Careers: Staying connected is crucial, even from home

| Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

While telecommuting is more common than a decade ago because of advances in technology and more-flexible workplace cultures, the tough job market has made some telecommuters nervous as they worry that the lack of face time and presence in an office may make them more vulnerable to being laid off.

Zack Grossbart, a telecommuter for the past nine years, says his advice to other telecommuters wanting to be seen as key players is this shaky job market: "Show other people what you do."

Grossbart's advice has come from personal experience. Working from his Cambridge, Mass., home as a consulting engineer for his employer in Provo, Utah, he was given 60 days notice in 2007 that he was going to be laid off. But he says people he had never met face to face in the company went to top brass and fought for him. He kept his job.

Grossbart says he believes that by constantly making sure others knew of his contributions to the company, he managed to avoid a layoff. Those are lessons he says other telecommuters need to take to heart.

"You've got to brag in the right way," Grossbart says. "When you're in an office, you think it's obvious to others that you're working. But when you're telecommuting, you must constantly put yourself out there and communicate really effectively. I always make sure I'm out in front of people."

That means that Grossbart makes an online presentation at least once a month for his company, and is always looking for chances to show small groups of people at his employer "something cool" such as a new software application. He relies on various forms of communication, ranging from phone conversations to using social media, such as Twitter or Facebook.

When he feared he was going to lose his job a couple of years ago, he launched a blog to showcase his communication skills and industry knowledge. It's something he continues to maintain for the same reasons, he says.

"If someone wants to know what Zack is about, they'll be able to find me," he says. "When the economy is tougher, you've got to do more to showcase your talent."

Heather Huhman, founder and president of Come Recommended, says that as the manager of 12 telecommuting employees, she finds that "overcommunicating isn't a bad idea."

Still, "out of sight, out of mind works both ways," Huhman says.

"We use all kinds of technology to communicate, from instant messaging to Skype. Right now, we don't have two employees in the same state, so we schedule weekly team meetings, and I make myself available at regular times by phone. Do I wish we could meet more often face to face• Sure. The isolation can get to be a problem for some people."

Huhman says some members of her team battle the lack of personal interaction during their work day by taking their laptop computers and going to a local coffee shop. One employee has taken a night job a couple nights a week "just to get out of the house," she says.

Grossbart says that while some people may believe telecommuting "sounds like a dream," they may find they hurt their career if they can't handle the physical remoteness and need for constant communication and diligent self-promotion to their company.

David W. Mayer, executive director for mergers and acquisitions for Aristeia in Greenwood Village, Colo., says nine of his 24 workers telecommute full time, and agrees that some people don't thrive as telecommuters.

"People get all excited, and then the first day at home, they say they miss the camaraderie of an office," he says. "Social networking helps, but some people just need to be around other people."

Grossbart says the problem can be more than social. "If you start telecommuting and do your job the same way you do in an office, you're going to get laid off," he says. "You actually have to be better than other people at your company. You can't just sit there and do your job and think that's enough. You have to do more."

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