Monday, June 25, 2012

In House In The House

Today's post comes from a talented friend who has had the unconventional experience of being an in house lawyer working remotely.  Sarah Tuchler McElvaney is assistant General Counsel at Deltek, Inc., a Virginia-based software and services firm specializing in providing information and tools geared towards project-based businesses.  She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two children, and co-worker dog Abby.

This month marks my 7th anniversary of working exclusively from home as in-house counsel.  I am frequently asked how I got this gig and what it takes to get one like it.  Getting my first telecommuting opportunity was based on a set of unique circumstances that would be hard to orchestrate (a GC about to announce his resignation, a couple pioneers in the group having done it successfully before me).  But after three years in that job and seven years with the company, I had also established myself as a known quantity within the department; I like to think that helped, too.  There was nothing to stop my employer from letting me go if I didn’t pull my weight or deliver on expectations.  It probably also didn’t hurt that I was the lowest paid attorney in the department.  I was insanely inexpensive when taking my salary and volume of work product into consideration.  Add the reduced costs by releasing my office real estate and one less person using office printers, internet, office electricity, phone, coffee, parking, etc, and it seems like a no-brainer. (Note: these have never been reimbursed expenses for me but of course are required for me to perform by duties.)

You probably dream up the positive aspects as you envision yourself walking in your fuzzy slippers from your bed to your laptop on your sofa.  And I’m not going to pretend telecommuting not a great benefit, but there are some negatives. 
         First, there is a much smaller separation between work and the rest of life. For me these days, the work day ends when I have to leave to pick up kids from daycare, but before kids, it didn’t end until I ran out of energy. I was always on, day and night, weekends and holidays.  While great for the employer, it’s not so great for the employee’s work/life balance.  It also establishes an expectation of immediate response times and that expectation is very difficult to change. I still work the occasional late night after the kids are in bed but I try hard not to.
      Second, you can easily become a loner.  I have to make a concerted effort to get out of the house a couple times a week to interact with people. I “talk” to people on IM and email, and of course spend lots of time on the phone, but not having any physical interaction with colleagues or friends can be very isolating. 
         Can physical separation from the leadership team have an impact on your career development? It depends on your company’s leadership team and company culture, but I would say quite possibly. There’s something about face time that seems to provide an advantage over remote work even if you put in more hours than everyone else. You’re also not there when someone pops by with a question.  Out of sight can mean out of mind. It’s not fair, in my opinion, so consider the impact telecommuting might have on your career path and whether it fits your priorities or plans. 
         Developing relationships with colleagues and others in your company is a little more challenging when you’re not physically present.  When you don’t get to talk daily about your kids’ accomplishments, your dog’s latest antics, your spouse’s snoring, or compliment a friend on their cool new boots, you just don’t make the same connections as easily or as deeply as you do when you sit down next to someone every day.  You don’t get the vibe of the office.  You have to make an extra effort to reach out and talk to people to stay connected.

Starting off with a remote employee is scary for an employer unless they know you well because until they know they can trust you, they’re taking a risk that you are not going to produce or that your work quality may not be properly reviewed or up to par.  When you’re sitting in an office, others can see you working and that gives supervisors some comfort, even if they’re not literally looking over your shoulder.  The technology environment has changed a lot over the years. Today you can be almost anywhere without the confines of a traditional office and still be “there.”  But for some managers, it’s just not the same.  It takes time to build trust.

Transitioning to remote work is challenging for the employee, too.  I know I had a certain level of paranoia that people would think I wasn’t working.  (I also come from a “butts in seats” culture and there were nasty emails if you weren’t in your office by 8:30am, even if you worked until 2am, in the office no less!)  So when I started working remotely, I answered emails and phone calls no matter what time they came in. With my next job, I was hired as a telecommuting employee.  I got that job in large part based on my successful history of remote work.  I traveled a little more in the beginning but that helped establish the relationships. Shortly thereafter came a corporate instant messaging program, which also functioned as a test to my dedication – if I didn’t respond immediately, it looked (to me) like I wasn’t sitting at my desk working. That was probably more self-imposed pressure than anything.  Five years later things are a little more relaxed (except at quarter end) and the company acknowledges that people are located in varying cities/countries and time zones.

Where you sit is less of an issue as long as you are available when needed and get your work done.  Personally, I’ve also adjusted my career expectations and put a greater emphasis on the importance of work/life balance.  So this is working for me. My ideal would be home 3 days and in an office 2 days, but I’ll take what I can get.  How can you start working remotely?  I would suggest the following tips for getting your current employer to try it out, or if you’re looking to propose a remote gig, be prepared to address these issues:
1.      Test your technology.  Make sure you have a clear phone line and a sufficiently fast Internet connection.  Make sure you can access the documents you need as well as email and IM.  (We have shared network space where my group stores signed contracts, internal documents for legal department only use, etc. so I can access everything from anywhere.) Are there comforts of your office that will be missed at home, like a headset or a wireless mouse? Get them.  If you need to sign documents, make sure you have a good printer and a scanner or fax. 
2.      Check your company’s policies – technology, privacy, taking documents out of the office, etc.  If there are discrepancies between what you’re proposing and your company’s policies, you’ll need to address how you will be able to stay in compliance while at home. 
3.      Go paperless. Start to review documents online, and if you are a tree killer, start to get used to relying on electronic documents. It takes time, but it’s key to being able to work remotely. If you’re always lugging a ream of paper with you, and you forget your paper, you won’t be very efficient at home.  If I do print, I print on recycled paper (that has my kid’s daycare menu on the other side, for example).  All paper gets used twice in my house! If you print confidential documents, make sure you have a good shredder too.
4.      Float the idea with your manager and propose 1-2 days a week.  Be prepared to describe how this will work, how you can be reached, and why this is a good idea (hint: focus on why it’s good for the company and not all about you personally).
5.      Look for successes and keep track of them.  When it’s time to reevaluate how it’s going, it’ll go much better if you have concrete examples of things that you were able to accomplish more effectively away from the office.
6.      Seek support with your clients.  If they support your proposed schedule and they see an improvement in your response times, ask them to email your boss. 
7.      Be transparent. If you are working a part-time remote schedule, make sure those in the office that are used to poking their head in to say hello know how to reach you. Nothing undermines your attempt to work remotely more than the appearance of you not being accessible. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to take a lunch break, though, so don’t set the expectation that if you’re working from home you will be available every minute of the day.  That would defeat the purpose.   

The flexibility of being able to working from home is wonderful, and it is a really important factor in making my work/life balance manageable, but it takes effort.  Finding that balance can take a while, but if you can get the opportunity, take it.  It’s so worth it.  

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