The Truth About Working From Home

March 15, 2016

Hello. My name’s Jeff, and I work from home. I could be writing this on my back porch, where I often hang out in my fleece PJs while sipping fresh coffee after rolling out of bed at 8:15 a.m. (or was it 8:45 a.m.?).

Or I could totally still be in bed.

But the truth is I’m writing this at my son’s swim practice, happening some 15 rows of concrete seats below me. A coach blows a whistle every 20 seconds, and if you just started imagining the smell of chlorine and pee, you’ve got the right idea.

I’ve worked on my porch or in bed before a couple of times. But this right here, this is what it’s like working from home. It’s not what you see on millennial job boards or in stock art pictures—images of roguishly unshaven guys in T-shirts or women with tousled hair and bathrobes. (Frankly, those people are ridiculous stereotypes. My slippers look nothing like theirs.)

The Reality of Working From Home

There are a lot of myths about working from home, and some of them are right. But the reality is that it’s the greatest working arrangement you could hope to achieve. It also means you’re never off. It means you make your own hours but need to be relentlessly self-directed. It means you swap out the laundry at lunchtime, field conference calls in your parked minivan, reap the psychological benefits of independence, live a self-disciplined lifestyle and can, more often than not, get some work done in the free hour you have at swim practice. It’s magnificent. It’s exhausting. But it is not for the faint of heart.

Related: The Key to Getting All You Want? Discipline

***

I started working from home purely by accident. While working as editor in chief of the Hilton Head Monthly in South Carolina in September 2011, I landed a job as editor of a now-defunct humor website for moms. At first I thought it was freelance, but started as part time and quickly evolved to full time.

The arrangement put me in more company than I realized. According to the 2010 census, 13.4 million people work from home at least one day per week, an increase of 35 percent (about 4 million people) in the last decade. (Fun fact: Boulder, Colorado, is the city with the highest percentage of home-based workers; Thursday is the least likely day to work from home.) More companies are adopting the policy, too: A 2015 study by the nonprofit human resources association WorldatWork and the work-from-home placement organization FlexJobs found that 80 percent of the companies surveyed offered flexible work options but only 37 percent of those were formalized. That means the other ones, the majority of them, were pretty much made up on the fly. A shift is happening in the work-from-home realm, but it’s not always an organized, official one. I blame this, as I do most things, on stock art.

Go to Google Images, search “work from home” and behold the gallery of overdramatic somnolence that turns up. Look at these clowns, lounging in comfy pants, smiling with the kind of delirious enthusiasm you usually equate with someone plotting to capture Batman. We do not all look like that! The comfy pants part is usually right, but everything else is a lie.

The Reality of Working From Home

There is simply a stigma to working from home, and it’s unusually persistent, says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a company that helps seekers find telecommuting, part-time and freelance jobs, and whose employees all work from home offices. (She’s done it for the past eight years.) “I try to keep a sense of humor about it, and we even have written blog posts about the 12 Worst Work-from-Home Stock Photos Ever,” she says, “But it’s honestly just a lack of education and awareness that there are professional work-from-home jobs available.” There are three historical stigmas that are reinforced by such stock photos: “That (A) work-from-home jobs are only low-skilled and generally not ‘real jobs’; (B) that people who do work from home are slacking on the job by watching TV, playing with their kids, or doing other non-work-related activities; and (C) as a result, working from home doesn’t equate to any positives for an employer.”

As is often the case with historical stigmas, that’s a huge bag of wrong. Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom spearheaded a 2013 study of the Chinese travel website Ctrip, which offered its call-center staff the opportunity to work from home for nine months. Of the volunteers, half were able to telecommute, while the other half served as a control group back in the office. Ctrip, he says, was hoping to save money on China’s exorbitantly priced, worse-than-San-Francisco office space and trying to determine if those savings would outweigh any potential drops in productivity suffered by employees who were no longer in the office environment. “It was the classic growing-business problem,” Bloom says.

The results, he wrote, blew him away: Ctrip employees working from home completed 13 percent more calls than their in-office counterparts—almost an extra day per week. They reported higher job satisfaction and quit at about half the rate of office folks. Ctrip, he says, was amazed. “The results were so positive that at the end of the experiment they rolled it out to the whole company.”

Related: Working Remotely? Here’s How to Do It Right

Personally, I’ll back this up all day long. Freed from such minor daily tyrannies as showing my face at a certain time, minding my lunch breaks, looking busy, preparing for pointless meetings and making sure I left at 5:02 p.m. instead of 4:55 p.m., working from home enables me to empty my mind of several thousand cells of useless thought. This translates into general happiness and actual real-live productivity. I’ve gotten pretty used to writing at swim practice.

For his part, Bloom has heard all of your “shirking from home” jokes. “Of the funny pictures that came up, most of them were very negative—naked-people cartoons, people juggling babies, people eating cookies and drinking beer. The public perception from Google Images is pretty dire,” he quips. Sutton Fell says it’s simply a matter of being accustomed to the idea. “Most people, if they’re not working from home themselves, know someone who does it, but even as it becomes more common, there’s still a sense of the unknown about it.”

One day it’ll be so common that there’ll be big Internet companies that don’t even have offices. Oh, wait…

***

Automattic, the web development company that runs WordPress, leans almost entirely on work-from-home employees, in a real-world nod to its open-source, untamed-Internet roots. The company has 400 employees in 60 countries, says Sara Rosso, the company’s director of marketing (who works from her home in Italy). In a 2013 interview with BusinessInsider.com, founder Matt Mullenweg said, “Rather than being anti-office, we’re more location-agnostic.” And frankly, their website’s Work With Us page would have caused my lifetime-steel-mill-working grandfather to faint. Behold:

• Open vacation policy (no set number of days per year). We encourage all employees to take the time they need for vacation, to pursue their own interests, to stay healthy, and to spend time with friends and family.

• Home office setup and co-working allowances. Working from a coffee shop? You can use your co-working allowance for the requisite latte!

• Open maternity/paternity leave. If you’ve been with Automattic for 12 months, your leave is fully paid.

Related: 5 Characteristics of a Great Company Culture

Rosso says the company’s approach to work echoes its open-source ethics. Once a year, employers spend a week together in person, in a combination getaway and team brainstorm, and there are regular small-team meet-ups all over the world. But primarily everyone interacts through such channels as Slack or Skype. “Our quote-unquote office is in San Francisco, but it’s more like an event space. We call it a lounge, not even an office. Maybe once a week people will try to do a lunch together, but there’s never a guarantee you’ll find anyone there,” she says.

Automattic’s employees design their own days, determining what hours work best for them. The key, Rosso says, is making sure they’re predictable and consistent. “We have some people who work the weekends,” she says, “But they set that expectation of when they’ll be available. Our teams can adjust to that.” As such, they’re used to asynchronous communication—the idea that your question might not be answered immediately.

Obviously this setup won’t fly in all companies. It didn’t for Yahoo. “I have some sympathy for [Marissa Mayer] on that,” Bloom says of the Yahoo CEO’s famous 2013 edict that banned WFH [work from home] arrangements. “Somehow it just exploded. But we don’t know the whole backstory there.”

Sutton Fell diplomatically says companies forbid work-from-home arrangements for a variety of reasons, but that “unfortunately, it reinforces the stigma that people who work from home aren’t truly working.” But she’s quick to add that there are simply more viable, professional WFH jobs than people realize. And, she argues, people who do work from home are at a disadvantage as they struggle to know what “the end of the day” means. “You don’t see your office mates putting on their jackets and heading for the door—there’s no real cue to tell you it’s time to ‘go home.’ People who work from home actually need to be really cognizant of how many hours they’re working, to make sure they aren’t getting to the point of overwork.”

Rosso puts it more simply: “The funny thing is, knowing someone’s not working is way easier in a remote company. There’s no output. It’s more evident to your teammates if you’re not producing anything.”

***

Probably the most surprising aspect of my almost five years working at home was the startling discovery, one rainy afternoon, that I missed people.

Not all people—not even close. But I missed conversations. It’s incredibly bizarre to get to a Thursday and realize the vast bulk of your week’s conversations have been electronic.

Related: Do You Work From Home? Here Are 4 Ways to Create Camaraderie

This was weird. By and large, I don’t like people. You’ve been in offices. You’ve seen these people in offices: the guy who assumes you just asked about his fantasy football strategy and the woman who’s obviously stealing your chili from the breakroom fridge—which is totally messed up. (Seriously, we can smell the cayenne on your breath, Margaret.) Offices are sites of productivity, shared goals and socializing; they’re also fluorescent breeding grounds for dramas of the human condition… and for people with annoying ringtones.

“When you talk to people about offices, they’re totally distracting,” Bloom says. “The person at the next desk’s boyfriend left them, there’s cake in the breakroom, the World Cup is going on. At home, it’s actually a lot easier to focus—if you have the discipline.”

That’s the rub, Bloom says: Working from home is not for everyone, and to tell if you’re one of those everyone, do a quick systems check of your self-discipline. “If you can really concentrate at home, you’ll be more motivated than with someone standing over you with a stick,” Bloom says. His study found that younger workers whose social lives were more office-centric tended to avoid working from home, and it was favored more by “solitary, per-hour” workers like call center reps (like Ctrip’s), editors and senior managers—who probably were highly self-directed.

Motivation is crucial and something you have to mold on your own. Start by determining if you respond best to extrinsic or intrinsic motivation. The first is basically being watched by an employer, or a data-tracking system, someone gauging your productivity (in the case of Ctrip, call volume) with math. That’s easy to do. That’s easy to count and reward and fire. Intrinsic motivation is far more nebulous. You do it because you care about it, because you derive professional pride from accomplishment, because you thrive on innovating, on doing.

In either event, Sutton Fell says it really all comes down to one thing: trust. “The more trust established between employees, managers and executives when it comes to flexible work options, the more comfortable people will be with the fact that working from home is a real, productive, effective way to work.”

***

The hardest part is the focus. Much has been written about the smudging of the line between work and home, how our phones have left us perennially plugged-in, how off is on and time clocks are never really punched. But working from home takes whatever tenuous delineation is left and obliterates it; at the very least, at an office, you have to physically transport your anxiety to another location. I don’t have a home office; my workspace is basically the kitchen table—once I’ve fed two kids breakfast, put one on the 7:04 a.m. bus, take the other to daycare and return home to clear my “workspace” of Lucky Charms and syrup.

Anecdotally, most people I talked to spoke highly of their routines. Rosso heads out each morning for an (Italian) coffee. “For the first six months, I didn’t do that, and I suffered. It’s good to have a mental reset and sit down to work.” Sutton Fell simply acts like it’s an office workday. She has a dedicated office space above her garage. She keeps regular hours—8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, with some breaks for lunch and playing with the kids after school. She makes allowances for life stuff, “whether it’s a doctor’s appointment, a plumber coming by the house, a babysitter snafu or the need for a yoga class.” And she takes advantage of the perks, like hitting up her backyard veggie garden for lunch and volunteering for class parties and field trips.

That’s part of the reason why Bloom says the future will see the work-from-home numbers go up; the others are a mix of mobile devices, worsening traffic, rising prices in big cities, the ability to monitor someone’s performance remotely, or through technology. (Twenty years ago, who’d have guessed that work might mean staring at a cigarette-pack-sized device in the park?) Some companies in the Bay Area now start their shifts between 2 and 4 a.m., largely so employees can avoid traffic over the bridge. In Salt Lake City, JetBlue has its call-system operators work no more than three hours from its center, far enough to get a quaint, affordable place in the countryside but close enough to come in on a few hours’ notice in case of emergency. “Even in big cities, you can get amazingly nice, affordable places to live within a few hours,” Bloom says, “It’s when you’re thinking 45 minutes away that things get tough.” Bloom wrote in his study that the JetBlue policy allowed it to attract “educated, high-ability mothers who wanted flexibility in their jobs.”

But there’s good news. Bloom has found a sweet spot: Three days a week in the office and two days a week at home. “You’d still feel in touch with the office,” he says. “You’re never more than a day away from coming in.” You slice your commutes in fractions and can make allowances for family and personal time.

One long final whistle means practice is over, so I need to wrap this up, stop for milk and get home to start the tacos. Right now, the workday is over—unless, of course, I pick it up later. It’s a scattered arrangement, but it’s working for me. Like Bloom says, you maintain your independence. You feel professional, and you stay connected. And sometimes, if you want, you get to wear pajamas.

Related: The New Normal: Why We’ll All Be Freelancers One Day

 

This article appears in the April 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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