Getting Ahead When You Work From Home

Photo: Erin Yamagata.
There's no denying that telecommuting is far from a trend. According to a New York Times article published last spring, the number of Americans working from home "has risen 79% between 2005 and 2012." And since more and more of us can do our jobs from just about anywhere, that number is sure to grow.

While there are lots of benefits to working from home — spending the day in your pajamas, a flexible schedule, an unbeatable commute — there are also some downfalls. The same Times piece pointed to a study showing that "those working at home were also promoted at half the rate of their colleagues working in the office." If you telecommute, it's less likely you'll be a part of the workplace culture; you'll miss out on in-person meetings, and have less access to your coworkers and supervisors. So, how do you get ahead in your career when you never actually see your boss? Here are some tips for making the most of your remote job.

1. Be extremely clear in emails, but send them sparingly.
Emails are a great method to communicate with your boss while working from your couch. But they are also a terrible scourge on the Earth that we would all like to see less of, or at least escape from in some way. It’s not that emails are inherently flawed — it’s that it can be overwhelming to send and receive so many of them a day. So, do yourself a favor and shore up your email game: Each message should have a specific ask or suggestion, or better yet, several specific asks and suggestions, clearly delineated by number or paragraph. This will make the process clearer and less painful for everyone, and also make it easier for your manager to respond. Ask your boss how they best like to receive emails, and then adjust accordingly based on your experience with how they actually answer them.

2. Talk to, or at least have access to, coworkers or your boss through messaging programs.
It’s not very productive to rely solely on emails to communicate, especially when it comes to smaller questions that could potentially get lost in an overstuffed inbox. More and more companies are using Slack and Yammer, among others, to facilitate online group chats. If your company’s not signed up for one, Gchat, text, and the old-fashioned telephone are all better methods for quick, timely communication. This is also a great place for small talk, if you or your coworkers are amenable, so you can form bonds with your colleagues even when you’re not going out to lunch IRL.

3. Keep your boss aware of your availability.
It’s important to be accessible during work hours, and to keep your boss up to date on your comings and goings (while being careful not to overshare). In fact, just like in a romantic long-distance relationship, it may be better to be over-communicative about your schedule and when you’ll be online and available (or not), so your boss can get a better idea of your working rhythms. This will help avoid any confusion over waxing and waning communication throughout the day, especially if you’re working in different time zones.
Photo: Erica Gannett.

4. Do try to see your boss and/or coworkers regularly.
As mentioned before, your boss and you are essentially in a long-distance relationship. Obviously you work at home for a reason, but even if you work across the country, finding ways to get regular face time with your boss or your colleagues will keep the connection congenial and help you better communicate certain expectations or needs. This might mean a coffee when you’re in town, or it can mean a specific week or days you and your boss set aside for you to visit the office. You should also make sure to touch base with your boss regularly one on one, both through in-person visits as well as perhaps weekly over the phone.

5. Send progress reports and updates.
If you’re working on a long-term project, but you don’t necessarily need too much advice or help from your boss, make sure they know where you are at certain stages of the project. Depending on the project, send your supervisor daily, weekly, or monthly progress reports. It answers the question they would rather not need to ask, and keeps you both alert to the process.

6. Be aware of getting caught up in perceived slights or drama.
This goes back to our discussion of emails, but: Working from home can sometimes be a little frustrating because all your communication is heavily mediated. It’s hard to discern tone or emotion from an email, but you might be inclined to project something onto the fact that your boss isn’t getting back to you on something urgent because you’re feeling particularly stressed about a project, but it’s no use worrying. To assuage your fears, it might be good to get an office confidante to keep tabs on what’s happening in-house, especially regarding politics that might be connected to your job. However, if you believe there’s a problem or something’s not working, it’s better to clearly and concisely ask, just in case.
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