Suppose you live in New York and you're employed by a company from Los Angeles to track sales data in the Big Apple. Oh, and it just happens to be the year 1980. How would you keep in touch with the Los Angeles office? You'd probably use your telephone to check in every day or two, and you'd mail or fax papers back and forth across the country. Working away from your desk is nearly impossible because it would require toting around heavy stacks of paper and missing any phone calls that come in. If you have a computer at all, it only does a few data processing tasks and isn't very portable.
Fast-forward 30 years, same job. Now how would you keep in touch? You'd probably use e-mail to check in, perhaps several times a day, and you'd access the Los Angeles office's computer network online so you can upload and download data instantly. You might even use instant messaging or chat rooms for ongoing discussions with your West Coast co-workers. Working away from your desk is easy: just pick up your laptop and mobile phone, head down to your local café, and connect to their WiFi Internet while you grab some lunch.
These scenarios demonstrate how technological advances have made it faster, easier, and cheaper to work remotely. The first term for this, telecommute, was coined in 1973 by telecommuting innovator Jack Nilles [source: Mears]. Today, the more common and accurate term is telework [source: Telework Coalition]. As a teleworker, you can set up your own virtual workplace and work productively on the day-to-day responsibilities of your job. Plus, your ability and willingness to telework instantly expands your job possibilities across the country and around the world without having to move.
Virtual workplaces aren't just for the benefit of the employee. Businesses can cut costs by needing less "brick-and-mortar" office space, and they can find and hire uniquely qualified people who are unable or unwilling to relocate. Some other benefits for businesses include boosting productivity, fostering employee retention and "going green" by keeping more cars off the road [source: King].
The technology to set up your virtual workplace is ready, but are you? This article is your orientation to the virtual workplace, including the tools you can use, your options for setting up an office and tips for adapting and maintaining productivity.
Virtual Workplace Tools
There are a few essential things you'll need to set up your virtual workplace. Start by selecting the physical space itself. You could work in a coffee shop, on your porch or even in bed. To make your teleworking a success, though, be sure to select a place where you'll be comfortable, productive and free from distractions throughout your workday. Once you have your space picked out, it's time to set up the tools you need for the job.
The two most essential components in your virtual workplace are your computer and your Internet connection. These components create the command center for your job: It's where you can send and receive data and keep in touch with your co-workers. If the work itself also requires the computer and Internet, such as for researching or computer programming, it's essential that you have the hardware, software and network speed necessary to maximize your efficiency on the job. Your employer might provide the computer for you and might even pay for your Internet connection, too. If not, you can make these purchases and deduct the expenses on your income tax forms.
While a computer and Internet create the command center for your virtual workplace, you shouldn't be without a phone. Even after decades of innovation, the telephone is still one of the most common ways for a teleworker to keep in touch with the office. Rather than a landline telephone tethered to a wall in your house, though, you'll probably want to use a mobile phone or "soft phone" software on your computer. Your employer may ask you to call in regularly, or to be part of conference calls where several callers dial into a single number and have a meeting by phone.
Phones may be paired with other technology for more productive conference calls. For example, you may have video conferences in which callers use webcams for video interaction. Also, you may have software that lets you share your screen with other callers, allowing you to show them a presentation or demonstrate how something works. In some cases, you can even allow other callers to interact with your screen remotely from their own computers.
From here, the tools you'll use will vary depending on the tools and corporate culture of your employer. E-mail might be your most common means of exchanging messages when you're not on the phone, and it may be paired with a shared calendar system that's useful for scheduling meetings. Your employer might also have chat rooms, instant messengers, or even 3-D virtual environments like Second Life. For example, Ken VanDine, Ubuntu Desktop Integration Engineer with Canonical, uses Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to keep in touch with his co-workers in real time throughout the day [source: VanDine].
From your virtual workplace, you'll need to be ready to collaborate with co-workers on projects. There's a wide range of collaboration software tools your employer might ask you to use. The following are some common types of collaboration software:
- A content management system (CMS) is a database for organizing documents and other files, sometimes ensuring that only one person can edit a file at a time. The CMS tracks information about who edited a file and when, and it can tell you who currently has the file checked out or open for editing. Examples include Web content management systems Drupal and Joomla, and document management system KnowledgeTree.
- A version control system (also called a revision control system) is similar to a CMS, but it's designed so that multiple people can "check out" and edit the same files at the same time. Used mostly by computer programmers, version control systems let you merge your changes with others' to the same text-based file. You can also compare two edits of the same file side-by-side, line-by-line to see where changes were made. Examples include CVS, Subversion and Mercurial.
- A wiki is a simplified version of a CMS limited to the proprietary markup language and Web format of the wiki software. This author has used wikis both as a public Web resource for customer documentation and as a private intranet resource to share confidential information with co-workers. Examples include MediaWiki and Confluence.
- Collaborative platforms focus not only on collaboration between users, but also on reusing the same content across several different media such as Web sites, CMSs, wikis, messaging programs, search engines and blogs. Examples include Novell GroupWise, Microsoft SharePoint and Google Apps.
Maintaining Productivity in a Virtual Workplace
In your virtual workplace, just like in an office setting, you want to do your best work and keep your productivity high. This is essential for staying employed. Get control over your virtual workplace so you have control over your productivity.
As mentioned previously, your selection of space is important. If you find it easy to shut out the world around you while you're working, you could set up your workplace almost anywhere you're comfortable. If you're easily distracted, though, or need a certain setting in order to focus, set aside a "work-only" space at home that meets those needs, or try a co-working space as described in the sidebar on this page.
Numerous studies over the last two decades report higher productivity for teleworkers than their office-bound counterparts [source: Cisco, Belanger] Eliminating the commute time and having a more relaxed environment could account for this. However, a recent study at Brigham Young University reveals another reason: more hours worked. BYU researchers studied 24,436 IBM employees in 75 countries and found that teleworkers clocked an additional 19 hours of work each week (57) than office-bound workers (38) before the work began to conflict with other parts of their lives [source: Brigham Young University]. If your work hours concern you as you try to balance them with your personal life, set a daily and weekly schedule for working and limit your work to those scheduled times. Be sure your manager and co-workers know your schedule, and make agreements with them about when you'll be available.
With your space laid out and your schedule set, you'll need to find a way to eliminate distractions to ensure that you remain productive. Start by getting rid of any obvious distractions like television or computer games. From there, establish boundaries about what tasks are important during your work hours and stick to those. Wait until you're not "on the clock" to do laundry, go out for groceries or pay your bills.
One misconception about teleworking parents is that they can be stay-at-home moms and dads. While teleworking does provide a lot more flexibility for families, it's still a full-time job requiring focus during work hours. Sylvia Payne, a contract negotiator, knows this well after four years of teleworking and being the mother of two young kids. "My youngest is in daycare and my oldest is now in school and before school/after school care," Sylvia explained. "It would be unfair to both my kids and my employer to keep them home while I worked. I would also go crazy trying to get everything done while caring for them both" [source: Payne]. However, Sylvia also explains that her experience is mostly due to the nature of her work, and that she's met other parents whose jobs allow them to have their kids around without a loss in productivity.
Tips for Adapting to a Virtual Workplace
Virtual workplaces are not ideal for every job or every person, but there are several things you and your employer can do to adapt to the new working environment. Here are a few tips:
Communicate clearly, communicate often. Don't assume your coworkers know what you're doing or how you're doing it. Keep a dialog going, such as through e-mail, instant messages or chat rooms. Computer programmers can also communicate through comments in code and in version control system messages. Check in regularly with coworkers to make sure you're understanding each other and meeting each others' needs.
Demand clear goals and expectations. Be sure your manager describes what's expected of you on the job, and work to those goals and expectations. Plus, make sure there are clear ways to convey your productivity, such as meeting your deadlines or keeping a digital log of your daily progress.
Invest in the equipment you need. You're going to spend a lot of time with your computer, keyboard, mouse, monitor, headset and other equipment. Spend a little extra money to get what you need for a comfortable and productive work experience. If it's your employer who's buying, see if you can work out a deal for what you need, even if you have to pick up some of the cost.
Track your office expenses. If you telecommute, even as a salaried employee, you can claim some of your home office expenses on your income tax forms. Save your receipts and track your expenses. This could amount to hundreds of dollars in savings on your income tax bill at the end of the year.
Keep the IT staff on speed-dial. Even if you're tech-saavy, you can't fix everything from home. Your employer's IT staff is your lifeline to prevent a loss in productivity. For example, if you rely on a virtual private network (VPN) connection to the main office, you'll need to contact your employer's IT staff for assistance as soon as possible when you can't connect to the VPN.
Give yourself a break. Sometimes you need a little distraction. Take advantage of the flexibility you have as a teleworker by taking breaks or even changing scenery when you're getting bleary. Just keep your breaks in check so you don't lose valuable work time.
Know when it's time for a change. The most perfect virtual workplace may not be perfect forever. Recognize when you're losing focus and dropping in productivity, and do something to fix the problem before it gets you in trouble. This could include anything from upgrading the RAM in your computer to moving your desk away from a drafty window in winter.
For more information about the working world, take a look at some of the links on the next page.
- All, Ann. "Study Finds Teleworkers Can Handle More Work Before Feeling Strain." IT Business Edge. NarrowCast Group. June 3, 2010. (Aug. 9, 2010)http://www.itbusinessedge.com/cm/blogs/all/study-finds-teleworkers-can-handle-more-work-before-feeling-strain/?cs=41527
- Baker, Paul; Head, Lynzee; and Ward, Andrew. "Virtual Exclusion and Telework: Barriers and Opportunities of Technocentric Workplace Accommodation Policy." Center for Advanced Communications Policy. Georgia Institute of Technology. 2005. (Aug. 9, 2010)http://www.workrerc.gatech.edu/Presentations/Baker/bakerslides.php
- Belanger, France. "Workers' Propensity to Telecommute: An Empirical Study." Information & Management, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 139-153. March 8, 1999.
- Brigham Young University. "Telecommuters with flextime stay balanced up to 19 hours longer." June 1, 2010. (Aug. 9, 2010)http://news.byu.edu/archive10-jun-telecommuting.aspx
- Cisco. "Cisco Study Finds Telecommuting Significantly Increases Employee Productivity, Work-Life Flexibility and Job Satisfaction." Cisco Systems. June 25, 2009. (Aug. 9, 2010)http://newsroom.cisco.com/dlls/2009/prod_062609.html
- IBM. "IBM Predicts Five Future Trends That Will Drive Unified Communications." IBM press release. March 19, 2010. (Aug. 8, 2010)http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/23716.wss
- King, Rachel. "CEO Guide to the Virtual Workplace: Tip Sheet, Virtual Workplace Dos and Don'ts." Bloomberg BusinessWeek. (Aug. 7, 2010)http://www.businessweek.com/technology/ceo_tipsheet/2007_2.htm
- King, Rachel. "Working from Home: It's in the Details." Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Feb. 12, 2007. (Aug. 8, 2010)http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/feb2007/tc20070212_457307.htm?chan=technology_ceo+guide+to+tech_green+computing
- Mears, Jennifer. "Father of telecommuting Jack Nilles says security, managing remote workers remain big hurdles." Network World. May 15, 2007. (Aug. 10, 2010)http://www.networkworld.com/news/2007/051507-telecommuting-nilles-security.html
- Miller, Kerry. "Where the Coffee Shop Meets the Cubicle." Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Feb. 26, 2007. (Aug. 9, 2010)http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/feb2007/sb20070226_761145.htm
- Payne, Sylvia. Teleworker. Personal interview. Conducted on Aug. 8, 2010.
- PBS NewsHour. "Telecommuting: Dream Come True?" PBS. Nov. 14, 1997. (Aug. 9, 2010)http://www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/november97/telecommuting.html
- Reisner, Rebecca. "Telecommuting Now and Forever." Bloomberg BusinessWeek. March 2007. (Aug. 9, 2010)http://www.businessweek.com/debateroom/archives/2007/03/telecommuting_now_and_forever.html
- Seeger, Jared. "Going Virtual, Going Green: A Manifesto." The Huffington Post. July 14, 2008. (Aug. 8, 2010)http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jared-seeger/going-virtual-going-green_b_112714.html
- Telework Coalition, The. "Teleworking (Sometimes called Telecommuting)." (Aug. 10, 2010)http://www.telcoa.org/id193.htm
- VanDine, Ken. Ubuntu Desktop Integration Engineer, Canonical. Personal interview. Conducted on Aug. 1, 2010.