telecommute1Working from home has been the worst, and the best, part of my life these past three years.

Earlier this week Yahoo told all their remote workers to find a local office or relocate. The initial explanation I found was that Yahoo had allowed the remote workers to take advantage of their situation. This was a drain on everyone and therefore Yahoo had to take drastic actions. If the stories of abuse are true then I completely agree with their decision. However it seems that this was just an excuse for Yahoo to cover up another drastic action that some felt was needed: massive layoffs.

I’m not here to debate if what Yahoo did was right or not. In the big picture of things I would simply say that Yahoo should have never allowed the situation to arise in the first place. It is clear to me that they don’t have the right people working remotely and they most certainly don’t have the right people to manage remote workers. Combined with the scale of their operations this was a recipe for disaster.

I started work for Confio Software in June of 2010. My first day on the job I woke up at 5AM to catch a flight to New Orleans for TechEd. Between my travel for Confio, the PASS Board, and additional Microsoft events such as the recent MVP Summit I estimate my travel to be about 33% right now. That includes working weekends for events such as SQL Saturdays. While most people have 22 workdays in a month I tend to have 26 (or more if I can’t get a flight back in time).

If I am working from home then 100% of the employees in the office don’t see me. When I am on the road at events then 99% of the employees don’t see me. That means on any given workday I will be unseen by 99% (or more) of the employees at Confio.

How have I survived for so long? I’m sure my boss(es) ask themselves that same question. I know I ask it of myself frequently. But the reason is quite simple: I’m lucky.

I’m lucky in that the folks back in the office that sign my checks have been a remote employee before. That means they were smart enough to put some measures in place to make certain I am being productive. If you are working remotely you need to have well defined tasks and goals. If you do not have well defined tasks and goals then you have little chance of being successful in your remote role.

It would seem to me that Yahoo either didn’t have such measures in place or they did have the measures but had no recourse for workers that were not performing well. I’m guessing that most companies today know how to handle a low-performing worker that sits in a cube but have no idea how to address a low-performing worker that is remote. That certainly seems to be what happened at Yahoo.

Scott Hanselman already listed all the reasons why being a remote worker sucks and ways to make it work. When I read his post I thought for a minute that perhaps Scott has been watching me for the past three years as his lists are exactly what I would have included.

I want to go one step further and point out why working remote is the most amazing challenge I have ever taken on.

Why Working Remote Is Teh Awesome

These challenges are very specific for me, my job, and my family. They are not likely to be the same challenges for you, but I suspect that there is some overlap for many. These challenges are what leads to the guilt that Scott talks about and why I drive myself to take on more work in order to prove that I have value for those that don’t see me every day.

I walk my kids to school every day – Every morning I walk my kids to school (OK, when I am not on the road that is). It takes four minutes to get them there. It’s a wonderful four minutes despite if you heard me yelling at them to stop jumping in the snowbanks and puddles because their feet will be cold and wet all day. If I had to commute to work there is no way I would have the privilege to walk them each morning. Working from home also means that I am there when they come home from school. I help get them a snack, I make sure they get started on their homework, I ask them about their day at school. Again, all things I could never do if I had to go to an office. I cannot put a price on what this has meant to me these past few years. It is the number one trade-off for the fact that my month has more than the typical 22 workdays.

The challenge here is that when my kids are around they want my attention. It’s hard to explain to them that when I am at home I am really at work. In some ways it is easier for me to be on the road, although I feel far less productive when I am not in my office.

I can work uninterrupted – When I work in an office I usually have people dropping by my cube to talk. Sometimes they want to talk about a work-related topic, but not always. It’s hard to tell someone to leave you alone when they are standing in your cube. It’s a lot easier to focus on your work uninterrupted when you are remote because people don’t just stop by your house. Instead they tend to send you an email. This allows me to be more productive however this is also a double edged sword. With my increase in productivity I find myself agreeing to take on additional work because I believe I will find the time to get it done due to having fewer interruptions. But at least I have the choice to work uninterrupted if I wish (although my kids rarely allow this to happen late in the day, see above).

The challenge here is the perception of responsiveness. If people drop me an email and I don’t reply right away they can assume that (1) I am busy, or (2) I am ignoring them, or (3) I am not at my desk. Two of those three things is not good for me and since no one can see if I am busy I tend to doubt anyone thinks that is the reason for my silence. But my role here is one where being responsive leads to one of my metrics. If I need to answer a product support question I had better be responsive to that customer.

I eat healthier – I did my best to eat healthy while working in an office. I even have a chapter on eating habits in my book because I felt they were very important for folks in IT to understand and have awareness about. Working from home has allowed for me to have much healthier options and reduce the temptation to walk a few feet to have another donut with a few coworkers. These days when I walk I can just get up and go for a walk around the block, sometimes with my kids.

The challenge here is that it is easy to stop thinking of your situation as “work from home” and instead you fall into the trap of where you “live at work”. This means that I end up in my office for up to 16 hours a day (or more) in order to stay on top of all my commitments. It can be very, very difficult to have any work-life balance and it means you don’t have a healthier lifestyle after all.

Here’s the deal: I know that if I fail to meet my metrics then my days of working remote will come to a very quick end. The above list of challenges all represent things I value, some more than others, that drive me to make certain that I don’t ever find myself in the situation that the employees at Yahoo did. Spending time with my children, being productive in my work, and living a healthier lifestyle are very important to me. Each one of those items is a challenge for me to achieve, but they are all achievable.

And they could be taken away from me in a Yahoo minute.

It’s up to me to make certain that I do my part to see that I get to keep them, now and in the future.