Is working at home your Holy Grail?

By Caitlin Kelly

For millions of weary workers, the notion of being able to work from home — in comfy clothes, saving the time, money and energy of a long commute to the office — remains a fever dream.

In a recent front-page New York Times story, one mid-western mother describes how terrified she was to ask to work from home — one day a week — which she was granted:

Ms. Uttech, like many working mothers, is a married college graduate, and her job running member communications for an agricultural association helps put her family near the middle of the nation’s income curve. And like dozens of other middle-class working mothers interviewed about their work and family lives, she finds climbing a career ladder less of a concern than finding a position that offers paid sick leave, flexible scheduling or even the opportunity to work fewer hours. The ultimate luxury for some of them, in fact (though not for Ms. Uttech), would be the option to be a stay-at-home mother.

“I never miss a baseball game,” said Ms. Uttech, uttering a statement that is a fantasy for millions of working mothers (and fathers) nationwide. (This attendance record is even more impressive when you realize that her children play in upward of six a week.)

Ms. Uttech wants a rewarding career, but more than that she wants a flexible one. That ranking of priorities is not necessarily the one underlying best-selling books like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which advises women to seek out leadership positions, throw themselves at their careers, find a partner who helps with child care and supports their ambition, and negotiate for raises and promotions.

It’s a sad fact that many educated American workers are incredibly cowed. Few get more than two weeks’ vacation a year, if that. Many do not get paid sick days.

Image representing Sheryl Sandberg as depicted...
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Image via CrunchBase

Because the country is ruled by a corporate mindset, because most employers hire you, legally, “at will” and can fire you the next day with no warning or severance or even a reason, because unions are at their lowest membership — 11 percent — since the Depression, few workers dare ask their boss for much of anything.

I’ve been working alone at home, as a freelance writer, since 2006, when I lost my last job, at 3pm on  Wednesday, at the New York Daily News, the country’s sixth-largest newspaper.

I’d had the “wood” — the entire front page of the newspaper — only two weeks earlier with a national exclusive. No matter. I was out the door and into a recession — in 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs, too.

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...
English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I decided, having worked freelance for many years at several points in my career, to just stay home and once more make my living that way. I would probably earn 30 to 50 percent more, possibly double, my income if I went to work for someone else. But we do not have children or other huge costs to manage, so this arrangement suits me and my husband.

I’d rather set my own hours and schedule, find my own work and do it without a manager or several breathing down my neck. I’ve had many full-time office jobs, some of which I enjoyed and several of which paid me close to six figures, which was indeed pleasant!

Working alone at home all day is, for many people, a dream come true. While it can get lonely and isolating, it is, in many ways. I play music if or when I wish. I wear shorts and a T-shirt when I’m not meeting someone. I set my own hours — not much different from those in an office — typically 9 or 10:00 a.m. to 4 or 5:00 p.m.

The two+ hours I save every day by not traveling to someone else’s office to do the same quality work at the same speed I produce alone at home? I can go to a movie or take a long walk or make soup at noon.

The Times piece — catnip for comments — quickly gathered 470 answers from readers, many of whom found the story’s focus on a woman and a mother misguided.

A few key issues are rarely addressed in these stories about the unabated lust for working at home:

1) We all — parents or not — juggle other people’s needs against those of our employer(s). Including our own needs, for rest, study, exercise. Endlessly focusing on parents’ needs wilfully ignores the industrial mindset that still rules many workplaces,

2) Others people’s needs are rarely neatly scheduled. The dog/baby/husband is projectile vomiting just as you’re expected to make a meeting or attend a conference. Your father/brother/son has a heart attack or stroke just when you’re gearing up for a new client meeting. So even if you get every Friday to work at home, shit will probably happen on every other day instead.

3) Given the insane amount of time we all waste spend every day on social media or communicating on-line, why can’t more employers allow more work to be done remotely, i.e. from home? Yes, some people are total slackers, but you know who they are already. Conference calls and Skype make meetings easy.

4) The Times story also gathered 439 comments within hours of publication, (many of them scathing), like:

a) mothers are not solely or exclusively responsible for their children’s care and house-chores; b) men are equally hungry for flex-time; c) children will not wither and die if their parents fail to attend and cheer every possible sports match or event.

In my case, I wondered why this woman is unable or unwilling to delegate at least some of the housework? She has sons 8 and 10 and a 15-year-old step-daughter. Teaching them to share responsibility seems a lot more essential to me than watching them play six baseball games a week.

5) If the United States (insert long loud bitter laugh) actually make it a legal requirement to offer subsidize/affordable daycare, flex-time, paid sick days or paid maternity leave, some of these concerns would abate.

Do you work from home right now?

Have you?

Do you wish you could?

45 thoughts on “Is working at home your Holy Grail?

  1. I did work from home, Caitlin, as a nurse case manager with a dedicated phone line and fax machine. I loved working from home – I had to be available for insurers, patients and the woman I worked for but I could wear the T-shirt and shorts and be there for my dog. It would have been very difficult if there had been young children at home because they are 24-7 care and how a young mother or father with little ones could do this would be difficult I think.

    1. Interesting. I know a few women with young kids who work from home — one has been lucky enough to afford a nanny. I doubt it would be possible without a way to have someone else take over while you focus on work alone.

  2. I’ve worked from home before (for close to 8 years), and I’d love to do it again. I had to take a “real” job because my husband lost his. We are married, no children, but his job provided the steady income that allowed us to pay the mortgage. Consulting work paid well, but too sporadically. So, when his job went, it was time for me to find a steady paycheck (and health insurance). Maybe the future holds something different, but for now, I’m fine with a regular job. My employer treats us well and compensates better than most. I can’t complain.

    1. I’m sorry about your husband’s job! And thank heaven you were able to pick up the job you have, and enjoy it.

      The single greatest obstacle to working on your own here — in my view — is the insane cost of free market health insurance. I was paying $500/month in 2002 when I finally was able (even unmarried) to get on my husband’s work-subsidized plan. It’s an obscenity and keeps many people from self-employment.

    2. Meghan

      Sorry to hear about your husband’s job as well. Curious, have you ever looked into Freelancer’s union? They are growing rapidly and actually offer options for health care insurance etc. I’ve been meaning to look into them to see if they could be of some use, since I will have to shop for my own health insurance by the end of the summer…

      1. We’re good — he will have a pension, which is huge. I have no need of the FU for now as we have health insurance through his work. Last time I looked, I did not even qualify (!?) for their membership criteria.

      2. Meghan

        Whaaat? Huh. Well that may answer my question about whether I should look into it. I’d never heard of the concept of a union for people working on their own and not as part of a corp before. Interesting idea at the least.

      3. I’ve thought about Elance. I’ll check out Freelancer’s as well. Doesn’t hurt to look into it. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  3. I have worked from home, and although it was better than going to the office in many ways, I disliked the work. So, go figure!
    Working from home doing something you love = the cat’s meow in my books! 🙂

  4. I’m working from home now after nearly five years in an office. I enjoy it, but I’m honestly missing some aspects of office life – though not my Dreaded Coworker! I think that the work environment for me is entirely dependent on the job itself – some I would do better in an office setting, some I’d do better from home. I’m in the middle of contemplating which way to jump after our move, actually, and it’s a bit daunting because (of course) I’d like the ideal situation of either position, and none of the downsides. Alas!

    1. I miss it too! Jose laughs when I tell him I envy him, but after seven years alone at home, I do very much miss the camaraderie — and brainstorming — of smart colleagues. The hardest part for me is having to think of everything alone! I miss having office pals and people with other good ideas.

  5. I always wanted to work from home in my last job. Assessing claims could be done better i an environment with less distractions from chatter around me and phones constantly interrupting. Phones would be better handled by a dedicated team who could follow the progress of queries online or could offer to phone back after speaking to an assessor. Alas I was told it wasn’t to be. Now five years down the line it’s become standard practise.
    The assessors can manage their day to assess the number of claims they needed to without being specifically 9-5 and less interruptions means more claims processed.
    Since there are often those who’d prefer to skive and chat than work it’s easy enough to make it piece work and pay according to claims dealt with.

    1. Sorry they weren’t more flexible then. I know I’m super-focused at home, ironically. I only turn on the television during the day if there is some HUGE breaking news (about 3x year) and work pretty much a standard 6-7 hours, as much as anyone in most office jobs.

  6. Caitlin,
    Outstanding reflection and questions. As a teacher, I can’t imagine ever having to work a year-round schedule with a measly two weeks off. It’s sad that American society and corporate culture places such a massive influence on productivity and earnings.
    My wife doesn’t have the luxury of so much time off as I do, but we could certainly afford it if she asked for unpaid time off. This is what I hope she’ll consider doing…
    As for me, I like structuring my own time, so I think I’d be fine working from home. But I do really enjoy interacting with many of my teacher and administrator colleagues at school. I’d miss that.
    Thanks for sparking up this conversation.

    1. Thanks!

      I am very fortunate that Jose, my husband, gets five weeks off a year and has for the entire 13 years I’ve known him — thanks to a VERY long tenure at the NYT and a union that makes sure they get some things in writing. My greatest reservation about taking any other staff position would be the lack of time off and I would happily take a few extra weeks unpaid. There is no work more interesting to me than time off to travel, read, think and re-charge. I give 188% percent and I need downtime!

      I think it also contributes to a totally artificial notion we are indispensable, (as if!) when we’re fired all the time without a second’s notice.

      I miss that interaction, too! I really do. I meet with fellow writers one-on-one and by social media almost daily, but I really miss feeling part of a team. At my age in my dying industry, I highly doubt I’ll have another staff job though…

  7. I work a reduced schedule and get paid the equivalent salary (80%). A couple of years ago my husband was out of work and my employer offered to take me back to full time which I refused. I did not want to give up my schedule. We are very frugal so we weren’t worried about having only one income for a while. I have the option to work from home when it is necessary like when one of the kids is home sick but I prefer to work from the office. I can get my work done more efficiently there unless I have a project that requires me to focus without interruption. There are times of the year when I need to stay later or take conference calls after hours but generally I’m very good about drawing the line between work and home.

  8. Interesting post, Caitlin, especially the pros and cons opinions that you sampled there. Good point about the male perspective as well.

    My last government contract was working on a project for DHS which was exploring mobile work- not necessarily from home 100% but also the option to work from “hoteling” space (a desk or station reserved by the day in a flex office site). I found when I did work from home (the project was to write and publish a manual for managers) I would wake up early and wander down to my quiet basement office and work non-stop until about 7pm- easily turning my commute time into work time. I loved it and the project benefitted too.

    I enjoyed the flexibility, but find I prefer more people contact. Thanks for the insights!

    1. Thanks for sharing the details of how you worked, and how well it worked out…I struggle with the loneliness and isolation of this way of working right now. On days when I’m not interacting with people (like phone interviews for stories), it’s tough.

      But I also treasure my freedom and Jose and I both appreciate how easy it is for me to keep our home tidy, well-stocked and cook good meals for him after HIS crazy day (6 meetings every day) and a long commute. I suspect many couples are so worn out (plus kids’ needs and skeds) when both work, and both commute. This gives us both a quality of life we really enjoy.

      I would love to find some part-time work where I am in an office setting two or three days a week to balance it out….journalism just doesn’t offer that.

  9. One day a week I work from home. In truth, I could probably perform 80% of my job from home. However, I am blessed that I get this opportunity. Typically, I get more work done before the office opens than i would get done in two days in the office. There are fewer interuptions and I can focus on my priorities.

  10. I worked from home for almost 4 years designing websites. I’ve never designed sites within an office setting, but I imagine it would cut into my time, quite frankly. At home I had no distractions…but I was living on my own for part of that time. I am now again looking for work…but my web design skills are almost 7 years out of date…no money to go back to school to upgrade…but I’m doing graphic design now instead…and maybe…who knows 😉 may just try doing it freelance again. I LOVE working from home. I miss people, but not too much . I’m currently volunteering those skills for a local Heritage committee…setup the blog, designing ad copy, promotional banners and other print media. So I’m building back a portfolio with this volunteer work. Actually, I’m designing the whole promotional campaign…I think of it as an unpaid “internship” 😉

    It may well have been here, but I read where almost 40% of the workforce will be working freelance in the not to distant future.

    1. I like your plan — very smart! I hope it works, and can’t see why it wouldn’t.

      The percentage is already 30 percent — temp/permalance/contract or freelance. So the endless attention paid to corporations is really misleading as so many of us don’t work for them anymore, not in their office or on their payrolls.

  11. I’d love to not have to leave the home, as the what to wear conundrum gets me riled up/despondent every morning, and you always have your kettle/fridge available. My dad works from home, and is actually an advisor in flexible working, and just published a handbook.He seems to enjoy it, although I think the lack of human contact can be a bit strange, after a week or two…

    1. There really are two side to the story. It can be extremely lonely and isolating — and you must be tremendously self-disciplined about managing your time and staying productive.

  12. Meghan

    Really good article, and encouraging to see! I have been employed full-time with a social media marketing company and have worked remotely since the beginning. I have only met a handful of the clients I represent, but I have morning calls, conferences online, etc and it really is easy to collaborate with colleagues without being in the same room.
    I am striking out alone this summer to start my own freelancing business for some of the same reasons you did – I don’t want to deal with several managers and a CEO breathing down my neck. Especially when I have very different opinions on a lot of what we do. It’s encouraging to hear about your success, and I agree – having the freedom to play your own music, make your own hours, and (in my case) put a loaf of bread in my bread machine at lunch time are well worth the reduced salary. Although I hear we freelancers are climbing the ranks in terms of earnings, which is encouraging!

    1. Thanks…

      One-third of Americans no longer work FT in someone else’s office. We are a very overlooked demographic, politically and economically.

      Freelancing is fun in some ways, but you have to hustle hard to make a lot of money, depending on your specialty and field; journalism’s fees are much LOWER than they were a few years ago, which is insane and tiring.

      1. Meghan

        I agree – especially initially getting work is hard. But I have heard from a lot of freelancers (at least the kind of freelance work I want to do) that if you can build up a solid reputation you can actually make more per hour than you could at some other regular office jobs. Especially if you charge by project rather than hour. I don’t have much experience with journalism though. Sounds like you are doing okay!

      2. It really depends on a variety of factors — your skill, your “brand”, your reputation within the larger industry (i.e. referrals to their clients). I aim for an annual amount and will do even smaller jobs if they are, which some are, quick and easy. I’ve made $300 to $350 an hour if I can bang out a story in an hour, and I have. In my business, there is a crucial and challenging balance between speed/quality/accuracy. I can’t mess with any of these elements.

    1. Some jobs — most teaching, nursing, public service — can’t be done from home, but the people who choose them know that going in. Many others in the “knowledge economy” certainly can be, but that’s up to managers to figure out.

  13. I would die of sheer delight should I be able to work from home but is not possible in my career. Just an afternoon off occasionally for errands or a hair apt would be heavenly. Someday I’ll ditch it all and write a book.but for now 12 hour days glued to my chair are not uncommon.

  14. michelegwrites

    This post is timely for me in that I’m considering a big (freakishly scary) leap without a lifejacket. After reading through the discussions at the end of your post, I began to think about the deeper part of this desire to work from home. Candace’s comment about missing some aspects of office life resonated with me. When that’s all you know–even if you feel like you could leave it in an instant–it still fills important social and mental needs. The fear of becoming too isolated, of becoming depressed and unmotivated, or generally, out of the loop with society–those can be bigger issues than the challenges of a 9-to-5. The takeaway, for me, is that moving away from a traditional career will require me to work harder than I am now, to stay motivated, to be courageous and create my own social networks, to put myself out there instead of simply doing the work prescribed by someone else.

    1. So glad you found it!

      You very clearly and accurately describe both sides of that equation…

      “it still fills important social and mental needs.”

      Yes, but…Once you head out on your own, you very quickly see how much you need them and you re-create them. The value of a much larger, (i.e. not just one job or one company), network is how much deeper, broader and richer your network becomes as a result — because YOU select its members.

      I’m not joking to tell you that I often tell my own husband (who works at the NYT) news of his company before he hears it internally…through my own networks outside the mother ship. Thanks to social media and caring for others fairly assiduously, I have smart, helpful people in places as far-flung and unlikely as Paris, rural Pennsylvania, Kentucky, D.C., rural Austria, Mexico City and Halifax…all of whom are very quick to help me when I ask them for it. In my last (nasty) staff job, people who sat six feet away from me refused to even talk to me. Who needs that shit?!

      “The fear of becoming too isolated, of becoming depressed and unmotivated, or generally, out of the loop with society–those can be bigger issues than the challenges of a 9-to-5.”

      All of which are easily (re)solved — join groups and serve on professional committees and volunteer. Go to (and speak at!) industry conferences, conventions and parties; next week in NYC I’m meeting a lovely young woman I shared a room with at a writers’ conference in Boston maybe 15 yrs ago. She now lives in SF. You never know!

      “The takeaway, for me, is that moving away from a traditional career will require me to work harder than I am now, to stay motivated, to be courageous and create my own social networks, to put myself out there instead of simply doing the work prescribed by someone else.”

      Yes, yes, yes and yes. And yes. If you can afford it financially, (and I would urge you to have at least six months’ expenses, in cash, before you make the leap), go for it. You can always go back go work for someone else. But you might not! Once you know how strong, smart, capable and productive you are, taking orders from others is far less amusing. You start to see the bullshit for what it is and your workday is all about productivity, not office politics.

      Motivation? Bills! They do show up every damn month. The next $1,000 I earn is already spoken for with a needed apartment repair and a car repair. I just have to go out and get the $$$$$.

      I feel far more confident sitting alone at home in sweats than in some office where — as has happened to me — you can be shit-canned with no notice at all and land in the depths of a recession. Not amusing either.

      I once spoke at a conference and years later a writer came up to me and read back my words (!) as inspiration….When I open the fridge and look at all that food, I know it came out of my brain. Crudely put, it means MY solo hard work, ingenuity and sweat earned the money that bought it all. It is extremely empowering to know that I can do it. Most people do not ever learn that lesson.

      1. michelegwrites

        Exactly what I needed to hear (read). Maybe I don’t have a lifejacket, but your words are like one of those floaty kickboards we used to hold onto when we were learning to swim.

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