Re: Cases for telecommuting/working remotely

Subject: Re: Cases for telecommuting/working remotely
From: Jefro <jefro -at- jefro -dot- net>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Thu, 24 Aug 2006 16:34:20 -0700

Coming to this conversation late...

I have been telecommuting as a technical writer full-time from the wilds of northern California for six years. I live about 4.5 hours north of Silicon Valley. I would never go back to living in the traffic and noise and pollution, but there are some pitfalls with nontrivial solutions. These are things to consider carefully before making the jump.

1. Layoffs. I work best as a captive, and have endured two layoffs thus far. The first was in 2002, a very bad time to be laid off. I finally convinced my previous company that it was awkward to ship product without documentation, so they hired me back two months later. Last year was a bit worse---I had been with a startup for about a year when they crumbled, providing no severance or anything like it, and I was out of work from August until late November, almost 4 months. Being out of work is difficult enough when prospective jobs are somewhat local. Competing from afar is highly stress-inducing.

2. Job hunting. Remote job-hunting can be tough. You are trying to convince someone sight-unseen that you can do a better job for them than the legions of writers who live locally. This is actually often true, but you have to prove it, and you also must prove that you are not going to be a nightmare employee who does only the minimum while sitting at home eating bonbons. Employers understand the risks of remote employees but often don't understand the benefits, or weigh them differently from the prospective employee. It helps greatly both in interviews and during employment to see the situation from their point of view.

3. Interviews. If you are coming from a long way off, companies generally pay travel expenses for prospective employees. If you live locally, obviously they don't. I live half a day's drive away, which makes the situation murky, and in my experience they don't offer to pay unless you get on a plane. I figure it costs a minimum of $200 to travel to the bay area for interviews, so if I'm job hunting I try to gang as many together at once as possible. Once last fall I had three 2-hour interviews in different parts of the bay area, and did it all in one day with no hotel. Grueling. It is better to spend the night before the interview in a hotel and arrive bright and fresh, but of course that adds to the expense.

4. Starting up. Getting going with a new company can be the pits, as they generally want you on-site a lot at first. This could mean a couple of days, or it could mean a couple of months. This is often true for contracts as well as captive employment. For me it involves staying in hotels, either away from my family entirely or with them along for the ride. The latter is fun for a day or two, but not for weeks on end.

5. Interruptions and distractions. Much has been written on this subject already. It is challenging but manageable. We are homeschooling, which makes it more challenging, but also much more rewarding to take 5 minutes to help debug a math problem or a paper airplane design, as opposed to a water-cooler conversation about last night's reality show or someone else's divorce. I keep my door open as much as possible, and the family knows not to bother me when it is closed.

6. Networking. It is tough to keep up with your employment-social network remotely. I trade jokes daily with the lumberjack down the street, but it is pretty tough to find someone to discuss the relative benefits of 3G telephony networks when most of the people you know don't even own cell phones. It is very easy to get complacent, far easier than when you see and experience the industry daily. Lists like TECHWR-L help, social groups like STC (ducking for cover) can help as well. I also spend some time every day chatting with ex-coworkers over MSN Messenger (or equivalent) while working.

7. Technical skills. They can atrophy. See #6 for starters. I tend to spend at least 1/5 of my day keeping up with high-tech news, much more than I did when I was local, and I also not only maintain my own equipment but occasionally branch out into new projects at my own expense, sometimes paid and sometimes not. Even if they don't seem relevant at the time, it really truly helps to keep my brain actively learning all the time. I didn't realize how much of this was going on subconsciously without my knowledge when I was sitting down the hall from the IT guy who liked the way I made espresso.

Note that there are many, many benefits to working from home. I think these tend to be discussed more often, so I have concentrated on the gloomy side, hoping more people will realize that none of these issues are insurmountable, nor do I believe they are any worse than issues that local on-site employees cope with all the time. They are just different, and the solutions to them are different as well.
I hope this helps someone!



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Re: Cases for telecommuting/working remotely: From: Brian Gordon

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