When your commute is as short as your bedroom to your living room, a lot of workplace anxieties go out the window: water-cooler conversations, intra-office workout competitions, whether you’ve worn the same pair of jeans for six days straight.
But whether you’re a full-time telecommuter or simply “working from home” for the day, it’s important to keep professionalism in check. Executive coach and author Debra Benton, whose book The Virtual Executive hit shelves in April, warns that as the American employees working from home full or part time increase (current data shows roughly 2.8 million people call their homes their primary workplace, with an additional 20 to 30 million working from home at least one day a week), bad work habits are becoming more and more apparent.
“People often think that they can get away with a lot of things when they’re behind closed doors and computer screens,” Benton says. “But the reality is that professional communication is professional communication, regardless of whether or not technology is there to facilitate it.” Whether on the phone, in emails or over Skype and video conferencing, it’s important to keep your game face on.
Everything that goes on behind a computer monitor can be sensed, she says — from your body language to your confidence level to how much attention you’re paying to your colleagues in Tokyo — and so we need to brush up on our online etiquette.
Here, the top 10 mistakes you (and everyone else) are making when you work from home.
You’re not smiling
“Smile when you pick up or click on the phone,” says Benton, “and continue to smile as you talk regardless of who’s calling or what the conversation is about.” Yes, really. Benton says (and I can attest as we experimented this week) that a smile is audible through the phone. You don’t need an ear-to-ear grin; Benton advises saying the words “Cheese Wiz.” The lips are parted only slightly and the corners of the mouth turned up — and the smile will come through in your tone.
The same smile is as important in written communiqué, she says — try it. “In email a smile on your face will keep you from selecting nasty or harsh words,” she says. “With a grimace you can punch out negative language all you want.” And it goes without saying that you should smile in video conferencing, she advises. “People wear serious faces and think they appear focused, when all that comes across is uncomfortable, even constipated.”
You’re not getting dressed
“I’ve talked to a female CEO who says she puts on lipstick, perfume and high heels when she makes a phone call,” says Benton. “And another executive who brushes his teeth before he leaves voicemails because he thinks it makes him sound ‘clean.’ Whatever your trick is, Benton says it’s just as important to dress the part at home as it is at the office, particularly on days when you have important calls or, of course, video conferences.
“These appearance things are more to help you than to impress others,” she advises. Looking good gives you a sense of confidence that no pair of sweatpants can ever impart. At other times, particularly when you might be visible on camera, it is about others. As Benton says, “The reason to pay attention to pay attention to dress is really so that you don’t have to pay attention to dress.”
Video rules of thumb: No patterns, no orange shirts (“it looks like you’re in prison!” Benton says) or dangly jewelry. And if you make the strategic stay-at-home move of only dressing from the waist up, she says, “Make sure you don’t stand up!!”
You have bad posture
The same body language that’s required in person needs to be enacted online, says Benton. “People sense it.” Behind a computer screen (off camera, that is,) pay attention to comportment which will steady breathing and — as with clothing — increase your sense of confidence and professionalism when making calls or typing emails. “Bad posture conveys boredom and bad attitude,” she says. “It makes you sound out of breath and look weak or tired and loser-like.”
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On camera, of course, posture and positioning can be the difference between appearing like a shlub (“I’ve known people who have been fired after participating in conference calls,” says Benton. “Their bosses were embarrassed by how casual they appeared.”), or like a prize employee.
Try this set up: arrange a chair in front of your computer monitor, close enough to a surface where you can rest one arm asymmetrically. Over the back of your chair works, or resting on a table. “Sitting with both arms and hands doing the same thing — symmetrically — makes you look tense.
You look like a terrorist on Skype
In video, Benton says a huge mistake is the casualness of your presentation, but she’s especially emphatic about backdrop. In other words, booting up Skype or Face Time without first considering whether there’s a plant growing out the top of your head is a bad idea.” Take a look around, she says: is there a bra on your chair? Is there smoking paraphernalia in the room that shouldn’t be there? (Yes, she speaks from experience—her clients’ not her own!) “You want to strive for a clean, uncluttered backdrop,” she says, “But avoid the terrorist white sheet.”
And your props are terrible
Even an innocent slip can get you in trouble on-camera. One executive Benton worked with decided he wanted a glass of water on hand during a video conference, which seemed innocuous enough. “But the glass he chose was a beer mug!” she says. When the man lifted the glass to drink and his colleagues saw him through grainy web video, it appeared he was drinking on the job. Rule of thumb: choose your glasses wisely.
Other props Benton says to nix: ashtrays, personal care products, children’s toys and paperwork pertaining to other clients.
You're saying 'no' in e-mails
“You can say ‘yes’ in every email you send,” Benton says. “But when you have to say ‘no,’ pick up the phone. Any communication you need to have from home that is either critical or could be perceived as critical should be first addressed on the phone. It’s courteous and allows you to clarify any outstanding issues in real time. “Consider this the golden rule of online communication.”
If you’re worried about paper trail in negative communiqué, Benton says to place the phone call, and then follow up with an email. “But by all means, have the first conversation over the phone.”
Your e-mail are terrible to begin with
First, your emails are too long. Benton says that every request you make to a colleague, employee or client over the phone should be included in an individual email. “Five requests, five emails with clear subject lines,” she says. Do this helps your colleagues to keep each task straight — but also helps you to follow up on each important issue.
Secondly, your emails are too short. Avoid responses like “fine,” or “thanks,” or “no way, that’s crazy,” she says. Instead, opt for “great idea, go for it!” “I really appreciate your time!” or “please help me to understand what you really mean.”
Your house is loud
“Working from home it’s easy to become numb to the noises that you’re used to in your own house,” Benton says. The barking dog, the lawnmower, the chatter from kids all get tuned out after a while. “But getting used to these noises is a mistake,” she continues, “Because while you don’t hear them, the people on the other end of the phone line or computer screen certainly will.
“I know a woman who’s a remote worker and the pool was open for the kids in the summer time,” Benton says. “She’s outside doing business over the phone and every three minutes there’s a splash or a kid crying, “Marco! Polo!” She didn’t think anything of it but it undermined her credibility.
If a “home” noise does pop up while you’re in the middle of business, Benton’s advice is sound (get it?): Have a phrase on-hand to explain it away. One client brushes off her dogs barking by saying “Even my dog has an opinion on this subject!” Cheesy, maybe, but better than to let the sound go unaddressed.
You’re forgetting the handshake
In person we never introduce ourselves or greet another person without the pleasantry of a handshake or hello and yet Benton says we quite regularly skip this step in an online setting. This is a big mistake.
Make a point of perfecting what she calls a “virtual handshake.” Begin every email or phone conversation by discussing something that’s important to the other person — whether it’s their family, a recent vacation or a business interest — to set the tone of pleasantry and cooperation. “If I’m the recipient of an email whose focus is on my interests first rather than his, I’ll definitely pay more attention.”
You think you're alone now
“It’s so easy to multi-task as a remote worker,” says Benton. “I can run a load of laundry while I’m on a conference call or check on my order from Zappos while I fill out an expense report.” When we think we’re not being watched we often lose focus as we take on more and more personal tasks simultaneously with professional ones. Don’t get in this habit, she warns. Your loss of focus will show, no matter who’s watching.
© 2012 Forbes.com