Today, 2.8 million self-employed Americans work from home, while another 3.3 million workers consider their homes their primary workplace, even though many of their employers have corporate offices, according to Global Workplace Analytics, a San Diego-based research firm.
“Nearly half of the workforce now holds a job that could be performed, at least some of the time, from home or a ‘third place’ such as a coffee shop, library or park bench,” says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. “Nearly 80 percent of employees say they’d like to work at home at least part of the time and a third would take a pay cut for the opportunity.”
The reason? Workers want and need greater flexibility. But there may be other benefits.
According to Lister, data show that companies can save an average of $11,000 per year for every person who works remotely half the time.
There also are environmental benefits, because switching commuters to telecommuters can help reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, Lister says.
While working from home is a growing trend, many workers question how they should conduct themselves. Here are eight tips.
One of the biggest draws of telecommuting is the ability to set your own schedule. But the key is actually to set a schedule, says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a job-listing site for telecommuters.
“Setting a schedule helps me to get into work mode and stay on task throughout the day,” Fell says.
According to Fell, people often choose to work from home because they need a more flexible arrangement.
“Your schedule shouldn’t be a binding one,” Fell says. “If you need to rearrange things for a day or two, go right ahead, provided that you’re still able to get your work done.”
Still, working without an office or an on-site boss can be daunting. So to stay on task, Lainey Melnick, owner of Austin, Texas-based travel specialist CruiseOne, says it’s a good idea to create a routine and stick with it.
“A routine is very helpful when working from home, but there’s no right or wrong way to set one up,” Melnick says.
When you work from home, there is no dress code, but that shouldn’t mean that anything goes when it comes to what you wear.
“It’s important to at least change out of your pajamas and into day clothes when you work from home,” Fell says. “As for getting dressed up the same way you would if you worked in an office, no thank you.”
While you may not technically need to get out of your pajamas or even shower, many telecommuters say that doing the basics helps them separate work time from personal time, and to keep a positive mental outlook. Still, if you’ve got a videoconference or in-person meeting, Fell says it’s important to go the extra mile in terms of clothing and personal appearance.
While plenty of people work out of their living rooms, dens and dining rooms, a key element for serious telecommuters is a dedicated home office, says Sarah Giller Nelson of Less Is More Organizing Services, which helps people organize their homes.
“Creating a dedicated workspace will help keep you focused,” says Nelson.
Ideally, you’ll want a spare bedroom or a finished garage, basement or attic. But while that kind of space is nice to have, it isn’t a must.
“If you don’t have enough space to dedicate to a home office, simply carve out a zone in a room that shares many functions,” Nelson says. “All you need is a flat work surface, a chair, a few drawers and shelves, and an outlet.”
It also helps to be tidy. Nelson recommends that telecommuters take advantage of whatever spare storage they can find and make sure that everything has a place.
“If you don’t have time to put things away immediately after completing a task, take 10 minutes to put things away before you end your work session,” she says.
If you’re going to work from home, it’s essential to have a reliable phone and a fast Internet connection because they are your connections to the outside world as well as to your company, Fell says.
“Most companies with at-home staffers like to see download speeds of at least 5 (megabits per second), and the faster the better,” Fell says. “And it’s a good idea to know where your nearest backup source of Internet service is, whether it’s your mobile phone’s hot spot feature or the coffee shop down the street.”
Websites like Speedtest.net let you test your upload and download speeds for free. Many telecommuters say it’s also worth checking to see if your Internet service provider offers a faster business package. But those faster speeds come at a higher price and can vary widely, depending on where you live and your Internet service provider.
“Absolutely get the best equipment you can afford,” says Shelley Hunter, spokeswoman for GiftCards.com. “And make it wireless. Everything in my home is on Wi-Fi so I can work in any room at any time.”
Visit your local coffee shop at midday and you’re bound to see an army of telecommuters sipping their drinks while working at their laptops. For some, this office away from the home office is essential because they really don’t have the space to set up shop where they live. For others, working at a local coffee shop or a library is simply a nice change of pace from being cooped up at home. But it’s not for everyone.
“If I need a break, I take one,” Hunter says. “If the sun is shining, I might work on the back patio, but I never go to a restaurant or coffee shop to work. I don’t need the distractions.”
If you do choose to work outside of your home office, you may not want to rely on the typically slow Internet that often comes with the purchase of a cup of coffee.
“Sometimes, I work away from my home office,” says Melissa Whiteford St. Clair, owner of Paper Chaser, a virtual assistant firm she runs out of her North Carolina home. “But to ensure I have reliable Wi-Fi anywhere I go, I use a mobile hot spot to stay connected.”
There’s an old saying that may apply to some telecommuters: Out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately, that’s not a good recipe for your career. So if you telecommute, it’s critical to stay in touch with your boss and co-workers.
“Communication is king when you are a remote worker, for employer or employee,” says Craig Wolfe, who runs CelebriDucks, a novelty company specializing in rubber ducks, out of his San Francisco home office. “You must always be in constant communication with your team.”
Thankfully, there are myriad ways to stay in touch, from email and instant message to online collaboration tools that allow employees to work simultaneously in shared spreadsheets and documents. And if all else fails, there’s always the telephone.
But the challenge, says Christine Durst, co-founder of the telecommuting site Rat Race Rebellion, isn’t finding a communications tool; it’s making a point to stay connected.
“You have to answer your phone and reply promptly to emails,” Durst says. “Failure to answer the phone or email breeds concern and skepticism in managers, but answering will help reassure them that you are there for them and working as expected.”
One upside to telecommuting is the ability to do midday chores like cooking or cleaning. But while it’s tempting to use work time to get ahead on the household tasks, you need to be disciplined, says Dana Humphrey, who runs Whitegate PR from her home in New York City.
“I have worked for myself and from home for six years,” Humphrey says. “At first, I would take breaks to clean and cook and justify it. Now, I’m too busy to let these chores seep in, so I set aside time for these activities.”
One of the best ways to avoid distractions is to set mental boundaries, says Pace Smith, a Portland, Oregon-based life coach who works from home.
“To avoid distractions, I create a virtual office,” Smith says. “I say out loud, ‘I’m starting my workday now,’ and it’s as if I’ve left the house and gone to a physical office. I come home for lunch and then leave again. And when I’m done working for the day, I say, ‘I’m done with my workday.’ Of course, I need all my family members to play this game with me, but when everyone plays along, it works perfectly.”
Those who telecommute insist that there is still value to face time, even if it is just an occasional social get-together with co-workers.
At Web Success Agency, a fully remote Web marketing firm, CEO Avin Kline says the company uses virtual meetup tools like Google Hangout. But he says it’s also important for the 10-person company to get together in the physical world, too.
“We try to get the whole team together face to face at least twice a year to fill the gaps that digital can’t,” Kline says. “Having a beer together over a Google Hangout just isn’t quite the same.”
On the other hand, if most employees work from the office, telecommuters should make a point of scheduling an on-site meeting periodically, says Shilonda Downing, founder of Virtual Work Team.
“A little face time can go a long way, especially in terms of combating resentment from your co-workers,” Downing says. “If you can, offer to come in once a week or even just once a month because it helps to build those co-worker relationships.”