Working from Home aka Step 1 to Having No Life

Telecommute.When people are just getting started working from home, they go one of two ways:

a) They are wildly productive without the constant barrage of calls, officemates, random PA announcements (yes, some companies do them), and the various other things that interrupt their day; OR

b) They are wildly unproductive with the constant barrage of calls, family, random television shows, cleaning (yes, some people clean), and the various other things that interrupt their day; OR

Can you guess why I'm writing this post. 😉

These are my notes, ideas, and practices from telecommuting extensively over the past 5 years…

My first telecommuting situation was on a government contract back in 2002. Our team was working on 30 day iterations – we didn't call them iterations in those days – but it made for very tangible deliverables and direction and the boss agreed to let us telecommute one day each week. During my first couple telecommuting days, I made a great effort to get things done, but I found it hard to get started and even worse to stay focused. Then it hit me: I needed a commute.

Every morning before I got started, I walked to a local coffee shop, got a cup of coffee and walked back. It was a 20 minute trip (vs my 45 minute commute) but it provided enough of a change so that I could say "I'm going to work". That worked extremely well until the project ended a year later.

Fast forward a couple years and I was telecommuting on a relatively large project 2-3 days/week. Initially, the same thing worked… a short "commute" to go get coffee but it eventually required additional steps:

First, I got a dedicated computer. There were no games, toys, etc installed on the machine and it was only used for work. Not only did it keep the machine clean and functional, but it helped me stay focused and said clearly "no, this is for work".

Next, I had a dedicated office. At the time, I had a spare bedroom and turned it into my command center. The room was used for nothing other than work… no storage, no reading, nothing at all.

Next, I had to strictly manage my time. Due to the sheer number of things that need(ed) to get done, I had to Time box my tasks. This worked really well until I built the customer base to the point where support calls/emails started to become a measurable part of the day. I've since started planning/tracking my day based on a variation of PERT planning to know dependencies and critical path on my individual projects.

Finally, I always look to do things better. Using dotProject, I started tracking estimates vs actuals to track my biases and account/plan accordingly. I'm constantly on the lookout for new tools, concepts, and practices to keep things moving. And most importantly, I decline the projects that don't make sense…. due to timelines, budgets, expectiations, etc. Not every project will be a good idea.

So… is telecommuting parttime for you?

I suspect that most people can do one day/week. That's just often enough that they don't lose connection with the outside world, they still have constraints and structure, and things will continue to move from inertia if nothing else. If you take the next step and telecommute 100% of the time, you need to get outside yourself and think about what does and will motivate you. You need to figure out what structures and rules you need for yourself… and how you can best apply them. And some will completely fail, trust me on that one. 😉

But of course, there's the biggest drawback of all… it's hard to shut off. When your home is your office, you end up checking email "one more time" and most likely you hear every call… once I figure out how to shut off, I'll let you know.