In Solitary, At Least They Bring You Three Meals — The Joy Of Working From Home

Working at home
Image by gibsonsgolfer via Flickr

Many people dream of the day they can work from home. No commute! No office politics! No nasty boss!

A piece in today’s New York Post addresses some of the challenges involved: loneliness, isolation, no one to chat or brainstorm or joke with. Tech support? Try your computer’s “help” tab:

Victoria Porter, a medical writer, used to work in a Manhattan office, until she was hired a job a few years ago by a company based in Minnesota. The offer: full-time telecommuting from her Long Island residence, an idyllic setup to the many cube dwellers who dream of working from home in their pajamas all day.

So, how did it feel to be liberated from the need to slog through a commute and show up at an office every day?

She hated it. Instead of feeling liberated, she felt isolated and cut off — and found herself fighting the temptation to call friends and colleagues at their desks just to chat.

“The loneliness was acute, and I just wanted to go back to my old job,” she says. “If not for my cats, it would have been really, really depressing.”

She stuck with it, but one colleague who faced a similar fate decided to go back to office work.

“He wanted to work with other human beings,” she says.

For many workers, the ability to telecommute — to work remotely, enabled by laptops and wireless communication — is one of the prizes of the digital era. An estimated 33.7 million US employees now work from home at least a few times a month, according to World at Work, a nonprofit that studies telecommuting.

A National Geographic documentary crew is spending a week in solitary confinement to see what it’s like, reports The New York Times:

Heightening the sense of imprisonment, the volunteers can send short posts to Twitter, but they cannot read any responses. The live-streaming at ExploreSolitary.com started when the three volunteers entered their cells somewhere outside Washington, D.C., last Friday, and it will continue through this Friday. The documentary will have its premiere on April 11.

It’s a marketing stunt borrowed from reality TV — or perhaps a psychology experiment. National Geographic prefers to call it a complement to the documentary, intended to prompt conversation about a part of the prison system seldom examined by camera crews.

Russell Howard, a spokesman for the National Geographic Channel, said the experiment was rooted in a question: “In a day and age when everyone is hyper-connected, what is it like to be severed socially as well as to be kept in such a small space?”

I started my day driving my sweetie to the train station (get dressed, brush hair, wash face, leave apartment)l ate breakfast at a local diner where I saw a neighbor and type this listening to BBC World News, as I do every weekday morning for an hour. From 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or later, it’s my workday. Alone.

Those of us who work alone at home all day — especially without a separate office space — face our own challenges: when to stop working, finding social contact within the workday, trying (hah!) to control the clutter of books, newspapers, magazines I use for work while my “office” is a desk in the livingroom, staying visible and audible within our industries. I offer some tips on how to handle isolation on my website. Michelle Goodman, who’s written several great books about working freelance, has some helpful tips on her website, including this one.

The only way I’ve stayed sane while working on my book (and blog and freelancing) are two young researchers I found (through trusted colleagues), one in San Diego and one in suburban New Jersey, neither of whom I’ve met. Their energy and attention to detail have allowed me to focus on my own tasks.

When you work on your own, it’s not always easy to find someone dependable to help you and it’s easy to forget to delegate — I found an intern from a local university one year and hired her (at $12/hr, this a decade ago) after the unpaid internship ended. It helped enormously having a fun, friendly helpful assistant.

Do you work from home? What do you enjoy? What (if anything) do you miss from working in an office or more structured/social environment?

Any tips on how to cope?

15 thoughts on “In Solitary, At Least They Bring You Three Meals — The Joy Of Working From Home

  1. citifieddoug

    I commute every morning, an hour each way or more if, like today, there’s heavy traffic. Most days I spend the whole time in between alone in an office, metaphorically in my pajamas. Not to self-reference too much but for the isolation, chatty blogs make a fine water cooler.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Blogs help, no question. I participate in a few on-line writers’ forums and listservs as well, but nothing beats sitting face to face and really hammering away at an issue — or just having fun. I think people do have micro-bursts of attention available for stuff like this, but some things really need more face-time and sometimes the smart, helpful input of others in your field.

  3. john

    I’ve done hard time in solitary for years now. What I love about it is that when I am engaged in my work, I can drop hours in minutes and weeks, or months, in days. Time literally disappears when I’m all in. However, if things get slow, I get ill, or I can’t get into my sweet spot, I can get bored and lonely. What I miss most about working in a office environment are certain people, and discovering new certain people that I like to converse with. The other thing I miss about working in that environment are the everyday cycles, or distractions, like meetings, or even that commuting time, times where you’re going through the motions of doing something, but your mental engine is idling. I’ve found that I can focus for incredibly long stretches, but I need time to idle as well.

    As far as tips go, I’ve found that keeping to a schedule, or a habit, works for me. Just little things like getting up and taking a shower to start the day (I know that sounds impossibly funny, but if I don’t do it, I begin to look like the unibomber). Exercising regularly, and giving myself a hard stop time each day are non-negotiables. It’s too easy for me to stay absorbed and stay in the mind, so I need breaks. And by declaring times for exercise, and time to get off the computer, I find I get more done. I guess you might say that by subtlety constraining my time, I free myself to work harder when I allow myself to work and play harder when I don’t.

  4. jake brodsky

    Many fields where people work from home actually involve a fair amount of travel, telephone, and internet time. Writing is one of the few fields where that is not the case.

    Thus for people in technical specialties, the notion of working from home isn’t as wild as it might seem.

    Psychologically, it helps to have a separate office from your home. I have an office built in to the side of my barn. It is my workshop, it has my desk, and soon to be server farm.

    This is where I can make business happen.

    Also, for sheer change of pace, a coffee shop or a public library should always be considered.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    john, all great suggestions. I start almost every day with my rituals of reading 3 newspapers in print and an hour of BBC World News, which ends at 10:00 a.m. and that’s when I am on the clock.

    Taking breaks is very hard for me — I tend to work hard and very focusedly and hate to be interrupted and when you are alone no one is there to (healthily, socially)interrupt you. Sometimes I force myself out for lunch in a restaurant and there are usually several errands to be run. None of which is really social, but it’s something.

    Your point is a very smart one — the need for “idle” time, very elusive for me. I tend to go 10000 mph or be fast asleep; I desperately miss my 4-mile one-hour outdoor walks (hip pain forbids it right now) as that is when my brain truly relaxes in silence. It’s where (for better or worse) I got the name for this site, mid-walk. Sometimes, for now, less mobile with my arthritis, I just sit on the balcony or a bench and stare into the sky and listen to the birds.

    jake, I actually do a fair bit of phone interviewing (much more than face to face, which I prefer every time) and travel whenever possible, even if only to CT where I went last week to do a face to face interview for my book.
    The closest I come (and it’s a lot) to a separate office (where I can speak freely and in privacy by phone as well) is our balcony — finally, here in NY, warm enough! So, (unless it’s too hot and humid) I am often out there May to October.

    Ironically, the library is too damn noisy (kids after school) as is a coffee shop. I want human contact — conversation, fun — or silence, not just bodies around me.

    But once I start writing all the time on my book, I will likely move to the library — I was recently given a laptop to allow me this freedom.

  6. James Finn Garner

    Round about January, I start to feel isolated enough to want to pursue a regular job. Then warm weather comes. That, and my lack of marketable skills, keeps me a freelancer.

    I started a writer’s group about 8 years ago to battle the sense of isolation in freelance work. We’ve been very fortunate that the same 6 guys have been so compatible, through all sorts of professional and personal ups and downs.

    Also, try to schedule a dump day every six months or so, that allows you to weed out paperwork you’ll no longer need. (I need one really bad right now.)

  7. working at home is great for many reasons but the under-socialization is dreadful. i always feel a little happier on days i go into an office for a bit for meetings.

    i can’t complain about this too much because a) i am lucky to have a job and b) there are many upsides to working from home.

    i spend a lot of time on facebook for this reason.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    The writers’ group sounds great. I know people have them and I started one years ago but it didn’t last. It’s tough when people are busy and some members are doing great if others are not, etc.

    Every six months? I try every week….and it’s still difficult to keep up. Again, living in a small space forces the issue.

  9. samjf

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! This really mirrors my experiences. I’m a 26-year-old, and I’ve spent the last three years of my life in my first job out of college, a researcher for a stock trader. The loneliness was crushing at times. I’ve never really had the “office experience” because jobs have been scarce for recent grads. Since I’m being laid off from this company, I’m starting my own business and am SO grateful for the opportunity to interact with real human beings. Having that contact at least once a week makes working at home pleasurable.

    I don’t really have time for it but I’ve considered starting a club, perhaps via Craigslist, for work-at-home freelancers to just get together and have coffee once a week. It really is the only way to stay sane in the new, digital economy.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    Beth, I spend more time at Facebook than I want to admit!

    samjf, it’s crazy, right? Everyone wants to work at home and those of us who do are dying for a little company. Even in my most horrible office jobs, there was always someone fun and nice to talk to, and a lot of life on the city streets as I commuted — here, in the ‘burbs, nothing.

    I actually did strike up a few conversations in our one local coffee shop and one was very funny; there were three foreign students (French and Belgian) bracketed by two Canadians now in the U.S., me and a local med student at the other end of the counter. The odds of two French-speakers sitting beside these girls was fairly slim, but it made for a fun chat.

    I really like your idea for stay-at-home meeting up. The challenge will be, depending where you live, how others are coping and if they’re as hungry as you for company. I went to an event about a month ago when my hip was in so much pain that even standing up was agony — just because too much alone time was worse! I met three fun new people in my industry. It’s very hard to motivate yourself 24/7 all alone. I’m not sure anyone can.

  11. john

    “you digital people are charming while analog people often annoy me.” – classic, I’m afraid I have to steal this line right away.

  12. aullman

    The feeling of isolation is probably the biggest hurdle for telecommuters. Many self employed workers have started working in coworking facilities in order to deal with feelings of isolation. Telecommuters can do the same thing. They can get out of the house and move into a remote office. Remote Office Centers make it possible for workers to telecommute from a real office around real people in professional facilities surrounded by other workers. ROCs provide the social contact and structure that are missing in a home office. The great thing about an ROC is that it can be located anywhere – as close as just down the street.

    High speed internet has been around for a while, but people should not discount structure and social contact when they decide to start telecommuting.

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    aullman, I take your point — but it’s still not addressing the key issue, which is the very real loss of camaraderie you gain from working with (at its best) the same people day after day for months or years. Being “surrounded” by people I don’t know and who are busy working (i.e. not there to be interrupted and social) isn’t the solution to this problem. To me, sitting in a room surrounded by strangers tapping away at their laptops is no better than sitting in my apartment alone.

    The real loss, for anyone working primarily or exclusively alone, is of conversation, brainstorming, shared — or competing — ideas. The only way I get this every day, and I do, is through Facebook, T/S and a few writers’ sites I check in with for chat or help.

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