Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines earlier this year when she told her employees that they could no longer telecommute for the company.  Mayer, who previously was the head of search and user experience technology at Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG), has been both praised and criticized for that decision, a reaction that mirrors the ambivalence Americans feel about telecommuting.

telecommuters

A recent poll of 1,000 Americans by the independent research firm ORC International found that 65% believe telecommuters — those working at home largely via the internet — work productively, but 29% believe they spend much of their time “goofing off.”

Ballyhooed in the 1990s as the new trend that would leave office buildings with vacant signs and rush hour highways open, telecommuting has not re-invented the workplace. Most companies still operate on a traditional basis with an office and office hours for workers.  Telecommuting has, however, changed the way we look at work by giving us more flexibility, and in many cases, it has made us extend our working hours into the evenings and the weekend more than ever before.

 According to Global Workplace Analytics, about 20 to 30 million Americans work from home at least one day a week.  Chances are you have worked from home at some point in your career – perhaps to spend more time with a child, during a career change, or during a time of illness or injury. Maybe you have an office job and an online entrepreneurial business.

Tips to become a better telecommuter

How you avoid the tendency to either waste time or spend too much time working from home? Here are five ways you can become a better telecommuter:

1. Create an organized, effective workspace.

I’m all for flexibility with telecommuting – that’s one of the big advantages of it – but flexibility is not the same things as being sloppy.

You need a space in your home that is devoted to your work. Sure, a home office is ideal, but you can create a spot in a smaller space as well. Is there an available closet that could handle a small desk? How about a corner of the kitchen or bedroom? Maybe you are on the go much of the time. Your organized work space could conceivably contain you, your laptop, your phone and a portable accordion file.

The important point here is that you have a system that works for you and your business, and that you do not need to waste a lot of time each day setting up or getting ready for work. When your work essentials are in one spot, you can get down to work much more efficiently.

2. Set up a routine.

One of the perks of working at home is that you can often set your own hours. Talk with your boss about what is expected from you when, and then set a schedule that fits your needs.

Are you an early riser? Set a schedule in which you are at your desk by 6:30 a.m., if you like, and don’t feel guilty if you knock off at 2:30 p.m. By the same token, if you are productive in the wee hours of the morning, you can feel justified in sleeping in. Set up a timetable that works for you and then stick to it.

Watch the tendency many telecommuters have to overcompensate for the flexibility of being at home. It’s okay to take breaks from work when you are home. You do it at the office, don’t you?  So take a lunch break, go for a walk, or grab a cup of coffee just like you would do at “work.”

Just because your work is there at home with you, it doesn’t mean you can’t leave it alone a certain time each day.  Chances are you’ll be fresher and better able to work after a break or an evening off anyway.

3. Go to the office.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but you need to “go in” to the office on a regular basis even if you are a full-time telecommuter. Get to know your boss and your co-workers more than just as names on a screen or voices on the other end of a phone. There are some details about the way a company does things that can only be gleaned by being there to see how decisions are made. Take opportunities to get yourself noticed — and remembered.  Let your boss know that you are available to come in for staff meetings and that you welcome educational opportunities

Getting involved with your co-workers also helps prevent feelings of isolation that could crop up. Find someone at the office who could keep you up-to-date on what’s going on, such as birthday and retirement parties and promotions.

4. Stay on top of your communication.

When you work from home, communication is even more important than ever. Be sure to keep track of all e-mails and phone messages and respond to them promptly.

Read over the wording of your e-mails carefully. When they don’t have a face and a voice to associate with an e-mail, recipients can sense a tone that you didn’t intend. For example, if they don’t know you use sarcasm in a friendly way, don’t use it. You don’t want to give a false impression.

Also, because you are literally out of the loop, you may have to be a little more pro-active about getting your calls and e-mails returned than someone in the office is. When you telecommute, sometimes you have to be a squeaky wheel or you can get ignored. Try to strike a balance here, and maintain a friendly, professional tone in all your correspondence.

5. Limit your distractions.

Sometimes working at home sends the wrong signal to family and friends. They may think you are available to talk or hang out when you are working. It’s important to set clear boundaries from the beginning so feelings are not hurt on both sides.

Let your voicemail answer for personal calls, and make return calls on your break just as you would in an office setting. Explain to your children what you are working on and why and when you will be available.

Limit the chores that you do during your work hours. While having the ability to throw in a load of laundry is a nice perk of telecommuting, avoid the tendency to use housework as an excuse to keep from working.

Checking non-work-related social media can be a huge time-waster as well. Stay focused on the task at hand, and you will accomplish a lot more in less time.

Office buildings don’t appear to be going the way of the dinosaurs any time soon. Researchers Jennifer L. Glass, of the University of Texas, and Mary C. Noonan, of the University of Iowa, found in a study that telecommuting rates remained steady from the early 1990’s until 2008 (the last year of the study). Despite that fact, however, telecommuting,

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