The Voices Behind the Monitors

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Telecommuters Discuss Their Experiences

In our series on telecommuting, we've looked at reasons why some nonprofits are shifting to a telecommuting model and how to make that shift if you think it would be right for your organization.

The previous articles have looked at the issue from an employer/organization perspective. Now we’re going to take a look from an employee/worker perspective. I reached out to GrantStation's experienced staff of telecommuters for their take on the situation, to see what they both like and dislike about telecommuting.

Fortunately for GrantStation, the shift from a physical office to telecommuting has been successful. Given that we were somewhat early adopters of the telecommuting model, there was probably a combination of luck, commitment, and effort involved. Now, we have a dedicated staff that is overwhelmingly happy with working from home.

The transition might not be so smooth for other organizations, but the change will likely come for many workers and industries, and sooner rather than later. While we are a small company, not a single one of our employees indicated that they would currently prefer to be in an office. Telecommuting and other flexible work options are strong draws for new employees, and can increase satisfaction for current employees.

From reasons such as a lack of a commute (and the ability for some couples to get by with one vehicle), more flexible schedules, a choice of where to live, and a lower carbon footprint both for the workers and the company, telecommuting has been a choice that has helped GrantStation succeed in a world that is increasingly linked by technology and moving toward “greener” business choices. For us, it has been a progressive choice that really works with our role as a company providing services and content online to help those who help others.

Cynthia M. Adams, GrantStation's founder and Chief Executive Officer, talked about switching the company to "the cloud" in the early days:

When I first decided to take GrantStation into the cloud, it was a real head scratcher. I simply had no idea how to go about it. There was so much to consider: Like where is the main phone number? Where is the mail sent? How do we stay in touch with one another easily? How do we make it socially stimulating so folks don't feel too isolated? What kinds of insurance do we have to carry (and not carry)? Where do we keep our files? (We had hard copy files of everything at that point.) Will my staff like working in the cloud? (Some did, and some did not. Those who did not, left the company.)

It was, as I said, a head scratcher.

My stroke of genius (or maybe it was just good luck) was hiring a "process guy" [David Preis, GrantStation's Director of Member Services] who developed procedures around how we would do all of these things. His guidance made this move possible.

David chipped in with some thoughts about the transition:

When we moved to the cloud all those years ago, the enabling technologies were essential. Most organizations will convert to QuickBooks Online, etc. like we did, but it was critical to have our Google Docs structure and practices in place. And then really using those documents for collaboration. Every organization worries about collaboration going down when you work remotely, and in some ways it does. But if you use Google Docs in an effective way, some forms of collaboration will actually increase. I think of those occasional "brainstorm" docs that we've used; they're pretty nifty.

Ellen Mowrer, our Chief Operating Officer, pointed out the benefits of performing new hire searches when your company is in the cloud:

GrantStation can hire the absolute best person for the job because there is no locational barrier, and because as long as the tasks are completed and the job function is covered Monday through Friday, employees can live on Mars or work schedules that vary by days of week, time zone, child care, season, and proclivity.

To deal with communication issues, GrantStation currently uses a messaging system called HipChat. There, we can ask questions of specific coworkers, but we also have an "anything goes" chat called the “Watercooler,” which allows us to have some lighter, non-work interactions with our coworkers.

Cynthia: We have something we call the Watercooler that has little to do with work and a lot to do with personal lives. That keeps us all in tune with others—their children, their pets, and just generally their lives.

David: The Water Cooler for casual socializing is essential. I was really missing that aspect of working with others physically. The Water Cooler at least approximates that a bit.

Many of the staff members chimed in with the advantages, which seem particularly true for those employees with children and families.

Jill Cochran, Marketing Administrative Specialist: It makes life with kids much easier to manage. I don't have to worry about who's going to pick up a sick kid from school, or about daycare or school being closed. I can actually use my vacation days for vacation, instead of doctor appointments, sick kids, and school being closed.

Ashlyn Simmons, International Research Specialist: The main benefit for me is the flexibility in terms of when and where I work from, and that is so huge. I can leave home and visit my parents for two months in the summer, and as highlighted by Jill, I can adjust my schedule within certain limits to accommodate children's schedules, sicknesses, etc. I cannot overstate how big of a positive impact this has on my quality of life. [Like several other GrantStation employees, Ashlyn lives in Spain; her parents reside in Alaska.]

Juliet Vile, Administrative and Analytics Specialist: I started out working at GrantStation only at night because my youngest wasn't in school yet, then mornings and evenings, and next year when both my kids are in school, I'll increase my hours again. Without telecommuting, my choice was to stay at home or work full-time with my kids in daycare. Telecommuting offered an option that is the best of both worlds.

For many telecommuters, the job ends up being much less stressful than an office environment.

Cynthia: I am not a person who easily makes small talk in the morning, so having hours to begin a dialog with others is truly helpful.

Ellen: For me (Myers-Briggs INTJ) the virtual office strips away all the silly shenanigans—no group cliques, or infighting over who eats lunch with whom. No complaining about whose turn it is to make the coffee, clean out the refrigerator, order the supplies, etc. No irritations or passive-aggressive reactions or HR annoyances to manage because Suzy talks too loud or too much, sniffs constantly, chews gum like a cow with cud, has poor hygiene, wears too much perfume, or is always late or leaves early.

Kerry Glauser, Research Specialist: I will admit that I am a bit of a germaphobe, and working from home takes some of that phobia/anxiety away. I don’t have to worry about catching the flu or other illnesses from being in a crowded office environment that harbors germs. And when those of us who telecommute do get sick, we can still come to work and not have to worry about infecting others.

Sara Kennedy, Director of Online Education: I like the fact that working from home provides stress-free living. No need to start the car in subzero temperatures or drive through snowstorms. No need to think about lunch in advance, or what clothes to wear. I find the day very relaxing and enjoyable. [Sara lives in Alaska, where GrantStation got its start.]

Diana Holder, International Research Specialist and Content Curator: Living abroad, I feel that telecommuting offers several perks. First of all, I love being able to work in a philanthropy-related field in a job that is intellectually engaging. In Spain, the nonprofit landscape is not as sophisticated and well-developed as it is in the U.S., and this position enables me to work in a field that I enjoy while still living the Spanish lifestyle. It's really the best of both worlds.

But despite less stress, telecommuters need to find ways of staying focused, and of separating home and office life.

Sid Davis, Research Specialist: My advice, for both myself and a new telecommuter, would be to front-load the day. Get the most done when your mind is fresh.

Sara: I think to work from home you must be disciplined enough to see everything through, from being inspired every morning without anyone to talk with about the job, to staying focused throughout the day to make sure you cross every "t" and dot every "i."

Ashlyn: On the negative side, I have a harder time staying focused at home than in an office. I have a dedicated space in the bedroom, which is helpful because it keeps me out of the kitchen, where I am reminded of things that I feel like I should be doing around the house.

Julie Kaufman, Vice President of Research: And the biggest issue, keeping work and home life separate. I'm trying to be better about staying away from the work over the weekends and in the evenings, but haven't quite mastered that skill yet!

David: Most everyone has a learning curve around the balance during the day. Yes, you can fit in getting the laundry going. But if you are also folding the laundry, and loading the dishwasher, and unloading it, and, oh, it's nice out so I'll rake the leaves, too... before you know it, it's 6 pm and you have to keep working into the evening to get your work done. Most everyone learns after a week of this that they can fit in ONE thing a day.

Sometimes, though, the work does trickle out of work hours.

Jeremy Smith, Communications and Technology Director: It's often hard to stop working as quitting time becomes more fluid when you aren't in an office setting. I would say that new telecommuters definitely need to remember to stop working. It's much too easy to get a head-start on that new project, or deal with that request that came in after hours so your plate is clean in the morning, but then you start cutting into your personal time and the lines between work and home become very blurred.

Ellen: I am also guilty of checking email and responding, even if it is late in the evening or on the weekend, because coworkers are in different time zones or work non-traditional schedules, and I like to show them the courtesy of a quick response. [From Ellen's time zone, coworkers' time zones range from four hours behind to six hours ahead, from Alaska to Spain.]

Many of the staff members pointed out the personal economic benefits of working from home:

Becky Cole, Member Services Representative: From the practical side of working from home—at least for U.S. residents—are a bunch of tax benefits. You don't necessarily have to have a separate room to have a home office. The IRS says a home office can be a dedicated space, which could be a table in your living room, and working from home is for the convenience of the employer. So there are expenses like Internet, phone, and supplies that can be itemized for business use, and because there is no office space provided by the employer, any meetings off-site for business purposes are mileage, not commuting.

Sid: I'm happy about the hour or two hours I don't have to spend commuting, and I feel pretty good about what that does for my carbon footprint.

Jill: I don't have to pay for after-school care for my kids. There's no commute, so I save money on that. I'm not tempted to buy lunch or snacks for the break room. I don't have to buy a wardrobe for an office. (Yay, no dress code!)

Amusingly, several other staff members brought up the clothing issue.

Jeremy: Dress as if you are going to an office every so often so you don't forget what you are gaining by telecommuting... and so you remember how to wear clothes with buttons and zippers.

Cynthia: I always dress before I make or take a phone call with a client, participate in a work meeting, etc. Even though these calls are audio only, I feel as if it is important to dress and not do them in my PJs!

One of the big drawbacks to working from home is that you lose the in-person socialization. While messaging apps can help, some people feel like it leads to a disconnect from the world outside of the office. You may need to make more of an effort to socialize in your personal time to make up for the lack of human interaction at work.

Becky: My two cents on this is that if you need the job to be your primary source of socialization, then telecommuting won't work for you.

Diana: For new telecommuters, I would suggest scheduling social activities or classes after work to bring more balance into your life.

Juliet: Fifteen years ago, I would not have enjoyed working from home. I think about all the learning experiences that I had in my twenties because I worked alongside my mentors. We were in the same office, we traveled together, we collaborated on papers together in a way that was different than my experiences at GrantStation. Not to say we don't collaborate, but it's different as a person with experience rather than a young person right out of college. The face-to-face connection was important when I was younger. I needed to learn how to communicate with people outside my peer group. I also enjoyed all the social aspects of working in an office in a big city in my twenties. But a keg in the conference room just doesn't have the same appeal anymore.

And there you have it, real advice from some experienced telecommuters.

Remember that telecommuting isn't a perfect fit for everyone, or every job position. And that the strategies that work for some people might not work for others. However, if you take the time to figure out your routine, work environment, and communication strategies, you might find that telecommuting can be rewarding, effective, and productive, both for you and the company for which you work.

Action steps you can take today
  • If you’re starting a telecommuting job, talk to your new coworkers. Find out what works for them and give it a try.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things. Telecommuting will take a period of adjustment.
  • Embrace technology. You won’t have your coworkers right next to you, so you need new ways of interacting.
  • Relax! Telecommuting is often less stressful than an office environment, so embrace the opportunity.
  • In December, watch for Cynthia Adams article on GuideStar's blog, "Saving the Planet One NGO at a Time."