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I recently started a job where I can telecommute 1 day a week, and the hours are fairly flexible as long as you are being productive and getting your time in.

I find I'm as productive if not more so at home, but on some days I'm tending to do home chores and errands more during the day and then getting the rest of the time in at night after the kids are asleep. I wonder how sustainable that kind of work/home integration is in the long run? I need to not only manage how effective I am at my job, but also manage that I look like I'm effective. Is a hard separation of work and home required to do a good job AND look like you are doing a good job?

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My answer comes from the following experience: over the last 15 years or so, I've had jobs in which I telecommuted anywhere from 1 day a week to full-time, for a range of companies from those that had an office space where people worked on-site to those that had one in name only (to meet clients and pick up mail), for big organizations and small ones. I currently work for a company that has an office space, people work in it consistently, but several people -- be they regional sales or technical developers -- live thousands of miles away. Those of us who do live close by tend to telecommute a couple days a week because we can.

All of that being said, I firmly believe that "how do I look like I'm doing a good job" or "how do I look like I'm effective" -- which is the root of your question -- is completely dependent upon the industry, individual job, and most importantly the expectations set forth by the company allowing you to telecommute. By that I mean that if a company offers telecommuting possibilities, it is their responsibility to understand that there is a reason your position is suited for it, and to hold you to standards that are reasonable given your location (and not hold you to standards that are unreasonable).

For example, if a company allows telecommuting but does not embrace conference calls, Skype calls, Google Hangouts, or other synchronous means of "being present" for required meetings, then that should not be a black mark against you. And in that situation, I might not take them up on the telecommuting opportunity because I would be setting myself up for failure no matter how great I might be at my job. Similarly, if you are telecommuting and your company requires "presence" in meetings and you don't attend (for some value of "attend") then that should be a black mark against you. It's a two-way street, but both parties need to know how to read the map.

As far as the work itself, if your company has good internal practices for making processes and product transparent -- e.g. if you're a developer and you check in your code and update your bugs/tickets/tasks assignments regularly and accurately, or if you're a project manager consistently updating communication plans and other documents, etc -- then as a remote worker continue to use those practices. If a company does not already have a way in which work is made transparent to colleagues (even if it's limited just to those colleagues who need to know), regardless of where you are sitting, then as a remote worker your job is necessarily harder and there's nothing you can do about that besides try to implement transparent processes (and then follow them) and again consider if that is a telecommuting situation you want to get yourself into.

My expectations as a manager are that everyone should be present (for some value of "present") when and where they are supposed to for meetings -- which should be as limited as possible anyway -- and the systems we have in place for showing progress should be used and should show progress. Those expectations are the same regardless of where a person sits.

Now, here's the point where you have to make a choice: Do you take a telecommuting position, or telecommute n number of days per week, when you know the company is not really set up for you to succeed while doing it? This is basically the point at which you decide whether or not the extra work you will have to do to prove you are doing the good job that you are, is or is not something that would inherently mess up your work-life balance.

Let's assume that all of those real (and unfortunately common) issues can be put aside, and imagine you are now working remotely for some number of days per week for a company that understands what that means and your productivity isn't questioned. The steps for "separat[ing] or integrat[ing] your work and home life" are as follows:

  1. Stop worrying about proving your productivity and just be productive.
  2. Remember why you wanted to work remotely in the first place.

The answer to #2 is going to put you on a track to figuring out how best to balance work and life, because the answers are different depending on the reason you're doing it.

For example (and these are generalities but still show the overall point):

  • If you're telecommuting primarily because you live far from the office (or the commute to the office is possible but unbearable), then do what you can to mimic the office structure in your home: have a separate workspace, keep consistent hours, make work the priority during those hours.
  • If you're telecommuting primarily because there are domestic needs to attend to -- children and their schedules, for example, or health-related situations, or elder care, whatever the case may be -- then all of the above is still true: keep a separate workspace, keep consistent hours, and make work the priority during those hours. In these cases, "consistent schedule" can mean totally different hours on different days, but as long as it's consistent week to week then everyone (including yourself) knows how to integrate with the schedule. It becomes (or should become) no different than any other standing meeting -- "Jim has to pick up the kids from soccer at 4 every Wednesday" vs "Jim has a meeting at 4 every Wednesday" is not materially different; it's still time people schedule around.

Clarity, transparency, and consistency by both you and your employer is what makes telecommuting a success for all -- you get to be productive, the company gets to reap that productivity. For some, a hard split between Work and Home will be necessary, for others, it won't -- it might not be best to focus so much on the hard separation and instead work on a comfortable integration.

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    As a side note for the "wacky times" thing, I found that shared calendars are a boon to remote workers. Calendar in your time available if your hours differ from day to day, so that people can easily see when they can expect you to be working. Also, make sure to mark on your calendar when you have meetings or other work-related "not available" times, so people can see that your basic schedule hasn't changed, but you're simply in a meeting or whatever. – Shauna Apr 15 '12 at 20:31
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    Wow. I'm a new manager in a position where the the group around me (above and below) has more telecommuting flexibilty than I've experienced before. This REALLY gelled the stuff I've been pondering and helped clarify the real concept of how to keep things humming while helping people balance work/life. Thanks! – bethlakshmi Apr 19 '12 at 13:39
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My personal experience over the last 9 months has been through telecommuting 2 days per week, and I had similar thoughts to your question during my first couple of months.

You do need to maintain a distance between your work and home life, and if you have a high degree of stress at work, you don't want that stress to permeate your home. My best advice is to look to the following:

  • I can't stress enough how important it is to have a separate work area that you can close off from the rest of the house. A small room as a study/office with your workspace set up ergonomically, and preferably with a comfortable sofa. You need to be able to ensure that you can work undisturbed, even if you have to put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your study door. Closing the door allows you to create a demarcation line between your work and home lives. If you can't arrange a room, then your next alternative is to ad some sort of a curtain, or a screen that you can use to a similar effect. If you need to return to your workspace after dinner or "family time", then use your screen/curtain/door to ensure your workplace is out of view while you are with your family.
  • No TV, or other distractions near your workspace.
  • Designate times when you can allow yourself to do other non-work related stuff like your laundry, or your errands, and then stick to your working times. Sure, you can be flexible, but you should also be able to plan at the start of your day how your telecommute day schedule will work.
  • Work in short bursts of 15-30 minutes, then take little breaks to stretch your legs, clear your head, and if you have the sofa I mentioned earlier, you can even stretch out on it occasionally, just to really give yourself a break when you are between "shifts". Work out your day schedule to include these "shifts" in order to ensure you allocate enough time to complete your work for the day.
    • In my particular case, I allocate my usually daily travel time to cover the breaks and errands that I may need to cover during the day.
  • Most importantly, try not to worry about how productive you are, or how your boss will perceive you. You don't need to feel stressed when in your home, and you will probably find yourself working more intensely while telecommuting regardless. Therefore relax, and enjoy the novelty of sitting around in your pyjamas while you work.

This is all based on my own experience and has worked for me. I found that I started to work most productively when I set myself clear goals, and when I stop worrying about perceptions and simply go ahead and get the work done. Even better, I can take a long lunch, sleep in, wake early for a jog, or whatever I wish to do during the day without feeling guilty that I haven't done my job when I know that my "shifts" are going to be intense and focussed. Personally, I'd telecommute every day if I could convince my boss that I don't need to physically attend meetings.

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    I very much agree, having a "Workplace in the home" is vital and lets you compartmentalize much better. See that little office as your real office. If you're out of that room, you're off the clock, and you do no personal activities while in that room. That way you still go to work every day, but your commute is much shorter. Add a timer to help make sure you're not allowing yourself to slack or overwork excessively: I don't stick to it rigidly, but using it to time approximately how many hours I work a week lets me be happy that I'm not accidentally taking advantage of the teleworking. – Jon Story Feb 6 '15 at 12:51
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"Is a hard separation of work and home required to do a good job?" -- No, in my experience. I've always played very loosely with schedules, worked from home on weekends and done short weekdays to compensate etc, and I think, if anything, I'm more productive on average, because I end up doing the work when I'm in a productive mood. (Sometimes I just have a great solution to some problem at midnight on a Saturday, and spend the next two hours coding in bed... That said, I don't have children, so my schedule is a lot more flexible in general. I do get plenty of free time, just not necessarily in the standard time slots.)

"Is a hard separation of work and home required to look like you are doing a good job?" -- This is a difficult question, and depends a lot on the type of work you do and on the culture at your workplace. However, I'm not sure how it applies to your case - either way, you're telecommuting on Friday, so your coworkers/supervisor can't see whether you're doing your work in one block or mixing it up with chores and making it up in the evening. So who exactly is it that needs to think you look like you're doing a good job?

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I think the answer depends entirely on your personality - whether you have a lot of self-discipline or not. If you do not, you will probably over time tend to cut the day short, make longer breaks or procrastinate, pushing the work into the weekend. This may or may not be acceptable for the company provided this does not affect your coworkers.

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I wonder how sustainable that kind of work/home integration is in the long run?

The difficult part of this is we don't know what you're doing now. From the sounds of things, you're making use of flexible hours to deal with "Home", which is an extremely poor decision long-term. It seems easy right now to say, "Well, I have to run the kids to soccer practice at this time, and I really should make a dentist appointment for that time..." Ask yourself honestly: How long until this becomes, "Eh, I'll do it after Jerry Springer."?

The most common thread I've found with employees who begin working from home is that they are completely incapable of sustaining their focus without serious division between work and family. That is, in order to work effectively from home, you (and your family) need to agree to:

  • A set schedule of hours ("I am in the office from 8am to 12pm, 1 hour for lunch, and back in the office from 1 until 5")

  • A private area that is work only ("The home office is my home office during business hours. I'm not to be disturbed.")

  • A direct line of communication back to the office ("I'll call and check in with my supervisor at 4:30pm before knocking off for the day.")

The more you treat working from home the way you'd work from the office, the more successful and sustainable telecommuting becomes.

Is a hard separation of work and home required to do a good job AND look like you are doing a good job?

This is all about keeping in contact. If you're working out of the office only 1 day a week, then it may be less important, but make sure there's a paper trail. If you're visiting clients, make an excuse to call into the office to check in, perhaps claiming that you need a bit of information from a file that you forgot to grab. If you're working from home, checking in at the end of the day with the supervisor can help give you a better view of how they perceive your work ethic and help you shape that perception. Remember, you're working from 8 am to 5 pm – make those your set hours and make yourself available in them.

You absolutely, positively must separate work and home. No one can effectively juggle both without serious detriment to one or the other.

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I've made this transition with several different jobs and this is what I found:

  1. Get explicit time expectations from your boss. Manage the expectations of coworkers and heads of other departments. The last thing you want is someone under the impression you're not working because they assumed you were avaialble 9-5 or worse 24/7.
  2. Focus on projects, tasks and getting things done. Amount of time spent should be irrelavant. Don't punish yourself for figuring out how to get things done faster. You'll get enought to do eventually. If you want to spend more time on your work, go back to the office and reclaim the inefficiencies.
  3. Schedule focused work times and make everyone in your house aware of them. If you Skype, beware of background noise and images. The days of kids running in the house and screaming are over when you're at work. Personally, I don't go straight through in one large chunk of time. I have about 3 peak times during the day (approx 1-4 hours each) and just deal with phone calls/email if needed. This comes natural for now, so I assume it's sustainable for me. If not, I have no intention of forcing this routine on myself. Yours may evolve as your children get older.
  4. Don't be afraid to use the phone more often to keep in touch. Use avoiding a lengthy email to call someone and talk something through. Don't make it a complete waste of their time.
  5. Budget time to work on the really hard stuff at home. Don't just piddle around with responding to a few emails. Clear that inbox before leaving work the day before if possible. Start on this project right away during a block of time you set asside. Take a break and see if there are any important messages to address. The nature of your job will dicate what tasks are more suited for this uninterupted time.

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