I’ve worked as Sybase since August 1997, and have been a part-time telecommuter since January 2004. I already worked at home infrequently when the need arose (as did many others in our group), but at that time, my (old) car was around 275,000 km, and I wanted to reduce the mileage I was putting on it so that it would hopefully last a little longer. I asked my boss if I could regularly work at home one day a week (every Friday). He asked his boss who asked the President of the company (who to this day I have never met), and they all OK’ed it on a trial basis. Five years later, I’m still at home every Friday, and sometimes on other days as well. If there is a lot of snow in the forecast, I will generally work from home; in the past, I have had days where it took me two hours to get to work and the same to get home, and wasting that much time (and gas) seems really dumb if I can work at home and avoid it all. I’ve done this for a couple of years now, and I’m sure there have been days where the traffic would have been fine despite the snow, but one day a few weeks ago it was snowy but I didn’t think it was that bad, so I figured I’d brave the weather. Stupid move. It took me a little over two hours to get to work, and then about an hour and a half to get home.
I’ve read a number of articles on telecommuting, and one of the pieces of advice I’ve seen the most often is that you should treat working at home as the same as going to work, meaning that you should sit down and work during your regular office hours, you should have a separate “office” space and not just sit at the kitchen table, things like that. I’ve even read about people who close the door to their “office” and force their family to either call or email if they need him, just as if he were at an external office. This seems a little extreme to me, but it does avoid persistent interruptions. I would love to have a dedicated place in the house where I could work more comfortably than the dining room. We do have an office upstairs, but the desk is so cluttered with stuff that there’s no room for my laptop. If I were to clear off the desk and use that as my telecommuting “office”, I think I’d have to invest in a new chair. Hmmmm…. I’ve thought about that idea in vague terms before but never really thought about it until now, and I’m starting to think that it’s a really good idea.
Treating working at home like working in the office is particularly important if you telecommute 5 days a week, since you don’t want to feel like you live in your office — you want a place that you can “walk out of” at 5:00 and feel like you’re back home. For me, I only work at home one day a week most of the time, so I set my laptop up at the dining room table and sit there. Sometimes I used to sit at the kitchen table, since it’s closer to the entertainment centre so I can plug my iPod in and listen to music while I work. I recently bought a speaker device for my iPod so I can listen in the dining room, so now I don’t need to move. But generally, it’s a normal working day. I get up at the same time, have a shower and get dressed, get the boys breakfast and make their lunches, just like any other day. It’s just that when I’d normally kiss everyone goodbye and leave, I simply walk into the dining room and sit down.
It does take discipline to work at home. It’d be very easy for me to sit with my laptop in front of the TV all day, but I know that I’d get much less (read: nothing) done, so the TV never goes on. Surfing the web is harder to avoid since the browser is right there, but I’m getting pretty good at not sitting on Facebook or writing blog entries all day. Most of the incentive to not do this comes from my work ethic — I know that if I’m goofing around when I’m supposed to be working I’m essentially ripping off the company, and so I feel guilty. I do have to admit that some comes from the fact that working from home is a privilege that Sybase has given me. If they decide I’m not getting as much done when I work from home, they might decide that they don’t want me to do this anymore, and I don’t want to lose the privilege. It’s something like: I want to be able to work from home and goof off, so when I work from home, I don’t goof off in case they don’t let me work at home.
One of the huge advantages of my job, from the point of view of telecommuting, is that from a work perspective, there’s not much I can do in the office that I can’t do from home. (Obviously teachers, policemen, and anyone who works in retail or deals face-to-face with customers doesn’t have this luxury.) Copying large files over the network is much slower (100 Gb line vs. VPN over wireless G). I do a lot of network-related projects, and sometimes that doesn’t work very well. As I’ve mentioned before, the product I work on is a mobile database called SQL Anywhere (SA), and the clients use UDP broadcasts for locating the server. When I’m at home, my machine is essentially on its own private LAN separate from the work one (VPN does stand for Virtual Private Network after all), so any broadcasting stuff doesn’t work properly since UDP packets don’t span subnets. I have a couple of VMWare images running on our VMWare server in the office, so whenever I need to do network stuff, I can simply remote desktop into one of those. I used to do a lot of work on the NetWare version of our product, and I can’t do NetWare stuff at home either. But we don’t support NetWare in the latest version of SA, and we get very few bug reports from previous versions (that’s obviously because my code is robust and efficient, not because we only have a handful of customers using NetWare). I have my NetWare development environment set up on a VM now so I can do that from home anyway.
The obvious advantage to telecommuting is the lack of travel time and effort — not only does it reduce the time spent travelling (on Fridays I generally spend the extra two hours working), but it also reduces the gasoline used and the extra mileage on the car. On days where the traffic or driving conditions are bad, it also eliminates the likelihood of accidents, and lowers my general stress level as well. It’s also very nice to be able to schedule things like dentists appointments and visits from service people (the furnace guy, the guy who will hopefully fix our dishwasher next week so I don’t have to wash a thousand dishes every night, etc.) on Fridays and not have to take vacation days.
Other than work stuff I can’t do from home, the main downsides to telecommuting are things like participation in meetings, whether scheduled or impromptu (Aside: “impromptu” is a really weird word), and socializing. Some things are just more difficult over email or IM.
From the company’s point of view, there are only one real advantage: keeping employees happy (and therefore keeping employees). I do love my job, but if Sybase didn’t allow me to work from home, I might have grown tired of the commute by now and left to find a job closer to home. In terms of job perks, it costs the company nothing, and is a display of trust on their part, further enhancing my overall job satisfaction.
I’ve written before about IvanAnywhere, the telepresence robot in our office controlled by my colleague Ivan Bowman, who lives in Nova Scotia. Ivan used to live and work in Waterloo, and now travels here a few times a year. But I’m curious how Ivan’s working relationship with colleagues that he has never worked with “in person” differs from those with whom he has.