Working from Home Doesn’t Mean Eating Corn Nuts all Day

Not even spring breakers, coffee makers, movers and shakers, or working-from home fakers…” This is the voiceover from a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese commercial. Even a company that manufacturers processed foods with no discernable nutritional value pits “movers and shakers” against work-from-home employees, as if, inherently, anyone who regularly works outside of an office is lazy and has questionable ethics. It’s 2016 and the ability to connect with others worlds apart has never been greater, so why do people still hold such a misconception about remote employees?

Especially in security, a field clamoring for the most skilled and hard-working employees, it’s counterproductive to limit an organization’s talent pool to only employees who are geographically favorable or need an office environment to be productive. It can be challenging to work remotely in a company with primarily office-based employees, but working in the office has plenty of downfalls and distractions too. The key to success as a remote worker is all about planning and communication, which really isn’t that different from working in an office, when you stop to think about it.

Fit in and form bonds

George Gerchow, Co-Founder of startup Antivium, has been working remotely since 2008, long before the tools that make working from home today seamless were ubiquitous. All of Antivium’s employees work remotely, but Gerchow has been the only or one of a few work-from-homers at companies like VMWare and Sumo Logic. To be successful, he says, remote employees have to work to fit into the culture of the company. Because remote workers aren’t physically present for the chit-chat and lunch outings and gossip (which, coincidentally, take focus off of work), he or she needs to put in extra effort, says Gerchow, to establish relationships. Gerchow schedules regular one-on-one meetings with colleagues—in addition to whatever team meetings occur throughout the week. These one-on-ones give him the opportunity to catch up, let others know how work is going on his end, hear how work is progressing in the office, and set a game plan for the days ahead.

“Remote workers,” he says, “have the benefit of being able to cut down on all the schmoozing and stay out of office politics, but the bad side is that I can’t just walk into someone’s office and influence them in the same way.” The scheduled meetings give him an opportunity to address issues, but if a spontaneous thought or idea pops into his head, it’s not as easy to attract someone’s attention since he isn’t physically present. Email, instant messaging, Hangouts, and texting have all made it easier to “get in front of” coworkers, but sometimes face-to-face is more effective, especially when it’s a really important topic. On the upside, he says, coworkers aren’t always popping by to chat about last night’s scores and taking his mind off the task at hand. Because the technology removes him one step from those distractions, he is able to better focus. When he needs the attention of a colleague, he just has to push a little harder to get it. The payoff is profitable.

Establish a routine

Another important aspect of working from home is establishing a routine. Especially in larger companies, where offices are located in different time zones, “work hours” are generally set and employees know what’s expected of those located in Australia versus Atlanta versus Anaheim. Remote workers are often excluded from “work hours” in the minds of colleagues, so it’s easy to get sucked into an “always on” mentality. Even just in the US—New Yorkers are early birds and Californians tend to start and end their days later. For someone like Gerchow working from Colorado, he needs to set parameters with the hours he works or he’d be working from 6 am – 10 pm MT every day. Each remote worker’s situation is different, but for Gerchow, he starts early, around 6:15 am, then takes a few hours during the middle of the day to himself, but then logs on again in the afternoon and works until about 10 pm. This way he meets the needs of both coasts without the burnout of a 16 hour workday. Setting a routine—whatever it may be—and letting coworkers know what to expect helps both productivity and relationships.

Many employees who work from home fall into the “always on” trap. With the ease and accessibility of email, voicemail, text, etc., an employee who is walking to the next room to cook dinner has an easier time not turning off the laptop than someone who has to get into a plane, train, or automobile to physically leave work. Physical and mental separation are important for the sanity and productivity of the remote employee, but without concerted effort, it’s hard to accomplish. Establish a routine, stick to it when possible, then communicate it out to the organization. Nothing is accomplished if the remote worker knows the routine but the rest of the organization is clueless. The biggest gripe office employees have about those who work from home is that they claim to “never know” when the remote worker is working. Communication is of utmost importance.

Communicate constantly

The last part is significant: “Communicate constantly,” says Gerchow. “Become really good at presenting over video, don’t zone out during meetings, don’t multitask. It will show others that you’re really part of the team.” But what frustrates him to no end is when others in the organization don’t treat him as such. Even though he sets 1:1 meetings with coworkers and attends all scheduled meetings (even if they’re scheduled during one of his “off” hours), he says there are always a few people in every organization who regularly neglect to include him on meeting invites or provide dial-in information. At a previous organization, one of his coworkers continually failed to show up to meetings, making him feel like his work wasn’t valued. Out of sight, out of mind.

It’s easy to put the onus on the out-of-office employee, but, as the saying goes, communication is a two-way street, and all sides have to travel down it. When a company employs remote workers—and many companies do in this day and age—the entire team is responsible for communication and inclusion. Even companies that don’t accommodate remote employees work with third-party providers and partners with whom they need to communicate constantly to ensure all systems are “go,” deadlines are met, and the quality of work remains high. Organizations wouldn’t treat their partners or providers as indolent or incompetent, so why is it acceptable to treat someone who works from his or her home office that way? Many inputs are required to make today’s businesses function, and remote employees are part of that equation, but neither the remote employee nor the office-based employees can expect projects and plans to work well if communication between parties becomes lax.

Moving past the stereotypes

“When you work from home,” says Gerchow, “some people will feel threatened and accuse you of slacking off.” The important thing to remember—if you want to become a work-from-home employee or employ those who do—is that the quality of and commitment to work is not dictated by where an employee sits. Some considerations for geographic separation must be made; in previous roles Gerchow traveled to headquarters regularly and he’s extremely responsive to messages, even on weekends.

A plethora of collaboration tools are commercially available or free and make it simple for dispersed employees to work together in real time. Since the technology barriers have evaporated, it’s time for misconceptions to evaporate also. A little extra work is required to accommodate an employee who isn’t always physically around. Then again, most office-based employees have to work to cut out the distractions of being in an office at times.

Most importantly, working from home isn’t for everyone. Not all personalities are suited for that life. Some people thrive while others can’t produce the quality of work they’re capable of in an office. Neither setting is better than the other; it’s a matter of what works best for the employee and company.

What is clear, though, is that it’s time for stereotypes to become extinct. Remote employees have a responsibility to communicate constantly, establish a work routine and ethic, and build relationships with coworkers. But office employees also need to realize that some people perform better when they’re in their own space. Remote employees should be judged based on the value they provide, not on false perceptions or the ridiculous images from a TV commercial.