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?

Out of your PJ’s, you slackers! Yahoo orders workers back to the office

Telecommuting
Telecommuting (Photo credit: ScottMJones)

You can hear the sighs from here.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new CEO, has ordered all remote workers, those at home in their bunny slippers and sweatpants, back to work in the office.

You know, where they can make sure you’re being productive:

A memo explaining the policy change, from the company’s human resources department, says face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture — a hallmark of Google’s approach to its business.

In trying to get back on track, Yahoo is taking on one of the country’s biggest workplace issues: whether the ability to work from home, and other flexible arrangements, leads to greater productivity or inhibits innovation and collaboration. Across the country, companies like Aetna, Booz Allen Hamilton and Zappos.com are confronting these trade-offs as they compete to attract and retain the best employees.

Bank of America, for example, which had a popular program for working remotely, decided late last year to require employees in certain roles to come back to the office.

Employees, especially younger ones, expect to be able to work remotely, analysts say. And over all the trend is toward greater workplace flexibility.

Still, said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement and executive coaching firm, “A lot of companies are afraid to let their workers work from home some of the time or all of the time because they’re afraid they’ll lose control.”

Excuse my language, but I call bullshit.

Every time a company wants employees all perky and visible and audible and crammed into cubes they insist it’s all about the innovation.

Yeah, right.

I worked for a martinet at my first New York City magazine job, who insisted I be at my desk “and working!” by 9:00 a.m. sharp, even though taking a slightly later train in from my home in the suburbs meant arriving at 9:15 or so.

It’s a power game, a way to demonstrate — just in case you forgot! — who’s in charge of your life.

I’ve been working, alone at home, since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest newspaper, in June 2006. Alone for almost seven years, working — yes, even as I type this — in sweat pants. Yet I’ve managed to produce a well-reviewed memoir, dozens of newspaper and magazine stories, edit others’ work, consult, fly around the country on well-paid speaking gigs.

Productive? I dunno. Look at my retirement savings account. I’d say so.

Every morning I get up and no one anywhere, tells me what to do or when to do it or how to do it. I have not one penny of income guaranteed to me. I have to hustle it up every single month, a minimum of $2,000 a month, just to meet my basic bills.

Any one of you who works in an office knows this — just because an employee’s butt is in a chair in some manager’s clear sightline doesn’t mean they’re not lazy, ass-kissing or politicking or backstabbing.

Innovative? Collaborative? Cooperative? You wish!

With a phone call or email to the right colleague — whether in Nova Scotia or California — I can get serious, smart help and advice. At the Daily News, despite every effort to be collegial, I was ignored by colleagues and managers alike.

New York Daily News front page on August 9
New York Daily News front page on August 9 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband commutes every day to The New York Times, at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street. It costs him about $600 a month to go to work in an office: $200+ for his train pass; $200 month for the taxis that take him to and from the train station in our town (too far to walk); $200+ for subsidized cafeteria meals at work. Plus commercial laundering of his shirts.

He also has six meetings every day; putting out a newspaper like the Times, like many enterprises, does require incessant discussion and teamwork.

Yes, some workers are indeed quite incapable of self-discipline and do better work under others’ supervision. Some workplaces really do thrive on having lots of smart people in the same building to rub brains and bump into one another in the hallways and suddenly come up with some fabulous, profitable new solution.

But mostly they want to Own Your Ass.

I spent a day last spring at Google reporting this story for the Times. It was a little creepy — OK, a lot– how much they wanted their hip employees, hoodies and all, to be there 24/7, providing them with free food, laundry rooms on-site, even a hair-stylist.

In the 21st century, long past the Industrial Revolution that took us away from artisanal work and attached us all to machines inside large buildings, here we are again.

Plus ca change, mes chers…

Ten Reasons I Love Housework

This is a picture of a stiff whisk broom, a ge...
Image via Wikipedia

What else would I be doing at 8:45 a.m. on New Year’s Day?

Why, washing our ancient, battered hallway kilim (a flat-weave antique rug) in the bathtub, of course! (No, really….Woolite, warm water, handle gently as wet wool, especially old fibers, is fragile. Think of it as a very large sweater. After it dries, it has the softness and sheen of new wool.)

I am ferocious about doing housework. I do it daily. I share and work at home in a one-bedroom apartment: no kids, no pets, one partner, who is a pretty tidy guy.

But the dust! The grime! The shmutz!

OK, I admit it….housework combines a variety of totally alluring qualities, especially in combination, which is why I like it so much:

— It’s a free activity. All I need is some Windex, Pledge and paper towel. In a recession, on a budget, this is a relief.

— I can (and do) do it any time the mood strikes me — 6:00 a.m, midnight, whatever.

— It makes me feel virtuous. I’m inarguably doing a good thing.

— It’s exercise. (And I don’t have to leave the house to do it.)

— It produces immediate results.

— Which offer — yay! —  immediate gratification.

— I know exactly what I’m doing. It’s hard to screw up scrubbing the toilet, shining mirrors, cleaning the bathtub. Unlike all the pieces of technology that keep piling up in the house (for which I am grateful), that so often confound me and tangle in a mess of charge cords, I know how to clean. I’ve been doing it for decades. I’m good at it!

— The place looks great when I’m done: shiny silver, gleaming wood, fluffy pillows, freshly ironed linens.

— It gets me away from the computer and moving.

— Work? Work? For those of us who work alone at home all day, there are very few ways to break up the day that aren’t a total, remorse-inducing time-suck. Suddenly realizing the laundry must be done thisveryminute is, I fully admit, a highly effective way to procrastinate.

I’m not doing nothing.

I’m doing housework!

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?