Sim Zacks remembers the day when he realized that he hated telecommuting. It was July 6, 2006. Hizballah forces had been shooting hundreds of missiles a day onto his Israeli town along the border of Lebanon. So Zacks, the director of IT for CompuLab, moved his family temporarily to Jerusalem, where a friend offered him a basement office to work out of.
But every time he'd settle in at the computer, he would get distracted. Sometimes the distractions came from phone calls from his wife, who was wandering the city with their four kids. "I'm sitting in the office, answering phone calls, telling them where they have to go, what's going on," Zacks explains. "And while I'm sitting there, I have the need to check the news, then check what I'm supposed to be doing. I really feel that telecommuting is very difficult to do."
Those were exceptional circumstances, of course -- most people don't have to deal with incoming missiles. But Zacks doesn't believe it was simply the situation of being under siege that turned him against telecommuting. Rather, it's the whole idea of working out of a home office and dealing with home issues during work hours, something that may be much more familiar to teleworkers.
Says Zacks, "My experience with telecommuting in general has been more like, I'd sit down in front of the computer. The baby goes to sleep. My wife says something like, 'Oh, the baby is sleeping. Do you mind if I go out and get some groceries?' If I say, 'Yes, I mind,' then she is going to sit there glaring at me while the baby sleeps for a few hours. If I say, 'No, go ahead,' as soon as she closes the door, the baby starts crying, and I can't get work done while I walk around with the baby."
Zacks isn't the only person who sees a downside to physically being outside a traditional business environment. As any manager who has ever said, "How will I know they're really working?" will attest, telecommuting, teleworking, Web working or just plain mobile working has its downsides.
Downside No. 1: You can never get away from the work.
The fact is that although Zacks, a manager, prefers his office environment in Haifa -- where he has others around him, he can take breaks for socializing, he can have lunch with his co-workers, and "different things are happening" -- that's not true for everybody. Therefore, some of his staff occasionally work from home.
But one quality-control manager who has begun telecommuting reported to Zacks that he can't get away from the job. "Whenever he sits down at his computer, whether it is his business hours or not, he sees that he has new e-mails from the job and feels pressured to complete tasks," says Zacks. "Now he's complaining that there is way too much work for him and he's working much more then a normal day."
So the company is working with the manager to set more concrete work times. Also, they've set him up with a portable USB key that includes Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail application to use with his PC, so that during nonwork hours he can pull out the key and not see the work that's stacking up for him. "This should separate home and work life so he can put control back into his life," says Zacks.
Downside No. 2: You can't just call for a tech support person desk-side.
Cathy Moore, a musician and e-learning content developer and designer in Bloomington, Ind., figured out early on that she was never meant to be in the same office a full 40 hours a week. So since the late 1980s, she has never held a full-time job. Sometimes she works on-site for clients, and other times she works out of a home office. For that reason, she doesn't consider herself a telecommuter. "Most of my clients don't care what time zone I'm in," she says. "My current clients are in Malta and Australia, so there's no time zone that would please everybody."
But even after describing the joy of working out of a sunny, south-facing office with only her dog for company, and going into town with her laptop for a change of scenery, she still complains about having to be her own tech support person. "I have a [technically proficient] geek that I can hire for major stuff," Moore says. "But I have a problem that a lot of self-employed people do -- where I think I have to be able to do it myself."
Most recently, that included debugging graphics problems that mysteriously appeared in her blog, "Making change," having to evaluate software without input from anybody else and searching for alternative broadband options during cable outages.
Downside No. 3: Who will handle the paperwork?
Sometimes the problems with working outside a company are simply aspects of running a business, which is what a lot of people who want to work from home end up doing.
Rob Sullivan finally gave up on his boss ever really following through on promises to set up a telecommuting program for the staff at the search engine marketing firm where he worked. So he quit and opened up PurposeDrivenPromotion Inc., a search engine marketing business, in a basement office in Coloma, British Columbia.
But that solution has had its barriers to happiness. For one, Sullivan hates selling himself and his business. Plus, he's not a "big paperwork person," so invoicing gets put off. Likewise, it was a shock to him in his first year of business when he hit major dry cycles and nobody was buying his services. "From the middle of July, it seemed everybody was on a holiday," Sullivan says. "All of a sudden, the work dried up for a month and I was really scrambling to keep the money rolling in."
Downside No. 4: You can get lonely.
Although most of the people interviewed for this story cited a lack of camaraderie among co-workers as a disadvantage, isolation no longer has to be the burden of the remote worker -- at least, not if the virtual form of socializing will do. Marina Martin, who runs Sufficient Thrust, a corporate efficiency consulting company, turns to social networking tool Twitter whenever she needs a faux co-worker fix. In fact, it has also become her lifeline, the place where she can post her problem-of-the-moment in the hopes that one of her followers will offer up a solution.
Recent fixes include directions for upgrading Martin's MacBook memory after she complained that it was running too slowly; referrals for some Web design work she needed to have done; and "a mnemonic device for remembering how to say 'almond.' "
But Martin, who's based in Vancouver, Wash., misses the luxury of corporate accounting and IT programming services. "I know that outsourcing is the new big thing -- the whole Tim Ferriss four-hour workweek," she says. [Note: Ferris is the author of a book titled The 4-Hour Workweek that purportedly includes advice on "How to outsource your life."] "I've tried it in every area of my life. The only one I've found it to be satisfying in is basic data entry. But if it's not an American I can have a conversation with over the phone and pay a significant salary to, I'm not getting quality back."
Downside No. 5: You can have too much company.
Mike Gunderloy, a Ruby on Rails developer in Evansville, Ind., and longtime home-based worker, actually spent three years plying his coding craft from a 28-foot RV that traversed the country.
Gunderloy, who says he has a "low tolerance for BS," will never work in a traditional office again. "I'm not real good at structured environments. I've gotten far too used to being able to play on my own, take frequent breaks and do whatever the heck I want. No boss is going to give me that sort of flexibility."
Gunderloy admits that he thrives on the chaos of a home life that includes a Web worker wife and four home-schooled kids. He says interruptions don't bother him, "but if you're the sort of person who doesn't interrupt and pick up again, then that's deadly."
While closing the door to keep the work life separate from the home life may be an obvious solution, it's not always the most satisfying, Gunderloy says. "You get this dream, 'I'm going to work at home and see my kids.' Then you realize you can't work in that environment, and you have to put up a door and keep it closed for eight hours, and you didn't see your kids -- and you didn't see anyone else, either."
Downside No. 6: Forget about cost savings and that corner-office promotion.
Home-based work presents unique challenges, as Gunderloy has explored extensively on Web Worker Daily, a blog site dedicated to exploring the work and lives of mobile, connected people. "There are expenses you don't have when you're in an office," he says. "People always point out you're saving money on gas, you don't have to eat out and all that, which is true. But then you have to add back in your own costs of telecom -- unless someone else is paying. You've got to worry about business insurance and covering whatever equipment you've got at home.
"Second, you're not in there doing your part in office politics to protect your job and get the next promotion and slit the throat of somebody who would get it instead of you," he says. "For people in a large, traditionally structured corporation, that's an issue."
Downside No. 7: You have to be savvier about communication.
When people who work geographically apart need to meet, much can be lost in the translation. The inability to read body language or follow what's being sketched out on a whiteboard can result in misunderstandings and lost productivity.
According to Jack Penkoske, director for manpower, personnel and security at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), staff had to be trained to know when they should be on-site for meetings and when phone conferencing would work. "If it's a standard type of meeting -- where it's a status report thing, where you're updating on things -- they're very conducive to that e-collaboration type of setup," says Penkoske. "If it's a strategy discussion or you're getting into a lot more dialogue on issues and concerns and brainstorming, sometimes you find you go back to wanting to have face-to-face meetings for those."
Of the federal agency's 5,000 civilians and 1,600 to 1,700 military personnel, he says, about 40% telework, either weekly or on an ad hoc basis.
Another area where some DISA workers needed education was in the concept of what it means to be "out of the office." "It may sound intuitive," says Penkoske, "but if you're teleworking, you don't put an 'out of office' [message] on e-mail or [say] that you can't be reached by telephone."
Downside No. 8: Your manager may never really know you are working.
Penkoske says that as DISA's teleworking program has evolved, some managers have expressed concern that they have no way to measure staff productivity. His response to them: "'How do you measure it when they're there for eight hours?' When employees are in their traditional offices, most of that should transfer to another location. If you have good [measurement criteria] in place now, you can continue to measure it."
Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition, has a more pointed response when managers tell him they know their people are working because they're in the office: "That's bull----. What's one of the busiest online shopping days? The first Monday after Thanksgiving, when everybody goes back to work. How many people are checking their stocks, doing their e-mail...streaming March Madness from ESPN.com?"
The problem, he says, is twofold. First, managers who have finally earned their corner offices did it by managing hands-on. "Now they have to do things differently," Wilsker explains. Second, most organizations don't have adequate metrics to measure people based on their productivity.
"Go into an office building and walk around," Wilsker says. "I challenge you to find half the people at their desks. Where are they? They're in meetings, conferences, traveling. They're doing all this kind of stuff. How do you manage them?"
And that may ultimately be the biggest telecommuting downside of all: Other than the lack of a daily commute and the ability to wear the same clothes today that you wore yesterday, you may discover that your job hasn't changed one iota. Wilsker says he often asks organizations, "What do you call this when people can work anywhere? Their response: 'We call that work.' "