Telecommuting may not be for all people. You are alone and you have to collaborate with others. You are not likely to interact with your coworkers extensively or get to know them on the same personal level as you may in an office.
For a lot of people, this lack of interaction is the downside or challenge to telecommuting they seem to cite the most, they use their daily interactions as a way to connect with people. There is nothing wrong with that, I am certainly not trying to start a war with people who require more socialization in their jobs. I won’t include it on my list though as I don’t view it as a challenge, but below you will find a list of issues I have faced holding telecommute roles that I would regard as a downside or challenge to telecommuting.
1. It is harder to gauge or estimate your position or standing within the organization or with a manager.
We receive all sorts of feedback in face to face communication. It may not always be accurate, but it can give us clues as to where we stand. People may not always be 100% sincere or honest (not always intentional or nefarious) in their verbal communication, and sometimes they reveal a little bit in face to face communication that may indicate more than they are letting on.
– Is your boss really happy with your completed project, or are they just saying that because they don’t want to confront you?
Some managers just operate in a more complacent and non-confrontational mode. For whatever reason, they may not be happy with someone’s work and fail to let them know directly, their only clue could be in their body language or facial expressions. In a telecommuting role, you have to learn how to read people more verbally using speech inflection and level of enthusiasm and rely less on body language and facial expressions.
Your manager may be saying “good job”, but was it slightly less enthusiastic than the last time? Maybe? Was it because the project you are discussing is not as important as others, or was it because he/she just wasn’t as excited about your work commitment and level of effort? Do they really understand why you are a day late with your work or are they silently fuming? You may never find out. For all you know, they are just having a bad day but you aren’t interacting with them all day to know that.
You won’t always know if you have a non-confrontational manager as a telecommuter. You lack some of those random encounters that help you learn their personality. I think a lot of times, this causes telecommuters to work harder in the hopes of eliminating any potential issues.
– Do your coworkers really believe your work is valuable to the team?
Your coworkers are often the people least likely to be direct with you, although occasionally you get a few who are very direct and to the point. It has been my experience that the most confrontational coworkers are usually the ones you don’t want to listen to because their feedback is often one of fear or based on a personality flaw. (The know-it-all employee only sees one right way to do things, and it isn’t the way you do things.)
Your coworkers have a job to do, and it isn’t propping your ego up or making sure you know that you just failed in your latest work effort even though you believe you succeeded. You may find yourself working with limited to no feedback from coworkers and the impact of your work on them.
In an onsite working environment, you can often get a sense of how others view you and your work – helping to answer the questions above. This may be gained through small talk or various meetings. It might be learned with they come to you and ask your opinion in passing – an interaction that doesn’t happen while telecommuting.
2. The type of external distractions are different, and if uncontrolled, they can be more invasive.
When I first started working from home full time I had an office upstairs with windows facing the driveway. We would get post office packages sometimes. The mail lady would see me in the window and honk her horn to get my attention so I would come out and get the package. So here I am, in the middle of a conference call, and there are car horns going off. I can’t just stop the call, and she seems determined to get me to come out and get the package, so she keeps beeping until I acknowledge her.
I asked her a couple of times to stop. I explained that I work from home and I am sometimes on conference calls.
She didn’t stop.
She was hardly the only issue.
I learned that during the day, sometimes, people liked to race down our roads revving their engines loudly.
People also come to our house during the day. They wanted to sell me things, get donations for a fundraiser, or to tell me about Jesus. They could see me in the window and would knock on the window if I didn’t get up and go to the door. Headpiece on, in a phone conference or not, they would bang on the window until I acknowledged them and went to the door. Of course, I also had a dog who would bark until I got the person to go away.
It became clear that this wasn’t going to work. I needed to do something different, something to control the distractions. I ended up moving my office. So my office was moved to the basement. Thankfully, I can’t hear the mail lady, or anyone knocking on the door, from the basement (I disabled the doorbell). It isn’t as nice or as bright, but during the summer I have a door I can open up and get some fresh air in (located on the back of the house so no one can see in). It is quieter and I can concentrate on work more….
….except that during the winter, I now had a furnace to deal with that made other people hearing me think I was in a car driving.
….and video conferences from my basement weren’t exactly as professional as the nice office I had upstairs.
For the furnace, I invested in a large space heater. If I have a conference call I will turn that space heater on, which helps keep the house warm and stops the furnace from coming on.
I eventually built a wall and painted the wall behind me in the basement to make it look nicer. Prior to that, I used a bedsheet that I hung up and draped behind me.
I also had a young daughter when I started telecommuting. She still went to daycare like she would have if I left the house for work. I wasn’t staying home to babysit my kid and be paid for it. I had work to do. Not everyone thinks like I do, I have heard babies crying in the background with some telecommuters before, I am sure I will hear it again.
These distractions, you really should put in some effort to control them. Telecommuting isn’t a code for, “sit at home and do whatever you want.” One of the advantages of telecommuting is that you can create a nice quiet space for you to get your work done; something an open office environment doesn’t typically provide.
3. You will get interrupted, cut off, talked over, and you will interrupt others, cut them off, and talk over them.
This does happen when your entire team is in a room, but visual cues seem to reduce the frequency. While you are waiting to say something, you hear silence and think the prior speaker is done so you speak up. They may not be done, or someone else had the same idea as you and started speaking at the same time.
Sometimes, one of them stops speaking and lets the other continue. Sometimes both of them stop speaking and you end up in a game of “go ahead” while they coax each other to go first. Other times, neither stop speaking and the loudest voice wins. The bigger the meeting, the bigger the problem this tends to be.
There is also always someone who won’t use mute during a presentation. You spend the first few minutes of the presentation listening to the presenter telling everyone to go on mute before finally muting all participants because you can hear them breathing, eating, or they are in an office and you can hear all of their coworkers. Regularly occurring presentation sessions tend to have a more experienced pool of presenters and they just begin with “Mute all” selected and develop a protocol for people to ask questions.
My favorite situation is when most of the team is in one conference room and you are on speaker phone as one of the only telecommuters. They sometimes forget you are there if you are not needed to be active in the meeting or are just listening in for an update. I like to sit there quietly, then wait for the room to get quiet, then suddenly speak firm and loud. You can usually scare a couple of people.
There are technology tools and even formal meeting rules that can help with this. You just have to use them. In more open dialog meetings, using them can actually be more of a hindrance to the conversation so you have to just work through it.
4. In an international team, communication can be more hindered.
If everyone speaks the same language, it doesn’t mean everyone can understand each other.
The first issue is that of cultural differences. In general, most people from the United States that you will work with rarely come out and state directly what they are thinking. We have developed social rules to handle uncomfortable subjects like general unhappiness with a teammate, and violating those is often considered rude. This causes fear in some people of alerting others about things like stray food in their teeth or an unfortunately located booger in their nose.
This culture of avoidance isn’t always a bad thing, assuming you become proactive in handling certain situations. I won’t go into my suggestions here, maybe another blog post is warranted for this.
Some other cultures beat around the bush a little less and go straight to the point a little more. If you aren’t used to it, it can be a bit off-putting and make you dislike the experience of working with international teams. This can negatively impact working relationships and group cohesiveness.
We can laugh off someone using our last name as our first name because we have probably made that mistake ourselves, but we tend to take it personally when people directly tell us things. If you are going to work with international teams, you have to be accepting of this and not take it too personally – instead, use it as an opportunity to improve communication and an opportunity to bond with a teammate. They aren’t necessarily intending to be rude, and probably are not attacking you personally. They are showing opposition to an idea (or something else) and hopefully, you can use that to get a dialogue going to improve on an idea.
Personally, I have kind of grown to like the more direct approach. The first person to tell me that my idea is “absurd” or “ridiculous” is usually going to end up being someone I like.
The second issue is that of speech. Sometimes it can be very difficult to understand what someone is saying. An accent may hinder communication and understanding between an individual and their team. It doesn’t mean they are stupid or not knowledgeable about the topic of discussion. Just put yourself in their shoes – it may not be their native language, or perhaps it isn’t your native language and they cannot understand you.
This can create a situation where you have to ask what a lot. The important thing is to remain patient. You may have to attempt to explain things in a different way, but don’t lose your patience with it. Just understand that this is sometimes the nature of the work. You may have to put in a special effort to understand each other, but the rewards can be well worth it.
5. Technology issues can cut you off from your team, delay meetings, or deprive you of communication.
What telecommuter hasn’t heard “Can you see my screen?” It seems any meeting that involves screen sharing has people making sure it is actually doing what it is supposed to be doing. When you have encountered as many issues with this as telecommuters, it becomes natural to verify the functioning of the technology.
Any other telecommuters out there familiar with the “Robot Voice?” That seems to come up once in a while as an issue, where someone speaking sounds like they are a robot; happens usually with calls made through your computer. This is one reason why I use and prefer a telephone not associated with any personal computer and I have a dedicated home office line. Even that isn’t impervious to glitches.
Then we have your usual technology problems, the ones anyone working onsite at a company building will also experience. Computer crashes, network connection issues, needed servers going down, and more. These will impact everyone, but for a telecommuter, it can be a bit panic-inducing. You now cannot go to work, at least someone who goes into the office can show their presence. Did you remember to get the help desk phone number off your computer before it crashed? Be sure you also have your manager’s phone number or email as well. You need to alert them both so they are aware and can help you get back up and running.
For telecommuters, there are also additional failure points of VPN servers, Internet, excessive latency, and collaboration tools. I am sure I can make a bigger list, but let us keep it simple. You can’t really do a whole lot except alert people. If you can do work then, by all means, do some work, but it can sometimes hinder that. If you can hook to a secondary Internet source, then try that as well. Make sure to keep the people updated who need to be updated.
I am sure other people can list the different problems they have faced. These are just the worst problems I have encountered. Like I stated, the lack of social opportunities doesn’t bother me as I know it bothers other people. I could create a larger list of things I disliked about working in a building on-site; I especially hate the open office plans that have become popular (and I always wonder why some employers try to advertise that as a perk – Open Offices Suck).
Thank you for reading, and I hope you got some value from it.
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