The plusses and minuses of working at home

Dear Mr. Dad: My company recently offered me the option of telecommuting. Theoretically, I could do 75 percent of my job from home and I’d have to be in the office for our weekly departmental meeting and some client meetings. I’m a new mom and the idea of working from home sounds attractive. What are the plusses and minuses?

A: At first glance it looks like a no-brainer: work at your own pace, save a bundle on commuting and dry cleaning, wear your pajamas all day, and have plenty of time with the kids. What’s not to like? Well, the reality is a bit more complicated.

In the early stages of the new routine, you may find that your boss is managing you more closely than before. Sounds counterintuitive, but working from home is still pretty new in many parts of the country, and a boss who agrees to experiment with such an arrangement is probably being closely scrutinized by his boss. You may make a quick run to the store to pick up some diapers in the middle of the day, only to discover an irritated voicemail from your boss when you return.

The key to making telecommuting work for you and your company is understanding and managing expectations. Have a clear agreement about what your supervisor wants and what you’re willing to do. You may be expected to be at your desk at home during normal business hours, just as if you were at the office. Or you might be allowed to work at your own pace in return for agreeing to work after hours and weekends. Put all this down in writing, and be sure to include a mechanism for evaluating how the arrangement is working for both sides.

Make sure your agreement also covers the tools you need to do your job. Will the company give you a computer, or will you have to use your own? If your hard drive crashes who fixes it? Who pays for your Internet connection? Iron these issues out well in advance so that when you make the transition, you can hit the ground running.

Like anything else in life, there are benefits to telecommuting—and there are costs. Yes, you’ll save some money, gain some flexibility, and you may be better able to balance your work and family responsibilities. However, you may find yourself putting in longer hours at home than your office-bound co-workers do at work. (One of the biggest complaints I hear from telecommuters is that they don’t have any boundaries—it’s so easy to check your office email in the middle of the night…) A warning: trying to get any serious work done while there’s a child in the house is going to be very, very difficult. Babies have a knack for demanding attention right in the middle of important conference calls.

One more thing to think about. Working from home, your contribution to the company might be less visible, and you could find yourself less connected with your co-workers. There’s a lot that goes on at lunch besides lunch. It’s where relationships are forged, office politics are discussed, and important rumors are shared.

Fortunately for most telecommuters, some face-time at the office is usually part of the deal. Could be as little as a weekly staff meeting, or a more structured arrangement where you spend part of each morning at the office, then head home to work from a laptop. Whatever your schedule, don’t let yourself be a stranger to the gang at the office. Stop by when the regional manager’s in town. If a group’s getting together for someone’s birthday, be sure to make it. After all, you deserve a chance to catch up on what’s happening at the office and enjoy a little corporate camaraderie. Oh, and don’t forget to bring the baby pictures.