The Downsides of Working at Home

As regular readers will know, I work at home. I've been working at home since 2004—first as a contractor, and then, starting in 2006, full-time. One of the conditions under which I took this new job was that I'd continue to work from home. (I already had a job that I really liked and for which I could move back to California if I wanted, and I hadn't done so yet—so why would I move for a new job in the same area?) My husband's job is here, we live in the middle of a vibrant city, both of our commutes can be accomplished on foot, and our son's school is literally around the corner from our house. I pick the Beaner up from school on the days he's dismissed at 11:45 and make him lunch. I can do a load of laundry in the middle of the day if I need to. I can sign for packages and be around if an installer or repairman needs access to the house without having to interrupt my normal work schedule.

[I didn't list "not having to get dressed" among the benefits of working at home because I always get dressed, and I usually wear the same clothes I'd wear if I were in the office. (I do like being able to change into yoga pants if I'm feeling irritable, however; I'm not sure *why* this helps, but it usually does.)]

For all the benefits of working at home—and while the list above isn't exhaustive, I hope it's convincing—there are some downsides. The obvious ones are that it's lonely; that I miss out on cross-cubicle communication and random hallway encounters that always inform and sometimes inspire; that I have to work harder to be remembered and included. It's easy to become disconnected, even when you love the team you work with, the product you work on, and the company you work for.

Perhaps less obvious (at least to me, since it only occurred to me recently) is that working at home gives you a chance to see an alternative to feeling lonely and disconnected. You start looking around you and seeing a kid you could be playing with, a house you could be cleaning, books you could be reading, projects you could be finishing. Never mind that no one will pay you to do those things; when you're feeling lonely and disconnected, the instant and visible gratification of a hug, a clean house, or a completed book or project can seem worth more than even the largest paycheck and the best benefits. This might not be a problem on its face, but if you start pining for the clean house and the completed project, it only adds to the feelings of lonliness and disconnectedness, and there's a danger of spiralling downward and making stupid decisions.

One way I found to combat this downward spiral when I was at Adobe was to visit the office as often as possible... which, sadly, wasn't that often. Just because a trip isn't in the budget doesn't mean it can't happen, however; sometimes you can compromise and share the costs. For example, you could use airline or hotel miles to pay for either airfare or lodging, and have your company pick up the other item. (I did this once, when I was desperate for some facetime.) You could stay with a friend or family member. If you're within a couple hours' drive of your office, you could go in once a week or every other week. The idea is to remind people who you are, have some productive facetime (in both formal meetings and informal hallway chats), and get reconnected to the team and its goals. In short, to remind yourself why you work, so the piles of laundry don't start looking more appealing than your job.

Another thing that helps, for me at least, is to work on a project or feature with another engineer, a QA partner, or just about anyone else, as long as they're a full partner and not just someone you report to periodically. When I work with someone else, I fulfill what my friend Kristin identified as one of her primary needs in a job (and, it turns out, one of my primary needs as well): namely, to "feel like I'm part of a team/hive with a common goal." I definitely felt like I was part of a hive working toward a common goal back in the late 90s when we were working on Dreamweaver 1 and 2 (and I was in the office for 12+ hours a day), but I also felt that way when I was working on my feature for Dreamweaver CS3 with another engineer (who also happened to work remotely). I had someone to bounce ideas off of, to review my code, to help me get unstuck—and, most importantly, to connect me to the team and the release.

For the last release, I worked on a lot of research and feature projects by myself in the early part of the cycle, and I didn't feel nearly as connected. I couldn't see how my contribution mattered, and I felt a bit isolated. Not good. I don't think I realized until recently that working on my own vs. working with a partner was a large part of my feelings of uselessness. (Luckily working by myself was not all I did for the CS4 release; there was also QRB, which I loved; the team lead gig with Hamburg; and the JavaScript Extractor with Kin and Don, among other projects.) I think, in short, that it not only takes self-discipline to work from home, but also self-awareness: It's important to be able to identify when things aren't working, and to examine WHY. Hard to do when you're already feeling like there's no one off of whom to bounce ideas, but essential.

I guess what I'm saying with all of this is that I'm starting to consider whether the downsides of working at home outweigh the benefits, and whether I'm willing to change my arrangement. I think in the short term, just recognizing that I have to work harder to maintain a connection in the absence of frequent office visits and engineering partnerships will help. In the long term... well, we'll see.

Posted by Lori in me, me, me and work at 5:54 PM on November 21, 2008


I've got another one for you...

If you work from home, some people think you don't actually work. I'm only working part time, but 25 - 35 hours a week is a lot when people don't understand why you can't still do everything you used to do.

Posted by: Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah at November 22, 2008 5:09 PM

Very true. It can be hard to convince others to respect your work boundaries -- and not to impose. Just because you're home doesn't mean you're available.

Posted by: Lori at November 22, 2008 10:26 PM

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