Working from Home: Staying Sane and Staying Sociable

June 30, 1999

I am a leading expert on the perils and the strains of working from home. Ofcourse this is only because one of the key advantages of working from home andbeing the only person in the building is that you become a leading expert onpractically everything – that is also one of the minor dangers. The majordangers arise from the effect working from home can have in making you mad, badand really rather boring to know.

I have worked from home for eight years. While my work focuses on legalbooks, magazines and electronic off-shoots rather than legal practice, theremust surely be some lessons of general application which I can impart. The sadtruth is that my qualifications for advising on working from home are verylimited – but my experience of how not to do it is almost unparallelled.

Being Organised and the F Word

For most of us, right from the start of our working lives, the expectation isthat work has a pattern and that we will fit that pattern. There are otherwork-related expectations:

  • Work has a structure and makes demands and we get paid for meeting those demands.
  • There is someone out there who pays us and they have an interest in making it easy, or at least possible, for us to work effectively.

Working from home can demolish those expectations – it brings with it acertain freedom. Even if you are working for a large organisation whichhas kitted you out and has ‘a policy’ for homeworkers, you will find thatthere is more for you to decide and more for you to consider than ever before.You will be able to work the way you think best and the way that suits you, andthat of course is the route to total disaster.

If you only keep back-ups because somebody made you or did it for you, the freedomof working from home allows you to alter the back-up schedule. It is almostcertain that the new schedule involves a catching up back-up which was due themorning after the hard disk crashed the night before.

Remember only you can know that you are about to run out of paper, toner,envelopes or space on the hard disk. If it happens, a whole morning can be lostin a fruitless search – for somebody else to blame.

It is also worth noting that things go wrong with even the best computers,printers and faxes. There is a big difference in the sort of response you canexpect to a plea for assistance when you are not there. If you go for the charmy,smarmy approach while flashing legs and eyelashes (my personal preference), youhave to accept that it loses a good deal of impact down the phone. If you preferthe ‘I am coming to get you if you don’t fix this’ approach, you will soonfind that the level of intimidation you can generate is diminished once staffrealise that you are not going to come storming down the corridor for at leasttwo hours. Speaking as one who has lapsed into the intimidatory approach fromtime to time, I find it has little effect when the intimidatee does not answerthe phone.

Being Disciplined and some more F Words

Since home is, according to no less an authority than the IKEA catalogue, the‘fun part of living’, there is an obvious need for a measure ofself-discipline when working from home. Most of us have enough of a Puritanstreak to get some satisfaction from turning our face away from temptation andcan eschew the ‘fun part of living’ if it seems necessary or appropriate todo so.

But there are two catches. First, if you are a naturally disciplined person,you were probably never attracted by the idea of working from home in the firstplace; you may have convinced yourself that it is petty rules and procedures orunusual personal circumstances which prompted the change, but can you honestlydeny that the word flexibility was never mentioned. Secondly, temptationis most easily resisted when it offers and then turns away piqued by yourrefusal – but this temptation never goes away. It will seek you out in darkcorners, it will find your weakest moment – it is like a chocolate e¨clairthat chases you down the street. No matter how often you refuse it, it is therewhispering: ‘Aw Go On – Just a little bit of flexibility won’t doyou any harm’.

But I have sage words of advice, inspired by Mary Poppins, to combat thedreaded flexibility temptation. These rank equally with my sage advice aboutsunscreen which, to my horror, I now find lacks originality.

In every job that’s to be done there is an element of fear. Thetrick: to find the fear and focus on that. So, if the effect of failing to edita magazine promptly is the near collapse of the civil justice system (again),then you are likely to be motivated to edit it promptly – if not because ofthe effect on the civil justice system then because of your fear of the effecton your livelihood when people find out it was all your fault.

Separate Work and Home

Of course all the experts agree that it is important to make a cleardelineation between work time and home time. If you are working from home, theysuggest that you might like to walk out the front door and in the back, wearinga pin-stripe suit and carrying a briefcase no doubt, so as to properly mark thestart of your day. At the end of the day, they suggest that you repeat thejourney – perhaps aiding the wind-down by a trip to the papershop. Partners,children and friends will soon learn to distinguish between your leisure timeand your working time and will adapt accordingly.

These people know nothing.

The reality is that you are likely to be rushing from a school run or from acrumb-covered breakfast table to cram in as many working minutes as possible. Ifyou are lucky, you have had time to brush your hair and squeeze in a shower; ifyou are less than well organised you are beset with a stream of urgent jobs andphone calls and are still in your dressing-gown at 11 am. Trying to separatehome and work when you work from home is like parting the waters of the Red Sea,and keeping them parted.

The whole point of working from home is that the division is muddied andindistinct. If you try to emulate the division which applied when you commuted,and you succeed, then you are not working from home at all, you just have ashort commute. I have not had the difficulty of explaining to very youngchildren that I am working and must not be disturbed, and certainly accept thatyoung children need to learn restraint, but I cannot feel confident that afour-year-old with big news is going to get the right message if sent away. Ifyou are going to work from home, some disruption (and the four-year-old’s newsmay be delightful disruption) is inevitable and you should simply learn toaccept it. Certainly I felt that deterring my teenage son from communicating onthose rare occasions that this extended beyond grunts would have been likestepping over the Kohinoor diamond on the way to Tesco – on the grounds thatdiamond-collecting day is Tuesday.

However, there are two more ‘f’ words to be wary of. The first is likelyto leave the lips of the worker from home not long before the agreed time toleave his or her desk: finish. ‘I’ll just finish this’ ifthe next phrase is ‘before I come up to bed’ then you know that you haveproblems. The second is likely to be addressed to the worker from home by his orher partner: favour. This manifests itself in phrases beginning ‘Asyour at home’ and ending with a description of the size of the favour. Thegreater the emphasis on the favour being small, the greater the disruption toyour working day. Under no circumstances should you ever agree to do a teenyweeny, minuscule favour – you will find yourself painting the Forth Bridge.

Keep Fit and Maintain Outside Interests

It should be easier to keep the division between work and social activities.It should be easy to down tools and exercise. The reality is that not only iswork always there but that you are likely to be running in deficit onyour home account too. The other reality is that, for most people, work is theirmajor social activity: it is made up of a host of minor events at work, casualconversations at work, informal hints, recipes, film reviews and gossip, andeven sexual encounters (real or imagined). It may also be that your onlyexercise is a product of going to work, whether because that is where yourbadminton partner is or because the only exercise you get is walking from thecar park or running for the train.

The events and experiences from work are also likely to be the source of yourviews, insights and anecdotes when you do socialise outside work. If theydisappear from your life, you are left to make a drama out of running out ofsticky labels and rushing down to the shop for some more (and, believe me, thereare surprisingly few people interested in such tales).

Working from home poses a threat to your social life. Assuming that you havea partner and/or children, the first thing to go can be a separate social lifebecause you are making up time when you should have been around but wereworking. You can then easily find yourself becoming so boring that only yournearest and dearest are prepared to spend time with you.

There is a small but crucial test to apply here. If you find yourself with agroup of friends telling jokes which were e-mailed to you, you need to get outmore.

Remember that Others have Colleagues

Isolation is one of the aims of working from home. You may be surrounded byfamily, but, even if you are, you probably fend them off during working hours.One of the characteristics of working from home is that you will spend a lot oftime alone. Now you may think that you spend most of your time alone in youroffice, and perhaps you do. But there is a crucial difference, there are peoplethe other side of that door. You may not like any of them, but at least they arethere.

The telephone is of course your salvation when you are working from home.However, it is as well to remember that clients or colleagues in the main officeprobably have already spoken to someone socially before 11.30€am and are nottherefore necessarily as keen as you are to exchange views on last night’s TV,the latest football news or whatever. If you find yourself speaking to someoneyou hardly know who keeps you chatting long past the point of simple courtesy,it is probably a home worker having an ‘isolated’ day.

There are other worrying symptoms of excessive isolation.

  • Talking to yourself is OK – but having conversations with your alternative personality is dangerous.
  • Feeling tired during an all-day meeting at a client’s is fine – explaining that it is nap time is not.
  • Expressing your assessment of people aloud (eg replacing the telephone receiver and saying ‘what a lovely chap’ out loud) is OK – but if you are still doing it when walking down the street, you are putting your mental and physical health at risk.
  • Mid-day showers are OK as is answering the phone naked (but only if you have just got out of the shower) – the danger signal is telling the person on the other end of the phone that you are naked.
  • Making e-mails more personal than is required for business purposes is OK – checking e-mail every seven minutes on the off-chance that someone has sent you something is not.
  • Being bright and chatty in shops and to doorstep callers is OK – forcing the Jehovah’s Witnesses to say ‘Oh well, must get on’ is not.

Would I swap it?

I know that the other man’s grass is always greener but I remember thepetty rules, the office politics, the imagined slights and the long dark hoursof commuting. For all my negativity, would I really give up my freedom andflexibility, not to mention the ‘fun part of living’, and return to workingin an office?

How much are you offering?