Jan 02 2009
by Marcy Brown
In May 2007, I wrote an article for Info Career Trends titled “Joyfully Jobless.” In this earlier piece, I detailed my methods for cobbling together freelance and contract work in research, indexing, and instructional design. Less than a year later, though, I decided that I wanted to find joy within a job, so started searching for virtual full-time positions as well as jobs here in Pittsburgh. I accepted a telecommuting position in July, 2008. Now, almost six months into my job as a medical indexer/taxonomist, I’ve learned just as much about myself as I have about telecommuting. Read on if you are considering (or just curious about) a similar arrangement.
When I tell people that I work full-time from home, their first response is usually, “Wow! That sounds fantastic!” Then, the questions start rolling in. I’m frequently asked:
How in the world did you get a work-at-home gig?
There honestly doesn’t seem to be a magic bullet for finding professional work that can be done at home. I scoured multiple online job boards as well as talked to friends and colleagues about positions of which they were aware. The bulk of my fifteen years of experience is in medical librarianship, so I concentrated on health-related positions. With a local library school pumping out tons of graduates, geography was against me, but a husband with a flexible schedule meant that I could consider jobs that could be done mostly from home with occasional travel. A month or so into my search, I saw an interesting posting on the Medical Library Association site. A Virginia-based publishing company wanted someone with medical indexing or cataloging experience to develop UMLS-compliant metadata for their online products. The ad stated that “working offsite is an option for the right candidate.” I sent my resume, had a few interviews, and three months later found out that I was the right candidate.
Do you love working from home?
Well, mostly. Spending 16 months working for myself was great preparation for virtual employment. I learned how to manage my own time, solve my own minor technical problems, and figure out which music I could listen to without being distracted (classical and r&b, in case you’re curious). Yet there is something very psychologically different about working from home as a staff employee. It’s one thing to feel isolated and a bit lonely when you’re a sole practitioner; it’s somehow less satisfying to be all alone every day when you’re part of a 50+ person company. The isolation is definitely the hardest part of the job for me.
How do you do your work? And how does your manager know that you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing?
I work in a production-oriented and web-based environment. Our proprietary medical taxonomy is available via the Web, as are the various tagging tools that I use. The products we help to create are web-based subscription products, so the development environment is on the Web, too. There are a few times a month when I need files from the file servers in Virginia, so I use Virtual Private Network (VPN) access to download those files and upload my edits. It’s true that the work really can be performed from anywhere, as long as high-speed Internet access is available.
It’s also very easy to tell what I’ve been doing. On any given day I have website articles to tag (index) and post, assigned e-book pages to tag, taxonomy trees to edit, and other related projects to complete. If I’m not getting the work done, it’s immediately apparent to everyone else involved on the project. Many of the taxonomy and tagging tools that we use log individual actions, so that if project managers wanted to monitor my work on a micro level, they certainly would have that option.
How often do you have to work onsite?
I had to spend three days in Charlottesville for training when I first started the job in July. Since then, I’ve been down a total of…oh, zero times. Until a recent move, office space was very tight, so I think my manager preferred to give me feedback over the phone or start up new projects via shared screen webcasting software. Of course, I’ve been told a number of times that I’m welcome to come down and spend a few days in the office any time I want to. I’m just not required to do so.
What are your working hours?
One of the reasons that I wanted a regular, full-time position was because I was tired of working late nights and weekends to build my freelance business. I now work an 8-hour day, Monday through Friday. Luckily, I was able to negotiate a moderately flexible schedule before I started. I always try to work during the core business hours of 9:00 AM to 3:30 PM. Depending on my husband’s schedule and his ability to help get my son on and off the school bus, I may work the other two hours in the early morning or the late afternoon. I do get paid vacation, holidays, and sick time, just like any other employee.
What do you do when you have technology issues?
This has been only slightly problematic for me, with the biggest issue so far being VPN access. I live in a 60s-era quad level house. My office is a spare bedroom on the highest level; my server, DSL modem, and wireless router are in the basement, three levels down. Everything I do is wireless. In theory, VPN should work over a wireless connection. The folks in tech support have led me through all sorts of gyrations to get it to do so, but so far it’s been a complete bust. So those few times a month when I have to use VPN, I truck my laptop down three floors, sit in a beanbag on the floor, and use a hard wired connection to get into the needed servers. Annoying? Yes. Difficult? Not at all. The other problem the VPN gremlin creates is that I can’t use Outlook for company email, since Outlook seems to require a constant VPN connection to the Exchange server in Virginia. Instead, I use the webmail version. It’s an OK workaround, but it would be nice to have access to colleagues’ calendars and to not be automatically logged off every 10 minutes.
I’ve gotten quite good at handling other minor technical issues, such as recognizing dying wireless cards, getting rid of mean malware, and avoiding total panic when the system start message is “Unable to continue because no hard drive can be found.” I don’t recommend working at home if you’re afraid to explore your computer’s innards, get aggressive with your Internet provider, or edit your registry.
Are you worried about staying current in the field?
When I negotiated the offer, I specifically asked about support for professional development. The company is small, but the hiring VP agreed to financially support my membership in MLA and to fund one or two smaller conferences or workshops a year (assuming the revenue gods are smiling). For a small company — and one on the periphery of librarianship — I found this to be extremely fair. In October, I attended the annual Mid-Atlantic MLA chapter meeting in Morgantown, West Virginia. My employer paid for my conference registration and my mileage; I paid for the hotel. Although it may require a little creativity on my part, I plan to make regular professional development an important part of my work.
I’m looking forward to the months ahead and to learning much more about the company’s products and services. Disadvantages aside, I enjoy the freedom and flexibility that telecommuting offers. It’s been the perfect solution for me and for my family.
Marcy L. Brown is Senior Semantic Indexer, Silverchair Science+Communications.
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