July 19, 2005

Telecommuting Safety Tips

Have you ever slipped into a dream on your Day Of Endless Meetings?

You: (grinning in a Dilbert tie while reclining on a beach) "Ha ha, I have found the perfect hiding place. My enemies will never find me here at Waikiki, thousands of miles away from Imperial Headquarters."
You: (raising one arm and setting the beach aglow with your reflective tanless pale skin) "I have broken free of my chains! I will never ever attend a weekly status meeting again - I am a Telecommuter! Moohoohoohahaha. Heh."

The thing about this dream is that the beach fantasy is real, but the part about being hidden is not. In our internet-connected wireless cell phone world you will have no absolutely trouble working from Hawaii or Paris or Your Bedroom or wherever. But wherever you are, there will still be the meetings. And that is a good thing.

I have been a full-time telecommuter for about eight years - I started working remotely for Microsoft when my wife started her surgery residency here in at Penn, and later I worked remotely for Crossgain, BEA, and now for Google. As a remoter, I have contributed to about a dozen projects working mostly as a software engineer but sometimes as a program manager. The projects, companies, and roles have been varied. But I have found that the principles of successful telecommuting are the same everywhere.

I have always telecommuted out of necessity and not as a lifestyle or working-style choice. But over the years I have found that my lifestyle and my working style have both benefitted tremendously from being a remoter. I have been more involved in my kids' life than I ever could have been working in an office. And I have been able to make much larger contributions on more ambitious projects than I ever did when I working in an office. Through accident and circumstance I have discovered a basic surprising fact: home is usually a far better place to work than the office. It is absolutely puzzling to me that most of the working world sits in traffic for hours every day waiting to go into the office.

My conclusion is that everybody should telecommute. I believe that someday the world will become a telecommuting society. But it will not be an easy transition; it is not just a matter of packing up your laptop and bringing it home whenever you feel like holing up. Very few people understand the basic physics of teamwork outside the office. The problem is that the dynamics do not come naturally to most people: there is a set of skills that need to be learned, and a set of office-work habits that need to be unlearned. Telecommuting has its own physics.

Remote work is like sailing. In many ways, you are on your own; you must consciously arrange for every need you have that might otherwise "come for free" at the office. So it forces you to become very conscious of your lifelines and your responsibilities. When you make a mistake, you can be set adrift for days, and you will suffer. If you survive a mistake (if you don't get fired), you will learn your lesson, and you will be better for it. But it is best not to get in a fatal situation to begin with. On that note, I leave you with two basic sailing safety tips that are essential to the telecommuter.

Safety Tip 1. When the forecast is changing, come in to port.

Every telecommuter works out of a physical office somewhere, and the physical office is the place to been when storm winds are blowing. When the forecast changes, buy a plane ticket. Hire a babysitter. Skip your child's soccer game. When there is a storm, you need to go into the office.

If your department is about to be reorganized, then the place you don't want to be is at home, beavering away on last year's programming project. If you ignore change and stay at home when a hurricane hits, then at best, you are wasting your time. At worst, you will be mistaken as dead weight in the commotion and you will be thrown overboard.

There is much more to this rule of thumb than basic safety, however. The same rule of thumb applies when there is no crisis. I will have more to say about it in the future.

Safety Tip 2. Never set sail without a working radio.

More than anything else, the key to successful telecommuting is communication. If you do not have many good ways of communicating with the rest of your team, you will fail.

This tip means not only making sure you have the basic tools, like a working internet connection, cell phone, email, and IM. It means that your teams' main channels of communication need to work remotely. In software, that means you need to be using source code control systems, online specs, and online bug databases. It also means that you and your team need to have a culture of actually using these tools. A phone is no good if nobody ever answers. Email is no good if nothing important ever happens over email.

Without good communications on your little sailing trip, not only will you find yourself cut off, but you will find yourself adrift. You will find yourself without a way to navigate, without support, and without supplies and drinking water. Eventually at your next Quarterly Performance Review your team will notice that your ship has circling the same uninteresting spot for months, and that you have been struggling to survive. The rest of the team will have moved on to new territory. And soon they will discover that they don't need you. You will find that you are no longer part of the team.

More than anything else, telecommuting is about communication. It means that while you sit on Waikiki with your laptop, you will likely find yourself on the phone attending that weekly status meeting that right now you wish you didn't have to attend.

The difference will be, you will look forward to it. More on this in future articles.

Posted by David at July 19, 2005 10:08 AM

Recommending that everybody should telecommute is extreme.

Did you ever think of all the opportunities you missed by *not* interacting physically with your coworkers on a daily basis?

All the crazy project ideas that could have come out of it?

The pointless yet passionate arguments over technical details or religious wars?

The value of a co_mpany is in the alchemy it creates by putting a bunch of bright individuals in the same location. This value would be completely lost with your vision.

I totally understand what you gained from telecommuting, but there's a happy middle between having a balanced family life and contributing to a co_mpany in a way that will make the total more than the sum of its parts.

And you can't capture this if everybody telecommutes.


Posted by: Cedric at July 20, 2005 01:50 PM

"My conclusion is that everybody should telecommute."
I agree. Why? Just google Peak oil.

Posted by: Dimitar Vesselinov at July 23, 2005 07:30 AM

In the situations when you needed to head back to port, has it always been the case that your employer gleefully covered your travel and housing expenses, or have you ever had to cover those expenses yourself out of a sense of concern over the changing weather?

Posted by: A Fellow Telecommuter at November 10, 2006 12:01 PM

I've never had any trouble with reimbursement for travel expenses, including during times of change and turmoil. I think the natural desire of an employer is to want to have you at the central office more often, rather than less.

The response to "I think I should be in town next week when we are all meeting about big-deal X," will most often be "that sounds like good idea." Once in a while, I will get, "oh, X is not such a big deal; come if you want, but don't feel like you have to."

Posted by: David at November 10, 2006 10:29 PM

Dear David,
i found your blog while searching for tips on working remotely.

I am a recent college hire PM at Microsoft. I havent joined yet and due to US H1B visa issues, the team is now considering having me work remotely from the new Microsoft center in Canada. I have a meeting with them in this regard coming up soon.

Since you have actually worked remotely as a PM and at Microsoft, I would be grateful for any advice\comments you can offer on this topic.
thanks again!

Posted by: aPerson at October 7, 2007 05:01 PM

Please do share more about what you do from home and how I can do it as well. I want to telecommute but don't know of any real people who are actually doing it!

Thank You,

Posted by: Dee at February 26, 2008 02:34 AM
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