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How a top-level exec at Microsoft succeeds working from home

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Work-from-home advice from a Silicon Valley corporate telecommuter

Working from home is becoming more and more common, and it's not just the domain of freelancers anymore. Angie Hill, Microsoft's Apps and Services organization general manager, gave us the lowdown on how she manages her international team from her home on the beach and still manages to have time to embarrass her kids.

You read that right. Lucky gal lives on the beach. She almost quit her Silicon Valley job 14 years ago so she could do just that. But her boss suggested telecommuting instead.

As someone who has only worked from home full time for about three years, I was dying to know how someone like Hill has made this work for 14.

Work-from-home challenges

The challenges someone who works from home will face depend on his/her stage of life, the age of his/her kids and more. Hill manages a team of people who are all over the globe, including in London, and still has to be wife, mom and even just be Angie. She says, "You have to be willing to evolve your work-at-home situation with changes in your personal life."

But she also warns that the biggest challenge is mindset. "There are way too many distractions at home — laundry, personal to-do list, kids/nanny coming and going, other people wanting your time, etc. You have to treat working from home seriously and create boundaries and rules for yourself and your family. These boundaries are important for the people dealing with you remotely, your family and your own personal health."

Like a lot of telecommuters, her biggest issue has been making herself walk away from work. She has advice for that, too. "I have to create reasons to stop working," she told us. She says for her, it's hard to make herself exercise because her work ambitions are stronger than her desire to stay in shape, so she goes to prearranged exercise classes to keep herself honest. "I am sure my husband wishes one of the reasons was to cook dinner — that one has not crossed my mind yet!" she joked.

Working at home with kids

Hill says there are challenges working at home when you have kids, but they're not insurmountable. "I'm past the days of my kids screaming outside of the door 'Mommy, please come out.' Thank goodness for the mute button!" she said of working from home with smaller children. "Those early days were exhausting because my kids couldn't understand why I was locked behind a door. My kids are now 11 and 14, and they understand that work can happen any time of day."

But Hill doesn't really make a point of telling people unless there's a need to. Her office has a door and is pretty quiet, but since it's the guest room, there are times when she has to move the whole operation to the dining room, at which point the noise of kids coming and going may prompt her to inform people that she's not in her normal office and there may be background noise.

But even with older kids, there can still be interruptions. "I have had the occasional oops on Skype when my kids don't realize I am on video and they are walking around in the background or when I thought I was on mute and I yelled to my kids to be quiet," she admits. How does she handle it? "I just introduce my kids to the people on the other end and totally embarrass them. My favorite is when I switch on the camera without my kids knowing. They usually scream and run out of the room."

Breaking the silence

As many of us know, one of the biggest things you miss not working in the office are those water cooler chats. Not just because they're fun, but because they're an easy, quick way to touch base with other team members informally. But Hill's been making it work for over a decade, and she has some tips for that, too.

  • Use video. "I live on Skype and show video most of the time. There are some days I spare my team the embarrassment of seeing my insane hair. I usually start every call, though, with a hello on video to maintain the visual connection."
  • Join the conversations. "I use Skype group chats, GroupMe and platforms like Yammer throughout the day. Staying connected on the real-time chats helps keep you updated on what is happening in the offices. It also keeps your ideas and input front and center. The goal is for people to feel like you are present in the conversation — regardless of where you are located."
  • Create a support team. "I have advocates at all of our locations who help keep me connected with the pulse of the office. I ask a lot of questions, ask how people are doing and ping people throughout the week letting them know what I know. For instance, if I hear in a meeting that one of my employees did a great presentation, I will IM that person and say, 'Great job on your presentation today.' It's important for your employees to know you are aware of their achievements regardless of your location."
  • Hire carefully. If you're a manager, make sure to hire people who can work well with a remote manager. "I am able to be successful in my situation because I have built a team who can perform at high levels without having daily face time with me. My assistant is amazing and knows how to manage me remotely (and boy does she manage me!), and my direct reports work with me to create the right culture to maintain a healthy working environment."
  • Keep it fun. "I sprinkle in personal with work. I don't mind sharing a funny story, photo or video. It's really important to keep things real. I will bring people on Skype tours of my house, office and torturing [sic] them with views of the beach when it's freezing in London. When people from my team work from home, I love going on tours of their houses, too. My assistant has amazing parrots, so it was super-cool to meet them via Skype."
  • Don't hide. "I give my team every possible way to reach me. It's important to be accessible.
  • Stay really engaged. "I have to remember that the onus is on me to stay engaged in meetings. It's easy to be a passive participant when you are working from home. That is the slow death of a virtual employee! Make sure the room knows you are in the meeting without being a distraction. Interrupt at the right times, use the chat windows to tell people in the room you have a question, chat with other participants who are also virtual about the topics in the room."
  • Remember your boss! "Most importantly, I have to make sure my boss feels connected with me. She has to feel that I am as accessible to her at home as I am in the office. It's my boss who makes the largest sacrifice having me work from home, so I need to make it easy for her."

Meet Angie Hill

Work-from-home advice from a Silicon Valley corporate telecommuter

Angie Hill has distinguished herself at Microsoft for cutting-edge programs that combine traditional and digital marketing strategies and techniques into fun, memorable campaigns that generate buzz, consumer love and revenue.

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