Working from home -- time-management experts and career coaches often offer the idea as a silver bullet for solving the challenges of balancing family, career and life in the modern workplace.
Teleworking certainly saves companies money. IBM was able to cut real estate costs by 50 percent, and 46 percent of companies say that telework helps them reduce attrition, which can cost anywhere from $10,000-$30,000 per employee.
There's even evidence that telework reduces the pressure on infrastructure, like roads and bridges, and reduces accidents.
But the internet access and smartphones that enable us to work from anywhere, at any time, also chain us to work. Teleworking employees may find themselves dealing with the pressures of work and home simultaneously.
Whether working from home works for you depends on a few key elements. Your organisations culture, the type of position you hold, the work space available to you, your schedule, and plan for career advancement will all determine what role telework should play in your overall plan for time management.
The first step in determining if working from home is feasible is to examine your organisation's culture. But what exactly is organisational culture?
High-profile workplaces such as Google and Facebook have made "workplace culture" an affair of endless snacks, massages, and the feel of being back on a college campus.
Those perks, while fun, say nothing about how decisions are made, how acceptable it is to take risks, or the most effective ways to communicate with managers and colleagues in the organization.
Organisational culture constitutes how the organization defines its purpose, its values, and what "work" means in the organization. What kind of heroes does the organization celebrate? Do colleagues speak in reverent tones about founders who cashed out and are now wealthy, or are employees who saved a customer's day celebrated instead? If workaholic, never-say-die attributes are celebrated, working from home is unlikely going to be a viable path to success.
Asking specific questions about working from home might be one tactic, but I would recommend first assessing subtle cues that can help uncover an organisation's predominant culture.
Do employees display pictures of their family, or are workplaces all business? Is everyone in their office with doors open to let others know they're on site, or are there some empty spots where people may come in when they are needed? Does the office have any shared "hoteling" space where people who frequently work from home can come in for the day? When you ask questions at the organization, are employees relaxed and their responses authentic, or do they sound as if they're reading from a script of acceptable answers?
If face-time is essential to working with colleagues, and traveling to meet clients a regular feature of the job, working from home may not be an option. Not all jobs lend themselves well to working from home -- for real estate agents, doctors and sales representatives, personal relationships are essential to their work.
If your job category does lend itself to working from home, then examining the culture of trust present at your organization is essential. How do you determine if you workplace has a culture of trust? One indicator is where decisions are made.
If the decision-making authority is highly centralised, then it may be harder for your supervisors to trust you to perform well when not in the office. If you as an employee are empowered with the ability to make instant decisions for your customers to solve their problems, your workplace culture is likely more amenable to you working from home.
Consider these questions to suss out the level of trust at the organization:
• If I'm trying to solve a problem for a customer or client, do I need to check with management or can I take care of it right away?
• What is your training program like, and how steep is the learning curve?
• When an employee, especially a new one, makes a mistake, what is the process for seeking feedback and ways to improve?
• Do you rely on teams to get the work done? How often are teams in contact with one another about their work?
If you hear answers indicating that you should always check with management before proceeding, that training is not thorough, or that teams don't work together closely, the organization may lack a culture of trust.
Identifying what you need in your work space when working from home is the next important step in making telework a success. Ideally, we would all have a separate office where we can shut a door and get some quiet work done -- even if our babysitter, nanny, or partner is downstairs taking care of the children.
What happens more often than not, even when we do have a separate office, is the now-infamous BBC interview with Korea expert Robert E. Kelly when his children barged in during a live Skype interview.
Many parents recognised themselves in that moment, and it's true that children waltzing in as we're on a video conference or phone call may not be as much of a problem as it used to be. For some of us, however, quiet space is required for calls with colleagues. If you know that you have regularly scheduled calls where you are an active participant, making sure you have adequately private space is essential.
For me, even though I have a flexible work schedule and an office I share with my husband, I have been asked by some colleagues to find a "quiet space" for our calls since they find background noise, whether it's children or a coffee shop, distracting.
As important as finding the right space for your work is, an appropriate schedule is even more important. Setting aside focused time when you will not be interrupted is essential to establishing the "flow" that allows for important work to be completed. Doubling up on taking care of children and working at the same time, in my opinion, is a bad idea.
In some organizations, notably the federal government, this is even considered time card fraud. You're essentially performing two jobs at once, nanny and employee. Some of us may be able to get some work done when small children are napping, but given the erratic nature of young children's sleep schedules, planning to take an important call during nap time may not be possible.
As children get older, they demand even more attention. Screen time can be an occasional stopgap, but long-term a babysitter or family member can help you focus on your work.
A professor at INSEAD in Paris recommends getting to work late, leaving early, and then carving out evening time after the children go to bed. She admits that she's lucky; the outcome-driven environment of academia means that as long as a professor is publishing in the right journals, the work can be done at any time.
If the strategy would work for you, though, the shortened time in the office can mean a commute during a less busy time and the ability to attend events at school with your children. The schedule still requires you to set aside uninterrupted time to achieve the "flow" that creative work requires. Writing, editing, designing websites, sketching out strategy plans, reviewing client documents - none of these things can be done in 15-minute increments. Knowing your own preferences, such as whether you perform better work in the morning or in the evening, can be key to making "fringe hours" outside of the 9-5 work for you.
Finally, considering your long-term career path is an essential consideration in weighing your options. Research indicates that managers, in general, spend their time in four key activities: communication, human resources-related activities, networking and traditional management (which includes planning, working on key activities, and monitoring employee progress).
"Average" managers spend roughly the same amount of time on all four activities, and effective managers, who are well-liked by their subordinates and are high producers in the office, spend the bulk of their time in communication.
Managers who get promoted quickly, however, tend to spend half their time networking with colleagues, including people outside their immediate department. Discounting face-time will be the death knell to your promotion potential. Some employees like to stay in an easier, more-flexible position while their children are young to allow them the ability to be home more. For many, however, the child-bearing years coincide with the best years for strategising your moves up the ladder.
Your balance between time in the office and time at home doesn't have to be all or nothing. When are the essential meetings where it would be preferable for you to be present personally? Are there regular events scheduled where you can network casually with those in the office? Does your industry have regular happy hours that you might be able to schedule in advance for a once-a-month appearance? Working mothers often neglect the soft side of their careers - the networking, face-time, and relationship-building - when their children are young.
We hear again and again on Facebook and from well-meaning family members that spending time with your children should supersede all else, since the years they are young won't return. However, the years you have to build your career also won't return. Carefully calculating when and where your presence is the most important can pay big dividends down the line for both you and your family.
Working from home doesn't have to be an either/or proposition.
Integrating some time in the office and some time at home can provide benefits. As long as you are in the right position, have a supportive organisational culture, carve out time and space to work effectively, and have a strategy for the right times to be in the office, telework can be an effective way to achieve better work-life integration.