Electronic Design

Make Telecommuting Work For You As An Engineer

Over the last several years, a great deal of press has focussed on the advantages and limitations of telecommuting—that is, performing office work while at home. This approach has proven very successful for jobs whose tasks, responsibilities, and expected outcomes are well defined. For example, telemarketers, customer-service representatives, and sales-account managers have all been able to perform their jobs outside of the traditional office environment.

This method has proven less successful, however, for professionals with highly varied and not as well de-fined tasks. Managers and marketing professionals, for instance, have typically had less success in telecommuting roles.

For engineers, it's easy to imagine working away from the office. The cost and availability of the technologies that are commonly used by engineers have meant that many have full-fledged design computers and even labs at home. These home facilities are often more powerful and capable than those available in the office. At home, engineers frequently have a quiet environment that's conducive to concentration and creativity, something not always possible in a hectic office.

Additionally, communications technologies have made high-speed Internet connections, multiple telephone lines, fax machines, and other common office technologies easily affordable. In some types of jobs, the use of modern technology makes it hard to tell whether you're in the office or at home.

Furthermore, in most of the big-technology centers of employment, commuting to and from work has become increasingly difficult and frustrating. A drive that takes thirty minutes in the middle of the day is a two-hour nightmare during the critical morning and evening commuting hours in the likes of Silicon Valley, Boston, or Seattle. Plus, due to the steep cost of housing, you often have to live far away from your job to afford reasonable accommodations. It's not uncommon for engineers to spend two or three hours on the highway each day. This time could otherwise be spent working productively or engaging in personal activities.

Yet, the so-called telecommuting revolution seems to have fizzled lately. While the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 8 million people telecommute at least part time, the growth in the number of telecommuters has slowed substantially. This is partly because employers are reluctant to take on the additional burden of accommodating and managing remote employees. But another reason is the growing reluctance of workers to remove themselves from the workflow and professional interaction that a busy office provides.

If you're considering telecommuting, it's critical to assess your personal and career goals, your company's policies and attitudes, and your home work environment before embarking down this road. All of these factors can contribute to the success of your efforts. This will help you to determine what type of tele-commuting you would like, and how you will balance your professional and personal responsibilities.

The first step to take in assessing these goals is to carefully examine the reasons why you want to telecommute. No single reason will make you a success or failure, but understanding your reasons will help you prepare physically and mentally for remote work. Some telecommute to better handle family responsibilities, while others enjoy the distance separating them from their employer's office. You may also prefer the quiet of your home over the noise and constant interaction at the office. You should have a good idea of what benefits you're looking for before approaching your manager.

Upon engaging in a telecommuting agreement with your employer, expect further advancement with that company to be difficult to come by, if it's available at all. That might not be the company's stated policy, but your lack of personal interaction with your managers and colleagues means that you won't participate in many of the ad hoc activities that lead to career advancement.

This may not bother you if you're already established in your career, working as an architect or in a senior design position that not only pays well but is personally and professionally fulfilling. It could be damaging or personally dissatisfying, though, if you're younger or less experienced, and are trying hard to advance your career.

Also, it's best not to begin a new job at a new company in a telecommuting role. There are so many opportunities to misunderstand a new company's policies or culture, and these are only magnified when you're not in the office to observe established norms. If you accept a job across the country but don't want to move, consider a short-term apartment or other housing arrangement near your place of employment for three to six months so you can acclimate yourself before working more regularly out of your home.

Perhaps the best way to telecommute is part time. For example, spend two days a week in the office and three at home. Of course, this assumes that you're close enough to your office to make that feasible. I know of professionals who live up to a hundred miles away from their office and this works for them. It lets them meet with their colleagues face-to-face on a regular basis, while also receiving many of the benefits of telecommuting. You also keep open the possibility of future advancement within the company.

If you don't already have a current-generation computer (500-MHz processor or better, with at least 128 Mbytes of memory) at home, you should purchase one, or get your employer to buy one for you. Don't try to telecommute with your old 133-MHz Pentium. It just won't allow you to do the compute-intensive tasks required by your job. You can buy a highly capable new computer in the $1500 to $2000 range.

Today, high-speed Internet access is almost a prerequisite for working out of your home. You should be able to access network and Internet information resources just as easily as you would from the office, and your connection should be as permanent as possible. If you can get a dedicated high-speed Internet link, make sure that you can use it seamlessly from your computer without manually connecting lines or turning on equipment.

Many alternatives for high-speed Internet access exist, including Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), broadband cable modem, and satellite downlink. But none offer complete satisfaction. ISDN, DSL, and cable modem aren't available everywhere. I can't get DSL or cable modem right now, for example. ISDN has a highly complex setup and rate structure, and satellite solutions still require a telephone modem for the uplink. Thoroughly investigate all alternatives, and carefully choose the one that best suits your purposes.

Dial-up connections to a company modem pool is the wrong way to go for network access. This solution is primarily designed for the short-term connections of users traveling on business. It's often slow and congested. Talk to your company's network managers about setting up virtual private network (VPN) access through the corporate firewall. This is a straightforward and well-established technical adjustment for both them and you, and it allows you to come into the company's network through a secure Internet link.

How you set up your work environment at home has a great deal to do with your family situation, personal preferences, the layout of your residence, and the type of equipment that you need. In general, you should have a permanent computer desk, a fixed computer setup, a workbench with other necessary engineering equipment, a dedicated work telephone line (or telecommunications or videoconference software integrated with your computer), and ready access to standard office supplies.

Experts usually recommend using a separate room that's closed off from the rest of your home life. This is good if any family members are home during the day. But one of the conveniences of working at home is the flexibility that it grants you to fulfill your personal as well as professional commitments. You might take a break in the afternoon to pick up your children from school, but work after dinner to compensate. Therefore, instead of employing hard and fast rules, I recommend looking at your personal situation to determine how you will carve a full work effort out of your day.

I have found it useful to structure my work so that it's deadline-driven, rather than process-driven. I'm more likely to complete a task most efficiently if I'm working toward a deadline and don't waste time engaged in domestic activities. If your work doesn't naturally lend itself to deadlines, you might find it useful to create artificial deadlines and reward yourself for meeting them.

One remaining concern is your work hours. When working at home, you will probably tend to either not work enough hours, or else work too many hours. There may be too many distractions at home for you to work effectively. In that case, personal activities could start crowding out your work responsibilities. On the other hand, you might find yourself working many more hours than you would in an office, if you have too few distractions.

Neither situation is good. That's why you should establish a work schedule before you begin telecommuting. If you see yourself deviating from that schedule, examine why and what you can do to get back on it. That's the whole purpose of telecommuting, after all. If you don't make it work, no one will do it for you.

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