Telecommuting Can Save Money, But It Doesn't Come Without Costs


Imagine if your pre-work routine looked something like this: Roll out from under the covers a few minutes before 9 a.m., throw on some cozy slippers and sweatpants and make yourself breakfast. Then sit down at your desk in a sunny office or even outside on the porch, flip open your laptop and get ready to start the day. No commute. No cramped cubicle with florescent lights. No crappy office coffee.

With a lifestyle like that, it’s no wonder so many people are working from home these days. According to a report from Freelancers Union and Upwork, 54 million Americans—or one-third of U.S. workers—did freelance work last year. And a Gallup poll found that 37 percent of the workforce say they’ve telecommuted.

While a comfy couch and unlimited TV access may sound like a recipe for distraction, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Nearly three-quarters of people agree that remote workers are just as or more productive than their office-bound counterparts. (Research from Stanford University backs that up.)

Half of freelancers say they wouldn’t stop freelancing for any amount of money, citing freedom and flexibility as the main drivers behind their choice. A majority earn more than they did when they held a traditional job, nearly half expect their income to rise in the coming year and 83 percent believe their brightest days lie ahead.

Sounds pretty awesome, right? But before giving it a go, pour careful consideration into your decision. There are both pros and cons to cutting the cubicle cord—and qualities that make some independent workers better poised for success than others.

What Are the Benefits of Working From Home?

For starters, it can equal a major happiness upgrade. According to FlexJobs research, 97 percent of people agree that working from home positively affects their health and overall quality of life.

“You have more control,” says Brie Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs. Depending on your schedule, you might be able to sneak in a workout class or organize your hours according to when you’re most productive, rather than sticking to 9-5. You can also handle unexpected things that pop up, like a family obligation, without taking a day off.

Plus, it saves you time and money: There’s no lengthy commute (which studies have shown is big stressor), and you aren’t forking over your credit card for gas, tolls and other transportation costs—or a work wardrobe and dry-cleaning.

Telecommuting can boost your performance, too. “There are fewer distractions, and the meetings people attend remotely tend to be much more strategic,” Reynolds says. “When you’re dialing in, you focus on getting things done, and it doesn’t drag out as much because it’s not a social event.” Those gains in efficiency and output can have a long-term impact on your career trajectory.

Are There Any Challenges?

For some, working at home can be isolating. Sure, you can head to the library, a coworking space or coffee shop, but it doesn’t have the same social vibe as an office community.

Going solo also requires more discipline than an in-house gig. “Unlike stepping into an office, there is no trigger that says now it’s work time,” Reynolds says. “You have to be able to self-manage.” It’s even truer for freelancers, who have to power through the tedious aspects of being their own boss (think: admin tasks like invoicing clients).

The lack of face-time can also be an obstacle. When your boss doesn’t see you on a daily basis, you risk not being top of mind for promotions and key projects. “You have to proactively put yourself out there,” Reynolds says. “Without outright bragging about your accomplishments, keep people regularly updated about where you’re succeeding and struggling.”

You don’t want your networking skills to stagnate, either. So if your office has an internal messaging system, be active, suggests New York-based career coach Lynn Berger—even just to ask people about their weekend. And if possible, come into the office occasionally for meetings and to catch up with colleagues. “Even if it’s just once a month or every other month, it goes a long way toward warming up your relationships,” Reynolds says.

For freelancers, maintain regular communication with clients—including those you’re not actively working with at the moment. “Some people are concerned about overloading freelancers,” Reynolds says. “Aim to touch base once a season to let them know you’re available to take on work.”

Are You Cut Out for Working From Home?

Some personalities are work-at-home naturals, so be honest when assessing your own. Because reaching out comes easily to social butterflies, they have no trouble building crucial ties with clients and coworkers, Reynolds says. On the other hand, while shy people can stay connected at the office with a quick smile or wave, it’s more difficult in a remote environment.

Next, ask yourself whether you usually assume that people have good intentions, or have a tendency to get paranoid. “Since everything is virtual, there is a greater risk of miscommunication,” Reynolds says. For example, without the context of body language or tone of voice in an email, you might not be able to detect sarcasm.

Finally, gauge your level of willpower. Get-stuff-done-now types typically find it easy to self-motivate at home, while procrastinators or those who struggle with organization may struggle to stay on top of deadlines without the built-in structure office life provides.

Berger suggests putting yourself through a low-stakes test run: On Friday, list out all the chores you’d like to get done by Sunday, then assess your performance at the end of the weekend. Were you able to resist surfing the Internet or going out with friends both nights? Did you feel good or drained during the process? Consider this a taste of what’s to come if you make the switch to working from home.