how can I get a job telecommuting?

A reader writes:

I live in a smallish community (80,000 people) in a small state. While there are phenomenal nonprofit opportunities in our state capital, which is 2 hours away, the prospects in my city are slim. They are mainly local organizations with local boards and very tiny budgets. Don’t get me wrong, they do great things, but administrative opportunities don’t come along very often and when they do, it’s often who you know that gets you the job.

I know many national organizations have staff that telecommute within their region on a day-to-day basis with quite frequent travel. I’ve done this before and it worked quite well. A position that interests me was posted the other day for an organization that has an office in our state capital (the division headquarters is in the next state). Resumes are to be sent directly to the division CEO. Is it worthwhile to email my resume and cover letter with a note that says I understand the position is based in X city, but am curious if telecommuting is a possibility? I also wonder if I should/could ask her to keep me in mind for other opportunities that might arise.

You could, but be prepared for a lot of rejection.

In general, most organizations are loathe to hire telecommuters who they don’t already know and trust. Often people start telecommuting after working for an employer for a while, after they’ve learned their culture and expectations and after they’ve built trust around their competence and work ethic. At that point, it’s easier to convert into a telecommuting position; it’s much harder to do it right off the bat when they don’t know you and you haven’t proven yourself in their particular context and culture.

(One exception to this is when a position is designed to be done by a telecommuter, such as a position that must by its nature be based in X even though everyone else is based in Y.)

That said, your chances may increase if (a) you can find connections in your network who are also connected to senior-level managers at the organizations you’re targeting and can have them vouch for you, and/or (b) you have a very in-demand skill set and a fantastic reputation. But if you’re in a crowded field and without strong connections or something else to boost you up in the applicant pool, it’s going to be tricky — after all, if they have great local candidates who wouldn’t need to telecommute, there’s not a ton of incentive for them to take on the potential risk and inconvenience, especially if their organization doesn’t already have some experience with telecommuters.

However, there’s no harm in trying, as long as you’re up-front about it. (Just don’t go through their whole hiring process and then spring it on them at the end that you don’t want to move.)  Good luck!

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. KayDay

    I’m a little hesitant to recommend this, since there are significant downsides to it, but have you thought about consulting? (ie, becoming a 1099 independent contractor). Non-profits (at least the ones I’ve worked in) have tended to hire a lot of short term consultants, and the occasional longer term consultants. As a consultant, you would be expected to work remotely right off the bat.

    I am fully aware that this may not even be an option for you, depending on what positions exactly you are looking at. And you usually have to be fairly experienced to do this, but I’ve known people who consulted (for non-profits) immediately following grad school.

    1. Anonymous

      Exactly. Freelancing can turn into full-time if you do well.

      I was also going to add, as a SoCal person, a two-hour commute isn’t *that* bad. That was my average commute a few years ago. Some days a lot longer. The longest to-get-home time was 7 hours, but the stopped freeway turned into a big ol party and I made some great new contacts…!

      1. Jamie

        As in So Cal – 2 hours is not unheard of in the Chicago area either. Mine is between 1.5 and 1.75 in the morning – shorter at night as I leave after rush hour.

        That isn’t doable for everyone, but if it is maybe the OP would consider commuting for a great job and then asking for at least part time remote work after establishing herself.

      2. Andrea

        I’m a full-time freelancer. I work for 2-3 firms, mostly at the same time (on joint projects), and have for the past six years. I haven’t ever met or even seen any of these people; they’re pretty much all across the country from me. We talk sometimes in conference calls but everything else is email. So yeah, it can be done. But I am married and my husband (who is a consultant and often works from home, too) is employed, so we get benefits from his work. I love it but the lifestyle isn’t for everyone….then again, commuting for more than about 30 minutes would make me crazy, so clearly that’s not for everyone either. Actual telecommuting jobs are harder to get, I’d imagine, but if you can find freelance work and if you can do that, I recommend it.

        1. Anonymous

          For long commutes, it is just like air travel: audiobooks and lots of zen time. I always arrived home completely relaxed, as I had had plenty of time to mentally shift out of work mode.

  2. KarenT

    I was thinking along the same lines as KayDay. Freelancing project work might be an option?
    I just can’t imagine an organization hiring a telecommuter for a position that wasn’t intended to be so.

  3. Anonymous

    One caveat to the consulting idea – it won’t save the consultant from traveling. There are generally sales calls / introductory meetings, meetings to scope the project, progress reports (depending upon scope and length), plus the final work product delivery / final presentation / closing meeting. These are all critically important in consulting, which depends entirely on relationship building, repeat customers, and referrals.

    1. Kathryn

      I work at a mid-size non-profit in a finance office, and we use a consultant who only travels to us twice a year. The rest of the time she works probably 10 hours a week or so (sometimes more) from home. She also has another contracting job, so I think she maintains pretty much full time hours. But for her other job, which is monitoring, she travels A LOT. So it would depend on what type of consulting you were looking for. Our consultant feels like part of our team and that relationship is maintained through email and the occasional phone call.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Another caveat to consulting: It’s really hard for most people to get into! You have to have an in-demand skill that can be done out of house, a great reputation, and a tolerance for financial instability in the beginning, among other challenges. A lot of times it’s suggested as a catch-all solution, but the number of people it’s feasible for is actually fairly small.

  4. Victoria

    Telecommuting can be very risky for an employer. If someone is working from home and they fall down the stairs while on the clock, theoretically they can file a worker’s compensation claim. There’s a lot of legal ramifications that companies consider when deciding to let someone do that.

    1. fposte

      Are they likelier to do that at home than at the office? That seems like a bit of a red herring, frankly.

      1. KellyK

        Yeah, it does seem unlikely, and I’m curious if this has ever actually happened.

        It seems like the liability issue from the company’s point of view is that they control the office environment and can mitigate all the safety hazards, while they have no control over your home. I can see my company not wanting to take responsibility if I trip over a squeaky toy in my living room and break my ankle. They’re not the ones who decided that dogs were a necessity, nor did they make the call that there’s no such thing as too many dog toys. (A dog with a toy is a dog who’s not getting into the garbage.)

        I wonder if there’s some agreement that could be made that would eliminate that liability–basically you accept that in exchange for working from home and not having your living room subject to OSHA requirements, you’ll be fully responsible for any injuries that occur at that location. No idea what legal weight that would have, but for a company who really wanted someone who needed to telecommute, it would be worth hashing it out with a lawyer to find out, rather than automatically saying “no” on the off chance of worker’s comp issues.

        1. Omne

          In most states, if not all of them, the laws are clear that worker’s comp rights cannot be waived by an employee prior to an injury or accident. Any waiver existing in an agreement would be void.

    2. Jamie

      I have never heard of this. Like a lot of companies we have remote workers and I’ve never heard that our obligation of a safe workplace extends to their house.

      How can a company be liable for premises outside of their control?

      1. Anonymous

        I had to fill out and sign a safety checklist and office floor plan and complete a couple of courses (mostly about ergonomics but also about confidentiality) as part of converting to a full-time telecommuter. I also had to agree to allow my employer to come and inspect my home office however they’ve never done that (nor do I expect them to since it would involve a plane trip).

        1. Bridgette

          I had to submit a photo of my work space. Except I don’t work there…I sit on the couch with my laptop, a blanket, and a cat under my arm. There was some mention of a home inspection but I highly doubt they would ever do that, even though I live close to my office. Good thing too, as I realized after I submitted the photo that one of my rifles was sitting next to the computer desk in blatant view.

      2. Omne

        In a lot of states it’s a workers comp issue. If they are performing work at home and are injured they are covered. It’s the same as when they are traveling in a car while on the job or at a customer’s location. The problem is that while an employer can control the environment in the workplace they can’t control it very well in an employee’s home. Where I work an onsite inspection of the home office has to be done before telecommuting is allowed but that’s just a snapshot in time.

  5. OP

    Hi All,

    Thanks for your comments. Let me add a couple of things. I’d never realized how common home offices were in the world of non-profits until I was hired as an Executive Director a few years ago for a (very large) national non-profit. I quickly learned that it was common practice for them to hire remote staff across the country. It enable them to have staff in the communities in which they are working. I supervised two remote staff myself.

    I soon learned it’s common practice for many national organizations b/c it enables them to have a presence without staffing offices. It was a very formalized and successful strategy.

    The position that interests me involves a lot of travel around the state, which is not a problem. This organization (another large national non-profit) also has staff that work remotely. The option to do so for this position just wasn’t mentioned. So, since it’s an organization that already has those policies in place, I wondered if it’s worth a shot. But, I sure can’t do a 2-hour commute.

    Thanks again! I love the comments this blog generates.

    1. Ivy

      To me, it sounds like it’s definitely worth a shot! At worst, the employer will just say, no. It’s not like your asking something unreasonable, so you don’t risk looking bad.

      Also, agreed on the 2-hour commute thing. I always calculate: 2hours x 2 times a day x 5 days x 4 weeks x 12months = 960 hours a year being stuck in traffic. Waste. Of. Life. :'(

      1. Bridgette

        Yes! I have been job hunting but don’t apply for so many jobs I see because they would require me to commute at least 45 min to an hour, every day. Right now I work 15 min from my office. It’s really, really hard to give that up, especially after I had jobs with super long commutes.

        1. Parfait

          I hear ya. I have a 20-minute commute IN LOS ANGELES and every time I think about switching jobs, I start to have a little sad. My previous commute was an hour in GOOD traffic conditions, and that is considered fairly typical here.

    2. Bridgette

      Are you applying for similar high-level positions? If so, then I think you have a much better chance at telecommuting, especially if you frame it in terms of being involved in your community. If it were lower-level support staff, like an admin assistant, I don’t think they would be too keen on it.

      It sounds like the organization is already open to this and I see no harm in bringing it up as Alison suggested. Demonstrating the benefit to the organization is the best approach.

      1. OP

        It’s a Development Director position – working all over the state. Thanks for the great suggestions, they’ve been very helpful.

        1. KayDay

          For a position like that, I think your chances of being able to work remotely full-time (or most of the time) are much better than for many other positions! Most of your energy will be spent working with people outside your own organization, anyway, so this really might work. I think Alison’s advice about being prepared for rejection still applies; not every organization would be open to it, but definitely go for it.

  6. Ariancita

    Like others, I’m not sure what position you’re going for (you say administrative opportunities, but does that me administration of grants, admin assistant, project coordination?), but the role itself may be a big part of whether or not you can telecommute. I telecommute and did so off the bat, with a pretty hefty role/responsibility, and here’s how I got it:

    1. At first, I was willing to work part time and for lower pay.

    2. I started with coming in 2x a week.

    3. As a grant driven team, I was able to sell that not taking up office space and equipment was a big plus (which may be the same in your case with a nonprofit).

    I now work full time, with promotions, more money, and one day/week in office, but I had to prove myself first. Would you be willing/able to work part time at first with one or two days a week on site to earn up to full time telecommuting? AAM is right in that it’s difficult to arrange that off the bat when just starting. You either earn it after being on site for a while or by being part time at first and proving yourself.

    1. Bridgette

      I telecommute as well and it took a while for me to get where I’m at. At first my company didn’t even offer telecommuting, but then implemented a blanket policy that all departments could offer it if they chose to, and set up their individual policies, in an effort to go green. My department allows us 3 days a week of telecommuting, so I have to go in for 2, but it works out great. And I started with only 1 day – I definitely had to prove myself beforehand by being very independent and reliable.

  7. Elizabeth West

    I had a chat friend submit my resume for a telecommute position at a company he used to work for. Haven’t heard anything back, though. The place has a facility three hours from me (too far to drive). I can’t move right now, either.

    A lot of job postings I’ve seen here have been on the other side of town, which is about a half hour to 45 minutes at rush hour (the latter is if weather is bad or traffic is really messed up). That still makes me panic because I am still in Crappy Car Mode even though I have a much better vehicle now. I’m so scared that my car will mess up and I’ll lose my job because I can’t make it in. It was a valid concern with the Buick; not so much now, but it’s hard to get out of that mindset.

  8. shellbell

    That kind of commute isnt unheard of where I live. I work “locally” and have a 1 hr-1.5 hour commute each way. All jobs in your capital city aren’t exactly 2 hours away. Is there any part of the city that is closer? That is an 1.5ish hours away? Maybe you could get one or two telework days per week or 4 ten hour days with one telework. These kind of arrangements are much more common than hiring an unknown person for 100% telework. I also know quite a few folks who do 2 hour commutes. Not ideal, but better than unemployment and much more likely to lead to a job with some flexibility once they get to know your work ethic. Two valuable folks at my company moved out of state and were turned into 100% telecommute. They wouldn’t have even been offered any telecommute days when first hired, but once they proved their value, things changed.

    1. OP

      This is really not local. It’s a 180-mile drive from my house to the capital city, that takes about 2 1/2 hours. I’m not unemployed, just looking for a change. And, commuting there everyday is not something I’m willing to do. I want to see my kids. :-)

      I mentioned earlier that this organization commonly has folks that work from a home office, so it’s something with which they are very familiar. I previously worked for another non-profit and the majority of the staff nationwide worked from home offices.

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