Across a variety of industries and jobs, more people than ever are working from home, and this trend shows no indication of slowing down.
In 2019, the United States Census Bureau released an analysis of 2005 to 2018 data from its annual American Consumer Survey. The data shows that the number of employees who regularly work from home has grown 173% since 2005 and that 4.7 million employees now work from home at least half the time. And that statistic doesn’t even include the self-employed.
The types of occupations and industries that allow telecommuting run the gamut from computer and mathematical to business and financial to legal. And the bureau’s analysis shows that 50% of the U.S. workforce holds a job compatible with at least partial work-from-home arrangements.
The analysis also showed that businesses would save an average of $11,000 per year for each employee they allowed to work from home at least part time. So the time is just right to approach your employer about adding at least partial remote work as an employment perk. But not before you arm yourself with everything you need to know about telecommuting and how it can affect your and your employer’s daily lives.
What Is Telecommuting?
The term “telecommuting” means that an employee has a flexible work arrangement in which they don’t (always) travel to a central office building, campus, or place of work. Instead, they work from a home office or other remote location. Telecommuting is also often called “remote work.”
Some workers who telecommute do so 100% of the time, never traveling to a centralized office. Others simply work remotely part time one or more days per week or month. Telecommuting doesn’t always mean the employee works from home, though that’s common. They can work from anywhere in the world so long as they’re able to be productive and have the right resources, such as a laptop and high-speed Internet access, to do it.
In fact, another term has jumped into the mainstream vernacular in the past decade: “digital nomad.” It’s someone who uses technology to work and live in a nomadic manner. Telecommuters usually live near their employer or at least have a permanent address. They don’t travel away from home a majority of the time. However, digital nomads change locations frequently and travel around the world as they work.
In terms of work needs, digital nomads have much in common with telecommuters. That said, if you live or plan to live on the road full time, check out additional resources too, such as our guide to living in an RV full time and remote jobs you can do from anywhere in the world.
Why Employers Allow Telecommuting
A 2019 study by a professor at Harvard Business School lays out what many companies have known anecdotally for years: allowing employees to work remotely at least part time leads to higher productivity compared to similar companies that don’t allow remote work. In this study of employees of the U.S. Patent Office, researchers found that productivity among the remote workers increased 4.4%, a gain that could add an estimated $1.3 billion yearly to the U.S. economy.
Allowing employees to telecommute also increases retention, research has found. According to data compiled and maintained by Global Workplace Analytics, a whopping 95% of employers surveyed think allowing telecommuting has increased employee retention, which has enormous implications for cost savings. Employee benefit publication Employee Benefits News reports that on average, it costs an employer 33% of a worker’s annual salary to replace them. To put that into perspective, that’s $15,000 for an employee who earns a yearly salary of $45,000. Furthermore, the surveyed employers estimated that 75% of the employee turnover causes they see are preventable.
For these reasons, more and more employers are allowing their employees to work remotely, or telecommute, at least part of the time.
What Employees Need to Know About Telecommuting: Pros & Cons
Working from home or your local coffee shop seems like a dream come true. However, as with working in an office, there are advantages and disadvantages.
Pros of Telecommuting
The advantages of remote work are predictable but important. They include:
- No Distractions From Co-Workers. You’re probably familiar with those co-workers who tend to drop by your office to chat just as you’re getting into a work rhythm. You may even have a toxic workplace to combat. Whether your colleague is well meaning or rude, it’s still a distraction. Telecommuting allows you to escape the din of the office and concentrate on the work at hand, increasing your productivity — and probably creating fewer headaches.
- No Commute. Census Bureau data from the 2018 American Community Survey shows that Americans spend an average of 27.1 minutes commuting each way every day, for a total of over 200 hours — almost nine total days each year spent commuting. Some people like their commute, or at least know how to maximize commute time, but there’s no doubt telecommuting saves you a lot of time, gas money, and wear and tear on your car.
- Flexibility. Perhaps you like to exercise on your lunch hour instead of before or after work. Maybe you want to be able to throw a load of laundry in the dryer or unload the dishwasher while you’re listening in on a conference call. There’s no doubt telecommuting gives you the flexibility to accomplish everything from quick personal errands to weekly household cleaning tasks in the short breaks that often occur throughout the day.
Cons of Telecommuting
Not every drawback of telecommuting is an issue for everyone. However, it pays to know what you could be up against as you prepare to transition to remote work or pursue a telecommuting opportunity.
- Isolation and Loneliness. While working in an office can sometimes provide too much opportunity for distraction, the flip side is that working from home can offer very little in the way of social interaction. According to the Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work report, the biggest struggle remote workers identified was loneliness.
- Communication. Despite the proliferation of ways to stay connected with technology, communication with co-workers and supervisors can still be a challenge for telecommuters. If you’re not in the office with people, it can be hard to have the kinds of casual interactions that build business relationships. Brainstorming by conference call and holding team meetings via video can also take some getting used to, especially if you’re not familiar with the available technology. Collaborating and communicating remotely was the second-most commonly reported issue among the Buffer report respondents.
- Missed Opportunities. In addition to feeling lonely and having to work harder to keep in touch with your colleagues, some people who telecommute fall victim to an “out of sight, out of mind” issue when it comes to promotions, opportunities to work on plum projects, and employee professional development. Even if the people making these decisions don’t intend to isolate and freeze out telecommuters, it can still happen.
- Too Much Autonomy. Most of us need some measure of autonomy to do our jobs well. However, remote work can come with a bit too much. When there’s no boss around or office to go to, you’re the one responsible for keeping you motivated, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of working during family time (or doing personal tasks during work time). Getting support from certain other departments, such as IT or janitorial services, also becomes more difficult or even impossible.
Things to Do to Prepare for Telecommuting
Once you’ve worked through all the benefits and drawbacks and considered how you can balance working remotely, there are also logistical issues to consider. From your physical workspace to managing your workflow, there are some things you need to make arrangements for before you leave the office behind.
Many of us have experience working on laptops, and we can connect to Wi-Fi or mobile hotspots from anywhere with ease. However, it’s still necessary to think about all the physical needs of telecommuting. Planning ahead can help minimize the stress of your new circumstances and reduce the number of unnecessary distractions and crises.
Working from home requires a dedicated space that’s separate from the rest of the activities you do at home, like cooking, hanging out with your family, and relaxing. Even if you don’t have the square footage to dedicate a whole room to a home office, figure out how to make a space that communicates to you — and the rest of your family — that while you’re there, you’re at work. It can be anything from a transformed closet to a corner of your living room that has a desk, chair, and computer monitor. Whatever it is, setting space aside helps prevent you from blurring the lines between work and life and maintain a good work-life balance.
Don’t overspend trying to create a grand office that looks just like the one at work. There are many ways to outfit your home office on a budget.
If working from your home office full time isn’t the right fit for you, many companies provide flexible workspaces for freelancers, remote workers, and startups to rent a desk, cubicle, or general office space in a larger building. Often called co-working spaces, these are ideal for those looking to escape the isolation of working from home or who need more resources than a coffee shop can provide.
According to Coworking Resources, the biggest co-working chains in the U.S. as of the beginning of 2020 included WeWork, ImpactHub, and Serendipity Labs. And according to co-working marketplace Upsuite, while costs vary depending on your location and needs, the average monthly cost of co-working spaces in 15 major U.S. markets was between $335 (Houston) and $675 (New York City) as of the beginning of 2020.
2. High-Speed Internet Access
There’s no way around it. You need high-speed Internet access to telecommute. If you don’t already have a high-speed connection at home, it’s time to upgrade. Stealing your neighbor’s Wi-Fi or relying on a mobile hotspot through your cellphone won’t cut it. Follow these tricks for saving money on high-speed Internet.
Since an Internet connection is a necessity for telecommuters, you may be able to deduct some of the cost of your monthly bill on your taxes if you itemize and only claim the portion of your bill that’s in proportion to your work-related use. A tax professional can help you figure that amount.
Make sure you have all the technology you need to telecommute successfully. In addition to a computer, you might also need a cellphone (check out Xfinity Mobile), external computer monitor, and high-quality speakers and a microphone or a headset for conference and video calls.
If your employer plans to provide a computer, work with your IT department to get everything set up and troubleshoot any issues before you leave the office. Once you’re working remotely, you can’t just call IT to come to you when something goes awry. So ensure you have a protocol for getting tech support once you’re working remotely.
IT can also walk you through the procedures for backing up your files or work to an external server and setting up security measures such as two-factor authentication. If there are websites or software that require a secure login if you’re offsite, make sure you have those set up ahead of time too.
4. Miscellaneous Supplies
Beyond hardware and software, there may be other supplies you need to have to work from home. For example, if you need to mail something or ship products or materials to a client, how are you going to handle that errand and expense? Do you have a stash of office supplies and printer paper? Think about whether you need a printer, scanner, and copier or if you can go paperless. Who’s responsible for paying these expenses: you or your company? Will they reimburse you or do you have a company card?
Ensuring that you have a plan in writing for various incidentals helps the transition to remote work go that much more smoothly.
Once you’ve set up your physical workspace, it’s time to turn your attention to the emotional considerations of telecommuting. While many only think about the positive aspects of working remotely — like skipping a long commute in favor of writing emails from your couch — it’s vital you not ignore the psychological and emotional differences.
Feelings of isolation and loneliness are the most common issues people have with telecommuting. Have a plan to combat these.
Even if you like sitting in your office at work quietly chugging along on a project, you’re probably used to hearing other people nearby and seeing co-workers when you step away from your desk. Knowing you won’t have these casual encounters at home, think about how you can build them back into your everyday routine.
For some, that’s as simple as making lunch plans a few days a week or working from a coffee shop or the public library instead of at home. You can even run errands on your lunch hour so you get out of the house and see other people during the day.
6. Setting Boundaries
Another common complaint of remote workers is the struggle to enforce separate work-home boundaries. It can be hard to turn off your brain at the end of the day and stop working. There are multiple ways to combat this issue, such as:
- Stopping working at a specific time every day like you would when working in an office
- Physically shutting down your computer or closing your home office door
- Saying out loud to yourself, “It’s quitting time,” or “I’m done with work for the day,” to help give yourself that mental separation
- Putting on work clothes every morning and then changing into a leisure outfit when the workday is over.
And if you’re a parent, working from home when you have kids requires a few additional tactics. Figure out what works for you and stick to it.
Just like there are distractions in an office setting, there are distractions when working at home. They’ll probably just be different kinds of distractions — your refrigerator, a needy kid, or the temptation to get a few household tasks done when you should be working. Make sure you don’t fall prey to all the distractions that come with working from home. A physical barrier like an office door you can close or a room partition can help signal that you’re working instead of ready to play or run errands.
To successfully telecommute, it’s essential to have a reserve of self-motivation. You’ve got to have the internal drive to make yourself work, even when you’d rather nap or watch TV.
To stay motivated, identify what drives you and focus on that when you’re feeling the urge to slack off. If your family relies on your paycheck, put a picture of them in a frame somewhere you can see it as a way to remind yourself what you’re in this for. If you’re hustling to pay back your student loans, tape a sticky note with your outstanding balance to your computer monitor. Whatever motivates you, keep those reminders front and center to help you stay on task.
You don’t want your co-workers and boss to think you’re slacking off just because they can’t see you. One of the best ways to proactively counteract this issue is to set up an accountability system. Task management apps like Airtable let your boss and co-workers keep track of your progress on projects, and a time-tracking app like Toggl can help you see exactly what you’re spending your time on and prioritize your tasks.
If you prefer to go the low-tech route, simply sending an email to your team with a few bullet points outlining what you’ve done each week could do the trick. Whichever strategy you choose, good communication is critical for accountability.
Being out of sight no longer means you have to be out of mind to the people you work and collaborate with regularly.
If you want an easy way to casually communicate with co-workers, you can use a free app like Slack or Flowdock. If you’re looking to video chat, Zoom can help you out. If you just need to keep everyone on the same page virtually, Trello is a good option. Look at all the free collaboration software out there, and figure out what works best for you and your colleagues.
Your taxes may become more complicated once you’re telecommuting, but some remote workers qualify for a home office tax deduction.
Unfortunately, only self-employed telecommuters are currently able to claim the home office deduction. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts of 2017 eliminated most miscellaneous itemized deductions, which is where employees could take the home office deduction. If you’re a small-business owner or work as an independent contractor or freelancer, make sure you understand how the home office deduction works so you’re complying with IRS regulations.
Note that if you’re working remotely because you relocated and you’re now in a different city or state from your employer, get clear on your withholding allowances before April 15 rolls around. If your new home state has a higher or lower state income tax bracket, you might need to adjust your state income tax withholding to reflect that.
Also, this is a good time to consult a certified tax professional for advice on how your new circumstances affect your taxes.
In addition to the physical and emotional preparations for working from home, there are a few more things to think about before you take the plunge.
12. Professional Development & Networking Opportunities
Even when working remotely, it’s vital for your career prospects that you take advantage of professional development and networking opportunities. However, it’s sometimes harder to find these opportunities when you’re not in the office to hear about conferences or networking happy hours.
To stay in the loop, be proactive. Sign up for mailing lists and newsletters, and put reminders on your calendar to reach out to colleagues so you don’t miss these opportunities when they pop up.
13. Establishing Regular Check-Ins
As you’re developing your remote work plan, remember to build in regular check-ins with your employer, whether that’s a weekly phone call with your boss, a monthly lunch with your co-workers, a quarterly visit to headquarters for a day of meetings, or all three.
Don’t leave these open-ended. Make them regular, scheduled, and measurable. Having these on everyone’s calendar helps manage expectations and make sure everyone is on the same page. If you find you’ve scheduled more than you need, you can make adjustments.
Telecommuting is full of benefits for both employers and employees. You can avoid expensive commuting costs, get more done, and spend more time with your family. Once you’ve weighed the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting and are physically and mentally prepared, you can confidently take the plunge and work from home.
Does your employer offer telecommuting as an option? What would you do with the extra time and money?