How to Telecommute: Getting the Job

I’ve been working from home off and on since around 2000 for a few different companies.  I’ve been lucky: it’s worked really well for me, but I’ve seen several cases where it didn’t work so well for others, and they lost their jobs.  This week, I’m running a series of posts about the ups and downs of telecommuting.

I was actually working when I took this picture.
I was actually working when I took this picture.

I’m kicking the series off today by talking about how to get a telecommuting job in the first place.

Find Big Companies in Expensive Places

Companies like paying people less.

This can be a selling point for telecommuters, but only if you’re living somewhere cheap and you’re working for a company in an expensive location.  Right now, I’m working for a company in Southern California, but I’m certainly not paying Southern California rates for housing.  I bet they’re paying me less than people several years my junior, and it’s a win-win for both of us.

When you’re looking for telecommuting jobs, focus on companies in cities with a very high cost of living (California, Miami, New York City).  Big companies offer better opportunities because you’re probably not their first telecommuter – they’ve already had to hire an offsite/offshore consultant in order to satisfy some niche skill requirement.

Have a Very Hard-to-Get Skill

The most important key to making telecommuting work is the good old law of supply and demand: if you want to work from home, you have to have a seriously desirable skill.  If an employer has the choice between someone who’s willing to come into the office every day versus someone who wants to work from home, they’re going to take the cube rube almost every time.

Junior DBAs aren’t going to be able to telecommute.  You can’t say, “Hire me, and I’ll pick up the skills you want.”  It won’t fly.  You have to be able to demonstrate a complete mastery of the skills that the company needs, and you have to be able to convince everybody in the shop – not just the manager – that your skills will save their bacon.

Trust me - hard at work.
Prime layoff candidate.

Build Trust with your Future Coworkers

The best telecommuters start as in-office workers, establish a trust with their coworkers, and then move offsite.  That way, the in-office coworkers know that the telecommuter is really a valued resource, does good work, and doesn’t sit around all day drinking beer and watching Oprah.  Or Nascar.  Or whatever.

When someone starts as a remote worker without being in the office first, the onus is on the telecommuter to prove that they’re really working.  This starts in the very first interview: you need to go out of your way to meet your coworkers, talk to them, and strike up a personal bond as fast as possible.  You are selling yourself to them.

Why is this important?  Because when you’re not in the office and they need a scapegoat for the code that doesn’t work, the database that wasn’t backed up, or the project that failed, they’re going to pick the telecommuting person by default.  It’s easy to blame the guy who isn’t there to stand up for himself.  The same thing happens when they’re picking who to lay off.  It’s up to you to prevent that from the very beginning.

Be the Best Employee, Period

Being just as reachable and just as timely as the in-person employees isn’t enough: you have to go above and beyond them.  When you start telecommuting, managers will be watching you like a hawk to see if you show up to work on time, put in enough hours, and are available as often as other employees.

You have to code faster, manage your time better, and help people more than everybody else.  Furthermore, you have to do it in a way that’s easy to see.  I’m a morning person, and I used to make it a point to do emails as soon as I started work in the morning.  People would see the timestamps on my emails and say things like, “Wow, you started work at 3am this morning?”  Bosses hear these things secondhand, and that gives them a chance to brag about their hard-working telecommuter.

Your ultimate goal is to get your coworkers (and especially managers) to say, “You respond faster to emails and instant messages than the people who work just down the hall from me in the office!”

This sounds like hard work, and it is.  In the next post, I’ll talk about how to stay motivated despite the very hard work.

Next: How Telecommuters Stay Motivated

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13 Comments. Leave new

  • Great topic. I worked as a telecommuter for two year, after three years of establishing a reputation with my employer. I am now getting that chance again at my current job. You are right that being a (perceived) superstar is the key to getting the opportunity.

  • I’m on my fourth year as a telecommuter and am loving it. I would say that my biggest problem is working too hard!!! My wife doesn’t like it when I wake up at 4am and start working on something that’s gnawing at me (and was worked on until midnight the night before).

    The key is simply ‘clear expectations’ about availability to both your employer and your family. When I’m in my office at home, I’m not ‘at home’. When I’m not in my office at home, I’m not ‘at work’. Both of those rules get broken frequently, but both my employer and my family knows what the expectations are and that keeps it productive.

  • Rob – yeah, same thing here. Workaholics excel at telecommuting because we already work when we’re at home anyway, hahaha.

    Matt – yeah, if you’re just run-of-the-mill, then you’ll be the first one on the chopping block.

  • I know this posting is dated but wondering if you have an update on advice for telecommuiting in 2009.

    I work at a office based position as a SQL Server DBA, which I just got this year (Sept 2009). However I have worked as a System/Network Admin for the past 6 years. Throwing in some Solaris Administrator work for the past year.

    I would like to do telecommuting more on a part-time (like after hours thing). Is this available in these times or is more along the desires of most companies to have a full-time person available? What sites are out there that companies post these types of jobs to the most?

    • For systems/network administrator, small companies want someone full-time on-site. Very large enterprises sometimes hire offsite consultants for that kind of work. Your best bet might be to contact consulting companies and get in the door that way, but it’s not easy by any means. Companies rarely post these jobs to the public.

  • You hit it on the nose… you must have a skill that is hard to get. Too often do I see people without a marketable skill that want to work from home doing close to nothing. Obviously there is not demand for low skill workers. Find your niche and learn everything you can. Once a company has trust in you, telecommuting options will be a non-issue.

  • Pretty good article and still if you check Linkedin I see most of the posting are for any projects that are coming from recruiters and they need the person to work as an employee in the office. Even though they complain that it is hard to find MS SQL guys these days. I work remotely for 15 years and it could not be better than that.

    • How are you finding long-term remote positions? I worked remotely for about 6years as a SQL Server DBA / IT Analyst, then in 2013 the well of contracts seemed to dry up so I took a job on site. I am dying to be back at home to work but evidently I am not looking in the right direction. Any thoughts or tips?

  • Nice article Brent. Two other things come to mind. The first is in some of your points and that is, be a proactive communicator. The person that uses the phone instead of email, skype instead of email, who knows how to send the right email (not bloated and overwhelming), to do implicit networking (and as you imply, out of sight is out of mind, so be proactive).

    Another point that is a little more subtle and not always possible is align yourself with CONTENT and a key PROJECT. If the role is mgmt or proj mgmt, this may not be the case, but strategy and individual contributors who can gravitate should be able to have the “easy story” that can be communicated up to mgmt and sr. mgmt. When someone can point to content and on a key company initiative, it’s easy to show value.

  • Hi I’m looking for a SQL/MySQL precessional to be my mentor.
    Guide me on the right direction.
    Any takers please? Email me.


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