In news articles around the web and in the Real World, you can read all about the movement companies are making toward having workforces that are primarily home based. Yet, on the other end of the spectrum Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines when she ended all telecommuting and brought everyone in-house.
Other companies have small corporate offices with a few desks and some basic staff, and the balance of their staff works from home. I wish to take you through my journey in working from home in the IT world and share some facts that I’ve accumulated along the way.
I have worked for two companies that have home-sourced their staffing. Both companies are very different, but share several unavoidable things in common. First, allow me to explain how I ended up working at home for the last two years.
In the summer of 2011 I had a good job with a small local company, but work was thin and I was worried about stability. Like so many, I was cruising Craigslist for jobs. I found an advertisement that looked almost too good to be true. It was doing phone based technical support for a publicly traded company, working from home. The pay wasn’t high, but it was on par with what I was making and offered a full 40 hours per week of work. In addition, there were fairly decent benefits. The best part was that I got to work from home.
The interview process was more than I expected. First, immediately after filling out my application, I got an email inviting me to take a test. I took the test, and apparently passed it because a few days later I got a call from a supervisor who interviewed me. I got passed on to the HR person, and was hired. This process all in all took about a week.
Then in May of 2013 I decided to move on, and do what I really love doing: working with Linux on a day to day basis, doing web hosting tech support. I did that for 9 years previously and I was eager to dive back in. Little did I know that in the several years since I’d worked in web hosting, many companies had adopted a work-from-home model, and that several jobs were open at different companies.
I did some Googling and came across industry websites and found a position that I just knew I could do well in. This company too offered a full benefits package and was work from home!
Several hours of pouring over my resume, and many caffeine infused drinks later, I submitted my application. Seconds later in my inbox was an online test that I was required to take. It was for software I hadn’t used in several years, but I managed to score very well on it going based on memory alone. A couple of days went by, and I got an email from the company asking to schedule time to do a Skype interview. The interview process was fairly predictable except that I was required to do some hands on Linux work, sharing a screen with the interviewer. I wasn’t quite prepared mentally for it, but I seemed to do fine and was passed on to the next person, and then to the CEO who offered me the job. Its worth noting that its a much smaller company than the first one mentioned!
In each case, multiple interviews were conducted, tests were taken, and I got to work from home. If you apply for a work from home job, I’d say that its a safe bet you’re going to have a similar process.
The First Week
Since there’s no actual building to walk into, meet everyone and have visual cues to go by, both companies did a week of training at the get go. Call it orientation, familiarization and so on if you like. Either way, its very much like your first week or two at a regular job, except you usually only get to meet one or two people- your trainer and the HR person who pops in and goes over things with you. I suppose you could count your fellow trainees since there are usually several. Getting to meet the rest of your coworkers usually comes when you join them in doing work or ‘going live’ as they say.
Training is usually done with Go2Meeting and PowerPoint presentations, and prodigious note taking. A word to the wise: If you ever go through such training, forget about taking notes. You need a wiki. I use Zim Desktop Wiki
myself and it is sufficient. It runs on my computer and I don’t need a web server for it, and its fast. Otherwise its rather boring, but it gets the job done. In fact, I would not be able to do my job properly without something like it! There’s just too much information, and its not
Trial By Fire
After training comes the Real Deal: doing the job you were hired to do. Here, the companies that I’ve worked for varied greatly. The first one was on the phone full time, and the second one not at all and so their mentoring styles were different. The first one just threw me into the deep end! I was suddenly taking calls for a service I was hardly familiar with. The second company is all trouble ticket based, so its much slower paced in the sense that you don’t have a customer breathing in your ear waiting for you to fix something. That allowed for a much more controlled pace.
Both companies use internal chat servers to handle most of the communication. In fact, I’ve only spoken with five people at the current company: the three that hired me, the HR woman, and the supervisor I called when the VPN went down. In the previous company it was not much different.
You’d think that with nobody actually meeting face to face that there would be a strained work environment. The complete opposite is true. People have become used to a chat only environment to the point where it feels as natural as anything else. In both the places I have worked from home at, the geek culture especially was alive and well.
Both companies try to make up for the fact that there’s no face-to-face interaction. The first company fails miserably at it, even canceling vital one-on-one discussions. I must admit that this deteriorated as that company got bigger and that, along with a plethora of other things became serious morale problems. The current company uses a blog to communicate company updates, has very good morale boosting structure and the supervisors go out of their way to be very decent about any thing you need. Not all companies do this, but when you are working remotely, you can’t see the expression on the face, or hear the inflected tone in the voice. That can make it very difficult to have good communication, and its something you’ll have to deal with if you work from home for any company.
Pros and Cons
There are some things that are wonderful about working from home, and some things that aren’t. First and foremost you work from home.It is very nice not having to commute, especially if you live in a big city. I use far less fuel than I ever have, and my car will last a lot longer. The other side of that coin is that I don’t leave the house as often as I used to. My wife and daughter do all of the shopping. On my weekend I have plenty of activities to keep me busy, but during the work week I rarelyleave the house or at least my property.
This isn’t as bad as it sounds for a homebody like me, but if you enjoy being out and about, and the hustle and bustle of a city, it might not be for you. At least one of my coworkers chooses to get the best of both worlds. They co-work with others in a shared office where people pay rent for a desk or office in a building with like minded people.
Counting the cost
Then there’s your equipment. Its your equipment, not the company’s! Do you want to run a 32GB monster workstation with 8 monitors and water cooling? That’s fine. But you have to pay for it out of pocket, too. It pays to keep your equipment up to date, and in good working order because if it goes down, its on you to fix it. There’s no IT department to call and complain to, nobody to hold your hand through problems. One glaring exception that I know if is Apple who does have work-from-home workforce for their AppleCare, and they provide an iMac to their employees who must also send them back when employment ends.
I personally view this as trading in car maintenance (which you don’t get allowances for from any employer unless you get paid mileage for driving while on the job) for computer maintenance. Every year my computer gets something new to replace the old, and every few years this equates to a basically new computer. Its what many of us geeks do anyway.
Which brings up another Pro for working from home: the care and feeding of your car! I live about 60 miles north of Vancouver, WA near Mount St. Helens. If I had to commute to work, it would cost me about $5000 per year in fuel and maintenance not to mention 12-15 hours per week of driving. Lets do a little math, shall we?
Lets take 10 hours a week (conservatively) of driving to and from work. We’ll count that as unpaid work time. If you make $20/hr, that extra unpaid time takes your wage down to an average of $16/hr. Now, factor in that you have to pay for fuel. We’ll say you have an economical car that gets 30mpg, and you drive 120 miles per day. That’s 4 gallons of fuel at $4/gal, $16 per day or $80/wk. That takes your hourly rate down to almost $14/hr! So much for that high paying job. Add in $1k/yr for car maintenance (brakes, tires, oil changes and the like) and that puts you at $14.00 an hour. If you spent 15 hours per week driving, it takes you even lower to $12.75/hr. Depressing, isn’t it? Imagine if you drove a gas hog SUV!
Now take that same job at home, and it might pay less. We’ll say $15/hr. If you spend $500/yr on supplies to work from home (which is a high estimate in my experience) that puts you at a $14.50/hr, which is still higher than the $20/hr job would pay. I’d say that’s a nice compromise for all the time, effort, money and wear and tear saved. And you still get to come out ahead.
You must also have a reliable Internet connection. Its nice to have fast, but reliable beats fast any day. I work on a 1.5mbps DSL line because I live out in the country and that’s all that’s available. It has to be a terrestrial line, no satellite (they do not support VPN’s). Its not fast, but it rarely has any issues. Most employers have little tolerance for calling in sick because your Internet is down.
Realities and Practicalities
There can also be distractions. In my home, it is understood that when I’m working, I’m not generally available. It takes a lot of self discipline to keep focused as well because there’s no managers or supervisors walking by to see if you’re browsing Slashdot when you should be working. On that note, many companies have written in their policies that you cannot browse social media sites; you wouldn’t want to put your shiny new job at risk!
The perks are otherwise very nice. Fully stocked fridge, personal showers and an easy commute. What more could you ask for? The down side is that you really do have to work at maintaining personal hygiene and appearance. Its easy to get stuck in a rut of wearing pajamas all day. That is generally bad for morale and self worth. It is best to treat it like a Real Job and go ahead and shower before work, shave, and take care of yourself.
Last but not least, working remotely brings with it difficulties in communication with others. I touched on this earlier. When using just text to talk to others, there is a lot that is lost. It is way too easy to gloss over what someone else spent their valuable time writing, and then give them a response that does not dignify them at all. I’ve had this done to me many times, and have even done it to others without thinking. It’s something that you have to be absolutely mindful of. Failure in communication precedes more failures. You must also wear a smile in your text. I’ve found that a simple smiley here and there really helps convey warmth.
Working from home for a flexible employer can be pretty amazing. I know of folks who basically couch surf around the country while working from wherever they are staying with (friends, of course). I’ve personally house sat for friends and cared for their dogs for a week while they were away, all the while working at their house. Working with a laptop at the beach is quite possible, I know folks who’ve done it. The biggest thing is that your Internet connection must allow VPN’s. There are still many places that do not.
I hope that reading this article has left you more informed about being a remote IT worker. Its not perfect, and it has its moments- but overall I personally hope to be doing it for a long long time.