Missing the Water Cooler: A Recent Grad's Guide to Navigating Telecommuting

Yahoo's recent decision to eliminate its work-from-home option drew mixed responses from critics, and it's easy to see why. According to a WorldatWork survey, 12.4 million employees around the world work remotely. In the entire U.S. alone, 4.8 million people work from home on at least a part-time basis.

For entry-level workers and recent college graduates, telecommuting might be inevitable — especially since it can ultimately save companies money. But are you missing out? Maybe not. Telecommuting can build and develop practical, in-demand skills, help you save money, and with some coordination with the home office, you can find the best of both worlds.


Why It Works for Entry-Level … and Beyond

The major reason companies support telecommuting is the comparatively low overhead cost. Businesses would collectively save $2.3 billion a year in real estate, electricity, absenteeism, and turnover costs, according to Kate Lister, co-author of Undress for Success: The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home. But for all the talk of how much this benefits employers, the telecommuting option places workers at a fiscal advantage as well.

Considering so many entry-level employees grapple against student loans and day-to-day living expenses, any small savings help out. Not having to shell out money for gas and other car-related expenses as often makes for an especially generous boon to their bank accounts. Lister estimates that those savings could add up to as much as $11,000 annually.

Resources like the Telework Calculator, which she co-developed, let workers see for themselves just how much money working from a home office will save. Savings go well beyond reducing trips to the gas station. The calculator tells potential telecommuters where they could save in:

  • Child care
  • Transportation needs for disabled workers
  • Typical in-office necessities like work attire, lunch, and/or parking

In addition to saving money, working remotely helps nurture essential 21st century job skills. Because telecommuting involves using smartphones, webcams, tablets, laptops, and, the Internet, participants hone their digital literacy — which employers these days desire in their job candidates. Since entry-level positions prepare workers for future professional undertakings, a telecommuting arrangement works very well in this regard.

Telecommuting also affords a far higher degree of flexibility and independence than driving to an office every day. New and established workers alike must be highly self-motivated and self-disciplined to navigate such an arrangement. Consider these qualities a more lo-fi counterpart to the digital literacy. Employers love applicants with enough gumption and drive to keep themselves focused on their tasks, requiring little prodding from their superiors. Building these skills early on in one's career only increases their chances of advancement later.


Overcoming Remote Challenges

Being dropped into the world of telecommuting early on in one's career will not magically turn a poor self-motivator into a plucky Horatio Alger protagonist. The system does not gel with such struggling individuals, nor will it inherently provide them with the tools to address the problem. By its very nature, the onus of pressing forward falls on the worker.

"Telecommuting can make it possible for employees to integrate their work and home lives to a great extent,” says Dr. MaryAnne Hyland, Associate Professor of Human Resources Management at Adelphi University. "If an individual is working from home while other family members are present, having a separate workspace with a door can be beneficial. Some companies require that telecommuting employees have a private workspace.”

Telecommuting employees, regardless of whether or not they work an entry-level job, can do a few things to ensure they remain focused and manage their time responsibly. Setting up a personalized system of rewards for completing specific tasks, reaching certain milestones, or accomplishing professional goals is a great strategy for building motivation. Aligning said milestones and goals with those set by the company makes it much, much easier to meet them.

The schedule flexibility afforded by telecommuting-friendly companies varies from place to place. Some require rigid hours, while others assume a more free-form shape and allow employees to complete assignments in a manner best befitting their working style or life needs. When it comes to the latter arrangement, employees must painstakingly organize themselves to remain on task. This means drawing up a tight schedule and sticking with it — though they'll have to leave at least a bit of time for breaks and breathers. Staying within these rigid, self-created guidelines, be it the usual 9-5 or something else entirely, is one of the best strategies for remaining on task.

"With regard to skills, discipline is key,” she advises. "The television, refrigerator, and washing machine may be within eyesight of an employee's workstation. While at times it may make sense to run a load of laundry during a few minutes of downtime at work, frequent distractions and interruptions can detract from focus and productivity.”

"That said, many employees report being more focused and productive at home due to fewer distractions,” she says. "In addition, some employees who are good at 'integrating' their work and personal lives are able to transition between work activities and other activities throughout the day and still be productive and effective in all of their roles.”

Because telecommuting does not involve face-to-face interaction (except, in some cases, via webcam), employees lose out on sharpening the basic social skills needed to survive the workplace. Establishing camaraderie with coworkers nurtures teamwork and efficiency. Telecommuting minimizes chatting-related distractions. But it also denies workers a chance at building valuable relationships.

A couple of easy fixes exist. Some employers might want to consider only part-time telecommuting so their workers hone a more well-rounded skill set. They receive the flexibility, independence, and lowered commuting cost (comparatively speaking in this case) of a home office, but still enjoy opportunities to socialize with their peers.

Alternately, employers could stick with a full-time telecommuting arrangements, but add in-person meetings a few times every quarter, or they could organize more fun, team-building events. Both of these solutions also ensure their employees are not denied opportunities to learn how to fraternize with coworkers while still enjoying the relative freedom of working from home.

"Social isolation can be challenging for telecommuting employees, especially entry-level employees,” says Hyland. "Understanding the culture of an organization and participating in informal collaboration efforts are often important for successful job performance. Working at the office on a regular basis, such as once or twice a week if possible, should reduce these problems.”


What Industries to Look Into

Some industries in particular lend themselves to telecommuting. While not exactly an ideal arrangement for, say, neurosurgeons or astronauts, the remote option still works well for a diverse range of industries — as CNN's top 10 listing of the most telecommuting-friendly companies reveals. Unsurprisingly, Cisco — an industry leader in telecom — allows 90% of its employees to work from home at least 20% of the time. Other notable names include Teach for America, marketing consultants Accenture, and Intel.

Media and publishing, particularly Internet-based outlets, are also viable options for entry-level employees who prefer working from home. Because so much writing and editing can be completed independently, cash-strapped companies can easily offer up telecommuting as a perk. Employers from almost every industry imaginable are branching out into social media, hiring managers for their Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts. These positions revolve entirely around online interactions, so it makes perfect sense that telecommuting proves a snuggly fit.

Whether a recent graduate or a seasoned veteran of the work force, resources such as FlexJobs offer a one-stop digital locale to find part-time and full-time telecommuting positions. Since working remotely is consistently increasing in popularity, sites like this make finding an ideal job a faster, easier ordeal. Household name employers such as AT&T, the IRS, Trip Advisor, Capitol One, and IBM list openings on FlexJobs, showcasing just how diverse the industry options are for all jobseekers these days.


Recommended Tools

The specifics of what a telecommuting job will specifically require varies from company to company. However, growing familiar with the most common accoutrements can help the aspirant job-hunters out there. Take the time to get to know the ins and outs of the hardware and software that makes telecommuting possible. It may mean a valuable edge when submitting resumes and cover letters to potential employers.

  • High-speed Internet connection: Reliable Internet is more or less standard for telecommuters these days. It might prove a worthwhile investment for those pursuing entry-level jobs to have wi-fi or other high-speed connection installed in their homes — especially if they hope to work in social media. And make sure to draw up a viable backup plan or two in case the connection at home drops out. Most public libraries offer up free Internet, and of course coffee shops and cafes provide it to paying customers. Smartphone users might want to download an app like WiFi Finder for iPhone and Android so they always stay attuned to their emergency options.
  • Laptop or tablet computing device: Portable computing devices make telecommuting so much easier than desktops, largely because if the Internet shuts down, the negative productivity impact lessens. Remote employees need a tablet or a laptop they can tote around with them — especially if their positions require some modicum of travel. Look for models with built-in webcams, too.
  • Smartphone: While not nearly as conducive for long-term tasks as laptops and tablets, a working knowledge of smartphone basics is a boost to any wannabe telecommuter's skillset. Text messaging and e-mail let them stay in touch with their employers, coworkers, and clients while on the go. Depending on what apps they download, workers can also use the devices to organize to-do lists, map their thoughts, and even update projects across all platforms. Employers might not require a smartphone of their telecommuters, but Androids, iPhones, Blackberrys and the like nevertheless make the jobs run that much smoother.
  • Webcam: Not every telecommuting company necessarily needs employees to converse with their coworkers, managers, and clients face-to-face. The ones that do will require workers to really know their way around a webcam. Fortunately, these devices come standard with most newer laptop and tablet models. And they are inexpensive enough so that telecommuters saddled with older machines do not have to sink too much money into buying one.
  • Headset: Most of the built-in microphones on tablets and laptops are rather lousy, to be frank. Telecommuters who use their mobile computers for verbal correspondence should research their best options for a headset. Some combine headphones — noise-cancelling or not — and a microphone, while others come with only the latter.
  • Speakers: Like microphones, the speakers on many laptops and tablets frequently leave plenty to be desired. They might compensate for this using headphones or a headset including headphones, or purchasing a set of extra speakers.
  • Cisco: Companies who allow their employees to telecommute regularly often turn towards Cisco for the most sophisticated hardware and software available. Depending on the job up for grabs, applicants are not required to know the intricacies of how the different Cisco products and services work — just the basics enabling them to fully participate in meetings at most. Nor will they need to purchase anything. The employers themselves usually shoulder the cost of these platforms.
  • Skype: Most cost-conscious employers might prefer telecommuting via free or low-cost providers such as Skype. Despite its reputation as a video communication tool, Skype still allows for audio-only meetings and screen-sharing. When combined with a service like Audacity, employers and employees alike can record important meetings for sharing with absent coworkers or future reference.
  • Google Hangouts: A completely free alternative to Skype and Cisco, allowing up to ten people to talk via video and audio. It also makes screen sharing a painless undertaking and even plugs into Google Drive so coworkers quickly update their required documents.

Telecommuting's shape varies depending on a company's unique needs and wants. In the right industries, it works fabulously for both employee and employer. According to Telework Research Network, Gen Y’ers are more difficult to recruit (as reported by 56% of hiring managers) and to retain (as reported by 64% of hiring managers) but they are particularly attracted flexible work arrangements (ranked as 8 on a 10 scale for impact on overall job satisfaction). Telecommuting makes both sides of the table happy … and then there's the whole being able to complete assignments in your underwear thing.