I want to telecommute full time. How do I tactfully explain?
February 27, 2017 4:53 PM   Subscribe

How do I make the transition to remote work? How do I explain it to potential employers?

I work a white-collar 9-5 job in technology. I'm tired of sharing bathrooms, audible chewing, and the inevitable colds people get from their kids and share in the office. I also have a mild but chronic health condition that doesn't affect my work, but makes office work uncomfortable. I've always been a homebody and have a well-situated home office. I'm comfortable communicating with my colleagues via text. I have no experience in an exclusively remote work situation, but I strongly suspect it's the direction I want to go.

I don't know how to explain all this to an employer without sounding like a Bitter Betty. Please help me spin my rationale for transitioning to remote work into something more professional.

Also, I'm interested in general musings on transitioning to remote work. I've interviewed for remote jobs before, and this question predictably comes up. Anecdotally, and probably illegally: one potential employer segued from a long explanation of their maternity benefits into asking me (!) if I planned to use them. I gave a vague and disdainful answer and didn't get the job. For the record, I'm definitely not having children, which is another fun fact I don't think I can ever mention tactfully.
posted by theraflu to Work & Money (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I have Crohn's disease. I asked my boss if we could have a discussion about telecommuting full time based, in part, on the difficulty I had mixing Crohn's with work life (specifically with a long commute). I also added up the direct costs of commuting over six months, in terms of time and money spent on fuel and car maintenance. These are largely seen as externalities in most organizations, but the summary over a six month period was striking (add up the number of hours you spend commuting over six months--it's good to keep it in mind for yourself, not just for your employer).

Almost all of my work is independent of my location--I travel a lot for work and have no real need for a centralized office. I mentioned that it would be an improvement for me to eliminate the non-essential commute/office aspect of the job in favor of dedicating more energy and focus to the essential and unavoidable work travel. I live much closer to the airport than I do to the office, too.

The transition was straightforward, beginning two weeks after that conversation with my boss. In asking for the switch, I offered to set up a standard, recurring weekly teleconference with each of the principal staff superiors I usually work with. I've been working from home, and having those routine meetings, ever since. It's been about seven years.

I would never mention family planning issues unless you already have a family situation that would require work arrangements, like needing to pick someone up from school regularly. I wouldn't speculate about the possibility that I'd take maternity leave, even if I'm certain I won't have children. I would use the opportunity to return the question: 'I don't know whether I would use maternity leave, but I'd like to know why you've asked.'

I'm not sure what you're looking for re: general musings, but I'll offer a few:

>For my line of work, it's very efficient. I do detailed research and analyses, often with a lot of math and/or editing very technical manuscripts, and noisy offices aren't conducive to that. The quality of my work improved in step with my ability to control my working environment.

>If you can, set up a dedicated home office in your home. This helps in practical ways (like with a home office tax deduction), but it also gives your employer confidence if you can say you're set up with a full, 'traditional' office. I also find it a useful way to help separate work and home life--just close the door on your office at quitting time, rather than having youp laptop and work materials strewn about the kitchen table or what have you.

>A home office can be socially limiting. I miss the comeraderie of the office, even though it wasn't helping my work. I Skype with coworkers when I can to help me feel a little more connected than I do via calls and emails. My work group convenes in-person retreats every 1-2 years, too, that I still attend. I still aim to network at regional events outside my organization, too.

>A minor point, but if you work from home at some point make sure to look impeccable whenever you see your boss or other important figures in person or via Skype. You don't want to give the impression that working from home is making you sloppy and inattentive to your org's need to give good face.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:25 PM on February 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'd say for your sake and your employer: ask for a staged program, and a trial plan. I'm assuming there is no 100% obvious precedent or easy plan to follow, otherwise you'd not be asking. It makes a lot more sense for both of you to ease in to it, rather than risk a big change.

As someone who has worked from home ~5.5 total years full time by necessity and ~ 30% time by choice for another decade: it has huge down sides. Do you like talking to anybody at work, ever? Are you 100% motivated to do this job because you love it, even if you weren't paid? For most people, those answers are yes and no, and I've seen myself and others have problems with both when working from home, even if it takes a little while to manifest.

So don't go for the big ask: go for 25-50% telecommute time. Tell them they can let another person do it too, and save a desk (or two or ten. And other marginal benefits, see below). Solicit a few other co-workers, it may make sense to try it as a group. Tell them workers are often more productive when they have a little freedom. If all goes well, maybe then you can move on to 75% or 100% (though I'd honestly recommend that only for few people in few situations).

Show them some relevant research, but read it first! [1] [2] [3].

Other people may be able to help better if you explain something about what you do. "Technology" isn't a very meaningful field for these purposes: some people work all day on a computer and don't work in the tech sector, and some tech sector employees have no chances of telecommuting because they need to have their hands and eyes on tasks. Size of company and type of actual work responsibilities do matter in thinking about telecommuting, from both ends.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:28 PM on February 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

There's no guarantee, but I roll it in to my salary requirements. "I'm looking for [mid-market] with remote work, or [top end] if it has to be onsite." Don't explain, don't apologize, just put it there.

If they probe, you can just say, "I am more efficient without the overhead of commute and office life, and in many cases I can maintain better relationships with my key contacts via specifically-scheduled status check-ins than shouting across cube walls. For the quality of the work I want to do, that's really the best possible arrangement for me."

In my experience this is easier to do with a new employer than an existing one, and obviously it's easier in a company that's already got some remote employees or indeed has listed a job as remote. I see it often enough in listings in my (fairly niche field, where those of us who are experts can generally pick and choose, so there's that) occasional check-ups on the market. I think a huge part of it is being able to pitch how you intend to stay connected, what technology you use, get all that in there before someone starts hemming and hawing about "I don't know about how to tell if someone's doing their job though" because you do need to be working with people who respect remote work and know how to manage in a distributed environment. It's not worth fighting for if they weren't already on board.

Figure that stuff out ahead of time and be confident talking about it (for example, I don't do video calls because ugh, but I do screen-sharing as a default for meetings rather than audio-only, I use gotomeeting, I try to have either an agenda out beforehand or it's a single-topic discussion, recurring status meetings, project report cards, internal chat client for coworkers and [whatever] for external chat/text, blah de blah.). You may need to make it sound like you've done this before if you haven't.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:42 PM on February 27, 2017 [9 favorites]

You want a "remote-first" job, and not a "remote-friendly" or "we tolerate remote work" job. In the first, it is assumed that the majority of employees are remote. The way people communicate and the processes that get work done assume that people may be in different time zones and use asynchronous forms of communication (instead of walking around the office to get people). People are judged by their output and not office face-time.

In short, you're looking for a company that already understands the value of remote work and has embraced it.

Otherwise, you will be continually cut off from the rest of the team, left out of meetings and people will consider communication from you to be more of an annoyance than normal business.
posted by meowzilla at 5:44 PM on February 27, 2017 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: This would be for an entirely new, remote-first job. I'm a programmer. The childcare thing came up because I think they were actively suspicious about why a young woman wouldn't want to be in the office talking to people.
posted by theraflu at 6:20 PM on February 27, 2017

Check out this episode of The Broad Experience, toward the end they talk about making a pitch for flexible work arrangements. It's not just about your needs, it's about making the case to your company about why and how it would work.
posted by amanda at 7:00 PM on February 27, 2017

Best answer: I'm also a programmer, and I've worked on distributed teams for over a decade, more than half of which as a manager. There's a lot I could say about what makes successful remote workers and teams; I'll try to distill it down to a the few most important points. So, speaking from the POV of a manager of distributed teams, these are a few things that make remote employees successful:
  • They need to be results-oriented: butts in seats don't matter with remote employees; it's all the trust that you'll get your work done. If you say you'll have done the thing by Wednesday at 1pm, do the thing by Wednesday at 1pm. There's a level of "ambient awareness" on collocated teams; it's easy to tell if someone's behind because they're slacking off, or just because the thing took longer than they'd predicted. But with a remote employee, it's impossible to tell if it's late because predicting software is hard, or because Game of Thrones just got super-good. So, if you're interviewing to join a distributed team (or asking to go remote), you need to demonstrate a track record of really delivering, and then keep that pattern up.
  • Great communication is key. As a remote employee, you are responsible for your own visibility inside the team. Nobody's gonna do that for you. This is really hard with software work, because so much of it can be heads-down. And, most engineers tend to be fairly uncomfortable tooting their own horn. But if you don't spread awareness of what you're working on, at best you'll stagnate and not see your work recognized. Once, I spent several months where my visible work output was essentially nil (I was heads-down in a super-hard refactoring), and even though I pulled off something pretty damn impressive I still nearly lost my job because my team didn't know what the fuck I was up to. I should have been communicating my progress better -- a daily email to my team, an internal blog, regular commits to a work-in-progress pull request, whatever. Because I didn't, I turned what should have been a huge win into a near firing.
  • Finally, people who are self-motivated succeed as remote employees a lot more often than people who require external motivation to get shit done. If you've checked the last to-do off your list at 3pm on a Thursday, are you going to ask your team "what's next?" Or are you going to delay that last commit until Friday so you can enjoy the sunshine? I've been the guy who did the later. I got fired, and deserved it. So, if you want to make yourself an attractive remote employee, being able to demonstrate that you're the kind of person who goes looking for good work to do is super-helpful.
Lastly, a couple words about what I'd suggest you look for in in the teams you look to join. Given that you've used the phrase "remote-first", I think you probably already know this, but just to validate: yes, you want to join a fully-distributed or remote-first culture over a office culture with a few remote employees. Being one of a few remote employees is remote work at a graduate level: the odds are stacked against the weirdos who work from home. It can work, but... it's hard. Also, if you can, ask your potential boss about their experience managing remote teams: a manager new to remote teams, without strong institutional support, has a pretty good chance of fucking it up. Managing distributed teams is much harder than managing collocated ones, but not a lot of newer managers really understand that. I rather royally screwed up my first forey into managing a fully-distributed team, and my team had to suffer through my learning curve. I'd suggest you try not to work for that version of me, if you can avoid it.

Good luck! There are more and more delightful distributed teams out there, and I'm sure you can land on one of 'em! If you want to talk more, feel free to memail me.
posted by jacobian at 9:15 PM on February 27, 2017 [17 favorites]

I moved to a city for a certain job, stayed there a couple years, realized I hated it, and then asked if I could telecommute because I couldn't stay in said city. I was able to point to a precedent of some other people having worked remotely for other reasons. I also, in my case, was able to spin it as me being in another timezone would give us more coverage on issues that cropped up. They did it and it was fine. Then I interviewed for another job and I was like, "I'm willing to move, but if I could telecommute, I'm very comfortable doing that too and I'd like to be able to stay where I am," and they decided to let me do that. Honestly, I doubt I would've moved for the job, but I wanted to show them I was interested and excited about the job itself, and I made sure I put remote working on the table. So I've telecommuted for years at this point.

I like telecommuting, but you just have to pay more attention to carving out discussion time. What annoyed me about being in an office was any question was something someone could easily bug me about, and people didn't try to solve it on their own. But when you're never face-to-face, then you run into never asking questions because it's more work to troubleshoot something. Communicating is key.

Also, as a remote worker, you can feel very isolated. You can feel like you don't know what's going on at the company as well as everyone else, and you can miss having human interaction with the co-workers you do like. Often it is nice because you can easily stay out of any workplace drama or problems, but you also lose out on some benefits.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:41 PM on February 27, 2017

"I don't know how to explain all this to an employer without sounding like a Bitter Betty."

You can't and won't be able to. You will sound like a Bitter Betty even to a current employer, let alone a prospective one. Nthing the advice about remote-first workplaces for the reasons many others have stated, but in the event there are other options, focus on how you will make it work, not the reasons why you want it (because those, in theory at least, should be irrelevant). Your reasons sound, quite frankly, petty and problematic, and will be a red flag to a prospective employer that owes you nothing and doesn't need the hassle.
posted by ryanbryan at 4:12 AM on February 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a (part time) remote worker also in the technology sector, and I have to disagree with ryanbryan above that your reasons are "petty and problematic". Any irritations that keep you from reaching "flow state" are a big deal for a software developer. My advice to you is basically tell the truth to your employer, but *only* through the lens of your quality of work.

To elaborate: I really, really enjoy my job in web development and I like working from home because it allows me to reach a state of focus and productivity much harder to reach in the office. In fact, this isn't great but some days that I've put in a 9-5 at the office, I end up working at home at night because I'm sad I wasn't as productive as I could have been that day had I been working from home. Additionally, remote work means I save over 2 hours commuting, time which I spend working instead. I would talk to the employer only about your passion for the work and the way in which being remote dovetails with your desire to be great at what you do.
posted by loquacious crouton at 4:45 AM on February 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, I'm interested in general musings on transitioning to remote work. I've interviewed for remote jobs before, and this question predictably comes up.

It was around this time four years ago my wife and I had a "come to Jesus" discussion at, of all places, a Wendy's about staying in DC. I'll skip the details but that day we decided we were leaving for a new city (Minneapolis, 1,000+ miles away) and I sat down to talk to my employer (of two years at the time) the very next day about finding my replacement since it would take a while to hire someone and get them up to speed on the work we do. Surprisingly my bosses told me "you're pretty much working remotely now so why not just do it 100% remote from wherever you move to? We really can't afford to lose you and, more importantly, we all really like you." YMMV but if your employer values employees that might be all they need to hear from you for you to go remotely.

The work I do (statistical programming and analysis) is pretty isolating and specialized so not leaving was a win for both of us. I got to keep getting paid an inflated DC salary, I continued to call my own shots, I don't have to deal with any of the normal workplace nonsense and they continue to get deliverables they couldn't get otherwise without a serious time and money investment. One part of our remote agreement was that I come back to DC or San Diego each quarter for "face time" and annual meetings, which has worked out really well for all of us. Around this time last year I started intensive outpatient treatment for an eating disorder and was able to schedule all of my appointments during the day, something I probably couldn't do if I didn't have this job. That was a huge, huge perk of working remotely.

That said, this is year number four of doing this job entirely remotely and I think this is going to be my final year doing it, at least for my current employer. The work I do is pretty solitary and, like you, I don't like the time wasting and annoyances of the cube farm life but the isolation really got to me this winter. I've tried coworking spaces but those, at least in my experience here in the Twin Cities, weren't great for me. Just too much noise from "marketing" people and too many overeager SillyCon Valley types milling around for my liking. The one downside (and this hopefully doesn't apply to you) is that I spend a lot of time on the phone trying to explain complex statistical analysis to program managers and have at least one two plus hour conference call each week with other team members so that made working in a coworking space a no go.

Anecdotally, and probably illegally: one potential employer segued from a long explanation of their maternity benefits into asking me (!) if I planned to use them.

I've had employers tell me about their plastic surgery coverage, specifically their hair treatment coverage (I'm balding), before - it's one of the perks of being in demand. As our HR people tell me during our retention and recruitment meetings - if there's a benefit to finding and keeping people we need to exploit it ASAP.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 8:58 AM on February 28, 2017

I did this by explaining that all my face to face interactions were unnecessary and that all my necessary ones were already virtual. Also, I was constantly asked to work overtime, which could be made up for by not having to put time into a commute. Finally, go for some mix (being in the office some days / time a week / month. Most managers are more comfortable starting with a part time situation. I think for me it really came down to, if you want me to finish these projects then it only makes sense I work from home to maximize my working time.
posted by xammerboy at 7:06 AM on March 1, 2017

Nthing jacobian - an employer where remote is common (or *all they have*) would be ideal. I'm a remote employee for a company where there are only 2 other remote employees and the balance are in the office, and it's brutally isolating.

I have the same issues with audible chewing, tired of getting sick from people coming in sick, etc. It's just hard being one of the only couple of remote employees because they don't factor you in almost ever.
posted by getawaysticks at 8:19 AM on March 1, 2017

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