Potholes in the tele-road?

The history of telecommuting/teleworking is replete with frequent bouts of hand-wringing about the possible or inevitable intrusion of work into one’s personal life. In the 6 February 2011 edition of the New York Times is the latest (to date) version. Titled Who’s the Boss, You or Your Gadget? the article describes the work-life dilemmas of a few executives. The execs take great pride in being available 24/7 thanks to the array of smart communicating gadgets in their possession.

But when or where does it all stop? As the article notes: “Because jobs and promotion opportunities are scarce, many workers are worried that someone who is more connected and available could outclimb them on the corporate ladder”. The freedom provided by contemporary communications technology can become a tyrant.

This issue of the work/home balance has been at the core of our research from day one. One of the key reasons for telecommuting’s success is the freedom it gives for telecommuters to set their own schedules and avoid the daily commute stresses. In fact, while the most often voiced concern of prospective telemanagers is that teleworkers’ productivity will plummet, the actual problem is usually the opposite: overwork. Teleworkers tend to keep going long after their in-office colleagues have gone home.

This is why our training sessions always have a component on self-management. Unless you, as a teleworker, can learn to schedule yourself to have breaks in your work routine and to stop working after a reasonable time, increased productivity can turn into burnout. Occasional long bursts of work may be OK, such as when you’re really on a roll pursuing that great new idea. But day after day of this is totally counterproductive.

The easiest thing to overlook is the break after every two hours (or less). Develop a system for reminding you that it’s break time. An alarm clock, a computer prompt, a poke from your spouse, whatever works and is reliable may be what you need.

Foremost among the issues to be faced by both new and experienced teleworkers is maintaining the work-life balance. If you’re in a job where you want to advance up the ladder and the rate of your advance depends heavily on political factors (who you know, who you need to polish, etc.) then teleworking may not be for you at all. Find a job where performance is the main success criterion. If you want to have a balanced life, spending quality time with your family and friends, then carefully arrange your work time to fit in with the rest of your life, not the other way around.

Remember that ingenuity, not exhaustion, is what makes telework work.

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