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Telecommuting: How and Why to Do It

Our jobs define us, for better or worse. When we’re out at a party and someone asks “What do you do?” we don’t talk about our love of Eastern European history or our kite-flying or the workout regimen we’ve recently put together. We talk about how we make money – our job, our work – probably because it’s only natural to focus on the activities that allow us to eat, have a roof over our heads, and stay relatively clothed. But it’s also because work is the single biggest time sucker in our lives. The average American adult with kids and a job spends nearly 9 hours per day engaged in work-related activities [1], more than time spent sleep, leisure, or eating.

What if you could cut down on that portion of your day while retaining your productivity? What if you could hold down a corporate gig while in your boxers [2] and from the comfort of your own home?

What if you could telecommute?

Last week I wrote about the high costs of commuting [3], and briefly touched on telecommuting as a viable solution to the time suck that is driving to and fro for five days a week, every week, year after year. Let’s explore this one a bit more.

For most people, the prospect seems impossible, but don’t give up so easily. Telecommuting is growing more common. As of 2012 [4], one in five workers worldwide telecommuted some of the time and almost 10% worked remotely all the time. That same survey found that only 21% of jobs logistically required that workers be in the office every day – so it’s definitely possible for more, maybe most workers to telecommute at least some of the time.

Let’s start with a disclaimer: not everyone should telecommute. Certain jobs lend themselves well to telecommuting. Some do not. You can’t really do construction from your house, or give massages. Not everyone wants to telecommute. Millions of people are perfectly happy with their current work arrangement (millions more are perfectly miserable, of course). If that’s you, don’t think you’re missing out.

You might learn something all the same, though.

So why should you telecommute? What are the benefits?

It makes going and being Primal easier. I receive a lot of emails from readers having trouble incorporating some aspect of the Primal lifestyle [5] into their lives. That’s to be expected. It’s a big change from how people commonly live, eat, and exercise. But the people who have the most issues are the office workers putting in long hours and enduring long commutes. Having to sit in place for eight to ten hours a day puts a real damper on eating [6] and moving [7] well. Who knew?

When you work from home – or your favorite cafe down the street – you are beholden to no one. You can be as weird as you want. You can wear what you want. You can work at your own pace (depending on the nature of the job). Like any animal, humans want to be free, and telecommuting gets you a little closer to that ideal.

You can actually cook. You can get dinner [8] ready in between calls and make real lunches [9] so you’re not reliant on whatever restaurants are within rush-over-when-you-have-ten-minutes-to-spare-and-grab-a-quick-bite-to-wolf-down-at-your-desk distance of your office.

You can sneak out to the garage gym or your building’s fitness center for a quick workout when you need a recharge and there’s a lull in work. Exercise can be incorporated throughout the day, rather than relegated to a single, unpalatable chunk of time at the end or beginning. This is an arguably better way to “exercise,” as it promotes the kind of constant activity humans have (pre)historically engaged in [10].

You can get more natural light. Bright, full spectrum light provided by the sun might be about as effective as coffee in perking workers up [11]. Some offices are even trying to recreate this effect by installing blue lights overhead. It’s fairly effective at actually increasing worker alertness, but the real thing from the sun is going to be better.

You can get sun. Afternoon sun, which provides the best balance between UVB and UVA [12], is the best way to get the requisite vitamin D [13], but that’s usually when we’re stuck in a meeting or hunched over our computer inside a cubicle. Working out of the office, you can get sun at your leisure.

You can work outside. You may have read my post years ago discussing the benefits of working outside [14] and thought to yourself, “Well, wouldn’t it be nice if my office had an outdoor space?” If you telecommute, you can have all the outdoor space [15] you want.

You can take frequent breaks to disrupt the sitting without looking over your shoulder. Sitting is a killer [16]. It inhibits fat burning [17] and increases all-cause mortality independent of whether you exercise or not [18]. Sitting also makes your hips [19] tight, your glutes [20] weak, and impairs your overall joint health and mobility [21]. By breaking up your sitting [22] with frequent breaks, you can improve your blood pressur [23]e and postprandial blood glucose [24].

You don’t have to sit at all. You don’t have to lobby your boss [25] for a standup or mobile workstation [26]; you simply set one up yourself.

You can nap if you need one. Naps improve productivity and increase happiness [27], but not so much if you have to duck beneath your desk away from prying eyes to do it (unless you’re a sociopath [28] with absolutely no shame). Telecommuters can nap when there’s downtime.

You get more time with your kids. If they could choose, most parents would spend more time at home with their kids. If your employer allows it, telecommuting gives you that choice, while traditional employment removes it. And if you don’t have kids, you get more time with yourself. That’s also a good thing.

You don’t have to physically commute. This saves you a little – or a lot – more time that you can spend doing things you like, like sleep [29]. Try not to use the extra time to just work more.

Telecommuting lowers work-to-family conflict. A major source of conflict in a household is work. If you’re gone all the time, or burnt out from working so much, fuses shorten, tempers flare, and conflicts arise. You spend more time recovering from work than enjoying the quality time with your family that a relationship requires to work. But research [30] shows that telecommuters enjoy lower work to family [31] conflict, and the more you work at home, the bigger the improvements.

Telecommuting improves productivity. This isn’t true for everyone who telecommutes. We all work at different capacities in different contexts. Some people thrive with the whip at their backs. Others prefer more autonomy. If you’re one of the latter, you’ll excel at remote work.

Telecommuting makes you feel better about yourself and your work. A recent study [32] of traditional commuters and remote workers found that telecommuters report the greatest satisfaction, lowest stress [33], and highest sense of well-being. I think we could all really go for some of that.

Okay. You’re sold on the benefits and you’d like to make this happen. How?

Ask. You might just have to bite the bullet and ask. As long as your work is solid and you’re in good standing, it shouldn’t hurt. Don’t be afraid to point out that you telecommuting may save the employer money on insurance, office space, and equipment, too.

Be prepared. Make sure you have everything you need at home to make telecommuting work: a solid Internet connection, video conferencing capabilities, a good laptop, etc.

Be a parent. A recent study [34] suggests that employers are more likely to grant telecommuting privileges to employees with children. If you tell your employer you want to work from home for other reasons, they may be less likely to grant your request.

Find a new job or create your own. A surefire way to telecommute is to get a new job that allows it or strike out on your own. Become a contractor a freelancer or an entrepreneur [35]. Or heck, get Primal Blueprint Expert Certified [36] and turn your passion for the Primal lifestyle into a career.

When applying and interviewing for new jobs:

Look for jobs that mention “remote work” or “telecommuting” in the job description. That’s a sure bet you’ll be able to do it.

Research a prospective employer’s policies. Popping over to Google and entering “[company] telecommuting policy” will usually do it.

Browse Glassdoor. Glassdoor [37] is a site where employees (both former and current) can give company reviews, report salaries, and discuss interviews; it’s invaluable for anyone interested in a particular company from an employee’s perspective. Reviews often contain explicit information about a company’s telecommuting policies.

Ask about telecommuting after receiving but before accepting an offer. Some people suggest asking about a company’s remote work policy during the interview. I’d be okay with that from a prospective employee, but other employers might not. To be safe, get the offer first and then ask about working from home.

Negotiate. If working from home is really important to you, consider giving up a perk or a little salary. Don’t worry, you can probably get it all back once you’ve proven they made the right choice.

There are a few things to keep in mind when actually telecommuting.

Maintain regular hours. I don’t mean you have to work from 9 to 5. Work 12 to 8. Or 8 to 12 and then 3 to 7. Normal business hours aren’t necessarily necessary. But allocating specific chunks of time to work and for breaks – and being strict about it – will make you more productive and, maybe more importantly, limit the intrusion of work into your every waking moment.

Beware workday creep. For some employees, telecommuting just leads to the expansion of hours (PDF [38]). Since most telecommuters aren’t exclusive – they also work in an office – allowing remote work becomes a way for employers to get employees working longer hours. “Oh, sure! We totally support telecommuting!” They give you company laptops and smartphones with the expectation that you’re always on call. If you’re okay with that and you know what you’re getting yourself into, fine. Just be wary. Set boundaries.

Realize you don’t have to work at home. You can go to a cafe; some research [39] even indicates the din of a busy coffee shop actually increases productivity. You can go the park or the library. An increasing number of formal co-work spaces [40] designed for telecommuters are popping up all over, like San Francisco’s Citizen Space [41], New York’s NeueHouse [42], and LA’s Blank Spaces [43].

Eliminate distractions. Get in, get out. Don’t dawdle on Facebook [44]. Use some or all of the productivity tools mentioned in this post [45]. The Worker Bees are particularly fond of Self Control [46] (for Mac) and Stay Focused [47] (for Chrome), which keep you from visiting sites you know to be time suckers.

Keep Twitter closed. You can check Twitter, especially if it’s important for work. But don’t leave a tab open or even visible on your screen. I have a bad habit of keeping Twitter open in a tab. And sure enough, every other second or so there’s an update – a little number in parentheses pops up and I just have to see what people have posted. And by the time I’ve scrolled down to read all the tweets, there are ten more.

Do great work. If there’s one way to keep your boss happy with the arrangement and allow you to continue the telecommuting arrangement it’s to become invaluable by producing great work.

If you make it work and do it right, telecommuting can really pay off – for both you, your work, and your employer. I strongly suggest exploring it as a possibility. Several of my workers telecommute, including my general manager in Sydney, Australia and a Worker Bee in the San Francisco Bay Area. With the right people, it works.

What about you guys? Any telecommuters out there care to share tips? How did you make it work?

Thanks for reading, everyone!