How to Build a Telecommuting Career

Greg Baker is the skeptical CFO of Logicalis International. But when he is sold on a concept he embraces it deeply. That is what happened when he included telecommuting in the company's recent wave of growth. Baker knew that during times of rapid growth it is easy to overspend, so he took the opposite approach by creating telecommuting policy to assist LI expansion plans.

Baker's growth strategy made room for the mobile world. Adopting telecommuting reduced fixed costs by eliminating several long-term leases on space and resulted in the need to purchase less office furniture and equipment. It gave Logicalis other advantages by helping expand the Logicalis talent pool. The company hired talent where they lived, shrinking relocation costs while attracting the best employees. They instituted the policy for all employees and increased employee retention, a further reduction in HR expense.

In Canada over 50% of Canadians have said they want to telecommute, listing it in importance only after salary. Despite that fact, only 10% of Canadians are telecommuters.

Unlike Logicalis International, Canadian corporations are slow to adopt telework. Gartner Group, in their June 2004 Dataquest, determined that Canada is following a more cautious approach, encouraging the more robust corporations to increase their competitive advantage by become the early adopters. But, like Logicalis, clever CFOs in Canada will not be left behind for long. To prepare, Canadian workers can watch and learn from their USA counterparts.

What Can Canadians Learn from Americans?

Primarily, Canadians can learn how to build careers while telecommuting. It is not enough to just telework. While being a virtual worker does change one's lifestyle, it needs to be managed differently if you are building a career. Remote employees should start with three key foci.

First, start with your performance review.

Allocate as much time to strong points as the "needs improvement" areas. A successful out of office employee is perceived as the 'go to' person for at least one area. Mary Nicholson, now Director at Universal Music Group, was part of Washington Mutual during the turbulent times of the mortgage meltdown. She survived several rocky moments at WaMu while telecommuting to Seattle from her home in Los Angeles because nobody knew corporate data dictionaries like her. She could work where she pleased because she was the "go to" person for those people who needed to understand data.

Second, think strategically about your career by using SMART goals.

Managers measure a telecommuter's tele-commitment, so be SMART. Now an industry standard, the ability to define goals that include Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Sensitive (SMART) components provides a solid career framework, allowing the remote professional to continue towards career goals. On this every telecommuter must lead. Even managers who do not use SMART goals change and savvy professionals who stay ahead of the game are solid practitioners of SMART.

Third, know your technology options.

The biggest problem professionals face as telecommuters is awareness about the tools they need to get their jobs done effectively. A successful remote professional masters four essential tools, using them as easily as a pencil, sharpening them as they dull and replacing them when they have reached the end of the cycle.

  1. Virtual Conferencing: Today tools like Cisco's WebEx and Citrix's GoTo Meeting make it easier to be in the office while working away from the office. During the Washington Mutual integration into Chase I used WebEx to employ an expert from London England to mentor engineers through virtual classrooms. The engineers remained in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and New York while we met for real time joint sessions, broke into smaller working groups, came back to report to the larger groups, worked through issues as teams in real time, talked to each other over web cameras and had side conversations on trunked phone lines where we could reconfigure teams instantly according to needs. The key? I took the time to work with the people at WebEx to learn their tool well enough to manage the sessions. As you can guess, once you master the hard parts, doing worldwide presentations are a breeze.

  2. Technological Redundancy: Overlooking the simplest things can set up disaster. A professional telecommuter will plan for redundancy: an internet stick to compensate for those moments when the main internet connection is interrupted, running large presentations from two computers so that if one fails the other can take over, and storing email and key documents locally and remotely. All of these are important parts in creating the professional remote executive. It takes lots of behind the scenes effort to make things look effortless but the mark of a professional is found in the ability to compensate quickly for failures in technology and a mastery of the technology used to stay plugged in to the working environment.

  3. Security: Amateurs overlook this area often because it is complex and takes effort to know how to work with security features. Is it really needed? Well, a mismatch in connectivity can cause hours of downtime - your absence due to technical ignorance comes across to others as incompetence. It is important to understand the configuration of the office and its security protocols. Not knowing whether to choose between WEP40/ 128 bit hex or ascii or WPA2 Enterprise over LEAP can effectively make the most brilliant telecommuter the dumbest team player. Learn your security framework and know how to thrive in it.

  4. Telephone and Contact Management. - In a day of speed dialing and direct calling from contact lists a professional will always make sure their devices have the people called most often available and that accessibility is easy. Call forwarding, listing a current number in the corporate directory and leaving it on voice mail signals that you are someone who is keen to help every caller get in touch. When there is nobody sitting in the cube next to you it is critical that you run this show yourself. There will be times while waiting for your bagel that you will need to get a hold of a coworker to resolve a crisis. Don't be caught without that most basic of tools - the phone number.

To sum up
Building a career while working away from the pack takes talent and training beyond that which applies to the person in the next cube. Being a "go to" person who is available, being able to meet and take part in daily activity at the same level as those in the office, and using technology wisely are the foundations of success.

Start by knowing the environment, planning for the "gotchas" and adding that bit extra of talent so that people seek you out. This strategy, along with a bit of political wisdom, can give any telecommuter the advantages of using their own absence to make the heart of others grow fonder. Not only does distance does not have to be a barrier to career achievement, it can be a competitive advantage.

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