Is there a different standard for professionalism for remote workers compared to those who go into an office everyday? This question gets asked a lot these days, and while I don’t claim to have definitive answers, I’ve gotten really good at asking some of the questions that are part of this important discussion.

You don’t have to ask teleworkers why they choose to work remotely.  No traffic, more flexibility in their schedule to deal with family, saving money on commute time and the like, and no dress code are just some of the answers. If you’re lucky, about halfway down the list you’ll hear, “Oh yea…we can get more work done when we’re not interrupted.” The problem is that nearly all those answers are about the individual worker, not the company or the customer.

Those folks are pretty important since they pay the bills and sign the paychecks. Here are the key questions they want answers to:

Does the work I’m paying for really have your focus?

You may be pretty confident that even with a dog barking, kid screaming, and Anderson Cooper blaring in the background that you are giving your best work. Is your boss or customer equally convinced? If you’ve ever been on a conference call and someone in the office asks, “is that your dog?” it’s not so much a question (it’s obviously a dog) as it is an unspoken way of saying it’s kind of annoying and distracting to everyone else. Shut Rover up.

If everyone else is dressed for work, why are you in your Ironman Pajamas?

This is going to be controversial, so I’ll just say it. Yes, you can do really high-quality work no matter what clothes you wear. But people, being human, do make snap decisions (even if they’re often unfair and wrong, they still last) about other people by appearances. They do it in the office, and it applies to those working from home. If you’re on a webcam conversation and you are dressed several degrees more casually than the people with whom you’re speaking, odds are it will impact how you are perceived. And if you refuse to go on webcam because you “just got back from the gym” or “didn’t plan on talking to anyone today,” that sends a message about where your priorities are…probably not the message you want to send.

In addition, there is considerable evidence that dressing differently for work as opposed to the rest of your life actually impacts your attitude and focus on work.

Are you really paying attention?

What unintended messages does taking that conference call from your deck, or the couch, or Starbucks send about your priorities? Right or wrong, people want to know that they have your undivided attention and focus.

Are you “one of us”?

Yes, working from home means you’re away from “all the politics and gossip,” but does that mean you’re detaching yourself from the organization? Most of us are more than just the sum total of tasks we complete each day. We are valued (and paid) for our contributions to the team, for moving the work of the organization forward, and for assisting the overall work of the organization. When you work in an office you learn who to go to for certain things, you understand the dynamics (a much nicer word than “politics”) of how your company works and intuitively understand the way your organization works. You inhale its culture, which makes working easier and often more pleasant. If you are seen as not caring about such things, it can impact how you’re perceived, especially at promotion and performance review time. In too many organizations, choosing to telecommute means you have made a decision about lifestyle versus commitment to a career track. If that’s not your intention, you’d best pay attention to how you’re perceived.

You might be thinking, “Does any of this really matter as long as the work gets done?” This is the most common response when asked whether people are acting professionally. While it’s true that results matter more than the details of how work gets done, (in most cases) that doesn’t mean we aren’t subject to judgment, suspicion or hesitation based on the cues we send. Yes, the quality of our work can transcend such shallow concerns, but you’ll have to work harder to prove yourself, and will be subject to much higher scrutiny and inspection than those who fit the norms of your company or industry.

Right or wrong, people draw conclusions from the cues they pick up. While many people choose to work from home for lifestyle reasons, and I have heard many people say that “if customers don’t like the way I work I don’t want to work with them,” most of us live in the real world where we don’t get to pick and choose where we get our paychecks.

The bottom line is the perception of being “professional,” is not your call to make. It’s in the eye of the people with whom you interact. What unintended messages does the way you interact and comport yourself send to those who depend on you?

This might have been unsettling for some of you. What are your thoughts on the matter? How do you display professionalism when you don’t fit the normal workplace paradigm?

If you’re just beginning your work-at-home career or are thinking about it, check out our e-course on How to Work Successfully from Home.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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