Before I took the leap to freelancing full time, I’d assumed that telecommuting would mean never wearing pants and getting to answer emails from the comfort of my bed. Certainly, there are those elements. But there’s a lot more to it than I’d never anticipated, and there are some legitimate challenges.
Telecommuting is work arrangement in which the employee works outside the company’s office space, typically from home, coffee shops, libraries and other remote co-working spaces. The employee communicates with employers, colleagues and clients via telephone, email and communication applications. Sometimes, the employee might pay visits to the office to attend meetings and to touch base with employers, but there’s less and less of a need to do so as face-to-face interaction is replaced by virtual face-to-face interaction via mobile and desktop screens.
A report on telecommuting in the United States from FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics, 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce, found that 3.9 million U.S. employees who make up 2.9 percent of the total U.S. workforce work from home at least half of the time. In fact, there’s been a 115 percent percent increase in telecommuting between 2005 to 2015 (up from 1.8 million in 2005). Perhaps the increase is because working from home is an attractive opportunity, never mind the fact that the average annual income of telecommuters is $4,000 per year higher than those who work on-site.
Forty percent more U.S. employers offered flexible workplace options in 2017 than in 2010, which has given employees a lot more freedom regarding both work location and work hours, plus more flexibility to balance work and personal obligations. Working from home also makes a lot of people more productive in that they don’t have to waste time commuting to and from the office, and they can handle their daily responsibilities devoid of workplace distractions. A report released by the company Chess Media Group found that 90 percent of workers actually believe that an organization offering flexible work environments is more attractive than an organization that does not offer any opportunities to work remotely.
Telecommuting also benefits employers in that it allows them to work with top talent, regardless of location. Because those employees are likely to be happier in their jobs, it also leads to greater employee retention. Therefore, another advantage of telecommuting for an employer with a telecommuting policy is, often, better work. Because an employee with a telecommuting job has a better work-life balance, their morale is boosted, which subsequently boosts employee performance. Likewise, it of course saves companies money in office expenses like equipment, amenities and more — plus rent and utilities if they choose to forgo an office altogether.
Theoretically, a lot of us don’t need offices anyway. New technologies allow employees to stay connected so long as they’ve got an internet connection. Services like Slack and Google Hangouts allow employees to keep in quicker communication than email itself, and virtual conferencing platforms like Skype for Business allow them to meet face to face through their screens. Google Drive allows employees to create assets and seamlessly share and peer edit documents, presentations and spreadsheets, as well. Besides, according to Forbes, millennials, who are very used to being connected online, are projected to be the majority of the U.S. workforce by 2020, which is just around the corner.
But it’s important to look at telecommuting as a business strategy, not a perk. Telecommuting is not for everyone. For example, not everyone can do their jobs from home. Many client-facing jobs, for example, require employees to be in the office for meetings; some sales jobs require a more personal level of communication and some more manual jobs require equipment that employees just don’t have at home. But the challenges of telecommuting go beyond practicality.
Off-site work isn't always easy. As a former full-time employee of a media company with a somewhat flexible work arrangement, and now a full-time freelance writer with a completely flexible work arrangement, no office space, remote work and my own work schedule, I can tell you from firsthand experience that there are challenges to telecommuting. My work-life balance has indubitably improved, and I certainly prefer off-site work, but it's not as easy as it looks. There are some harsh realities of telecommuting that no one tells you, and here’s what I mean.
1. You have to motivate yourself.
When you don’t have to be at an office at a certain time with someone there to hold you accountable, you have to motivate yourself to get up and get working every morning. It’s therefore even more important for telecommuters to enjoy their line of work so that they will push themselves to perform at their best.
For me, waking up each morning to get writing is not a challenge because, to me, work doesn’t feel like work. But I do find that I struggle to wake up as early as I was before because I tend to be more productive late at night instead. While I still get my work done, my sleeping schedule is off and sleep deprivation can lead to a whole host of issues that could affect your work.
2. You might find yourself working around the clock.
When I was working at an office, I’d go in at 9:30 in the morning and I’d leave around 6:30 in the evening. While I did have side jobs to do when I got home, the day’s work for my full-time job was done. I really couldn’t do more work if I’d wanted to because most of my colleagues (except those in other time zones) were also signed off for the day — no more meetings and no more emails.
Now that I’m working as a remote writer full time, I find that I’m pretty much always working or that there’s at least always work I could be doing. I’m on the clock 24/7, writing and answering emails at all hours of the night as I'm working for clients in multiple time zones. I’ve downloaded the minimalistic to-do list app TeuxDeux, to get myself into a routine and set schedules so that I can better organize my days. Whatever I don’t finish one day automatically moves to the next day so I can easily keep track of my responsibilities.
3. You have to try harder to establish your presence.
While a telecommuting policy can promote a better work-life balance, face-to-face communication and face-to-face interaction are still instrumental in the workplace. Any full-time employee should get to know the people with whom they're engaging on a daily basis.
It’s easier to make your presence known within a company when you’re physically present at the office. When you’re remote, however, it can be harder for colleagues and employers to get to know you, which inevitably makes it harder for them to trust you on projects. We already know that women have a more difficult time finding sponsors to advocate for them in their careers, so building rapport with colleagues and employers is critical.
I've been showing up at more networking media events and co-working with other freelancers in order to keep myself present in the industry. As for making sure my employers think of me for opportunities, I keep in almost daily communication with most of them and have regular Skype check-ins with some, too.
4. You might not see civilization all day.
An office is also a social setting, and a lot of people make their closest friends at work. Many offices have communal kitchens and common spaces where coworkers can sit together, eat lunch and catch up, on top of talking business.
But when you work from home, you don’t necessarily have to leave the house all day, which means that, if you live alone, you might not see anyone else all day. It’s easy to get sucked into your computer once you get going and, if there’s a lot of work to get done, the day could fly by before you know it. I, therefore, always make the effort to get up and leave my apartment before I get sucked into it. I spend the bulk of my time in local coffee shops where I can be productive but surround myself with other remote workers, and I make sure to take a break to go to my kickboxing classes or meet friends for a few hours (and usually get right back to work when I get home).
5. You’ll probably spend more money.
Because I spend a lot of time in coffee shops, I spend a lot more money than I did when I was cooped up in an office with free coffee and snacks all day. When you squat at coffee shops or cafes, you’re pretty much socially obliged to make at least one purchase. In New York City, where I live, I spend about $20 a day minimum on chai lattes and lunch at the places from which I work. That adds up — though it does help that I’m no longer spending over $100 on commuting costs every month.
6. Vacations might become harder to take.
Because I’m very used to working from anywhere, I tend to have trouble separating work and play. In other words, my life always feels sort of like a “vacation” in that I can be anywhere whenever I want — like, say, the beach — but I have difficulty actually tuning out of work when I’m on a real vacation.
High stress, guilt and workload concerns are primarily keeping women from using their time off, according to Project: Time Off’s report, State of American Vacation 2017. But vacationing is good for your health and can prevent against burnout. It promotes a renewed sense of purpose outside of work, allows time for otherwise neglected self-care rituals like much-needed sleep and relieves stress, which reduces the risk of developing both mental and physical health risks over time. Plus, According to “An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the US,” commissioned by the US Travel Association, taking time off leads to higher productivity and overall morale — which, in turn, naturally leads to greater employee retention.
But being able to work from the beach means that you might be more inclined to be answering emails from your phone while laying in the sand.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.