. Don’t depend on your manager or clients to know all of the options. Instead, take the lead in exploring new tools. If you work with a large company, get to know your firm’s help desk professionals, since they can be an important ally in making sure you have the latest and greatest products.
If you work independently, the onus is on you to make sure you have the necessary tools at your fingertips. ”You need to have all of the equipment to ensure a smooth workflow for your client so they don’t see any hiccups,” Hanley says. “Keeping up-to-date with your programs is important so you don’t run into glitches”
Hanley frequently art directs with a web developer in Tennessee, and collaboration tools help the two stay connected. “That’s the greatness of technology,” Hanley says. “I’ve never met him in person, but we talk all the time. It’s seamless. You get a lot more done because you don’t have to travel to a meeting, sit there and travel back.”
5. Stay in the know.
Technology isn’t the only thing that needs to be updated regularly—so do your design skills. When you work off-site, you often miss out on the day-to-day information exchanges that help you keep up with emerging trends, and you may not be the first person your company sends to conferences or seminars.
“Being confined to my own house, I feel like I may be missing out on some of the interaction and creative things that just happen in the office,” Hendrickson says. To keep up, she’s started tuning into webinars.
For Hanley, social media allows him to stay connected and continue learning. “There are lots of options for professional development, from webinars to Meetup groups, to online courses,” Domeyer says. “The key is to make time for a few activities that work for you, since you may not get as much learning through diffusion as on-site workers receive.”
Telecommuting is a trend that isn’t going away: In fact, about one in five workers around the globe now spends at least part of her workweek at home, according to a study by Ipsos.
The same study found that 78% of workers who telecommute say they have a better work-family balance. So, there are plenty of upsides to telecommuting. But it’s not as simple as plugging in from your laptop. To make it work, you need to set realistic expectations, stick to your schedule and stay visible. If you do those things well, you may be able to say “farewell” to long commutes and “hello” to your cozy home office.
Tips for the Occasional Telecommuter
Many designers now telecommute just one or two days a week. If you’re working from home now and then, use these tips to ensure your productivity:
• Keep people informed. Try to maintain a regular telecommuting schedule and let colleagues know when you’re working from home.
• Use technology wisely. Don’t forget to forward your phone calls from your office to your home phone or cell, and ensure you have access to all necessary files.
• Plan around meetings. Avoid telecommuting on days where there are staff meetings or other important in-person gatherings.
• Make it easy on others. Your coworkers shouldn’t have to work harder when you telecommute. If someone is accustomed to handing you marked-up files, for example, it may seem like a hassle for them to have to outline design changes in an email. Find solutions that work for both of you—perhaps a PDF that’s comment-enabled.
• Keep it professional. Make sure you’re available during office hours and that there’s no distracting noise—like barking dogs—during phone calls. Ideally, coworkers and clients shouldn’t be aware that you’re working remotely.
• Show your boss the benefits. Some managers worry that telecommuters aren’t productive. Make sure your supervisor knows what you’re able to accomplish from home, free of distractions.
Want more tips to ensure your design career is long and prosperous? Check out the Design Career Lifecycle download for help managing the ups and downs of a creative profession.