Is working from home all it is cracked-up to be?

I recently came across an excellent article from the BBC titled, “What if you never saw your colleagues in person again?”  Basically, what if you worked remotely? Ah yes…no more pricey and uncomfortable “business casual” outfits…no more boss to check-in on your chats at the coffee counter…no more creepy Larry to tell you about his dating life (or lack thereof).

These things all sound life-changing, but is this “no more in person work” really all it's cracked up to be? 

I've worked for the same company for 7 years. I've worked exclusively in the office for years and also exclusively from home for years. Here are some thoughts on why you should mull it over before you leap at the opportunity to never see the inside of a cubicle again.

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 “What did that email really mean?!”  

Working from home means you can’t pick up on the social cues from your co-workers, supervisors and clients.  An email can easily be misinterpreted when you share an office with co-workers, but this situation can be exacerbated when you're separated by an ocean. 

I can't begin to count the number of times I could have learned in a five minute conversation (by reading someone’s body language), what took dozens of emails for me to find out.  This is, of course, how we use our emotional intelligence (EQ).  For years we've heard about the importance of EQ, like this article in HR Professionals Magazine that shows how “low EQ workplaces experience high turnover, burnout, low productivity, and declining sales.”  Using your strongly honed EQ skills through email can be difficult, and building EQ virtually is almost impossible.

Of course I could try to pick up the phone and call someone, which is often more useful and efficient than an email, but when was the last time you called someone out of the blue and they actually answered the phone? Usually a call requires setting up a meeting time to get to the bottom of an issue and you still have to manage the EQ failure aspects of the discussion that would be far easier in-person. 

I learned the hard way that when I'm in the office, I can swing by a colleague’s desk, have a quick chat in the kitchen, or talk through an issue heading out to the car WAY before I can find an open 30 minute slot on my colleague's calendar.  I can use that face-to-face time to know when I can push back on a “no” and when I can leverage other ideas to find middle ground.

“The glow of the screen is constantly beckoning me back!”

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Working from home means you never get to head home and leave your office stress behind.  This isn't to say it's easy when you're still tethered to your office email through your phone, but when my office was in another room in our apartment (even behind closed doors) it was still always there and so close.

On a Saturday when there wasn’t much going on, I would find myself trying to finish a project instead of spending time with my family…the computer was there and ready…ALL THE TIME!  I knew my company was providing me with a great opportunity to work remotely and I never wanted my boss, team, or peers to think I was taking advantage of the situation. 

I'd work 10-12 hour days and then another 8-10 hours on the weekend.  It was just too easy to keep working. This didn’t make me a better employee; instead, it made me hate my job. I didn’t have a boss forcing me to work those hours, but like many of you, I was putting the pressure on myself because I'm a workaholic. 

President and CEO of Lead from Within, Lolly Daskal, says in an article that you have to disconnect: ”when you go home, make a point of turning off your phone and disconnecting from your email.”  Of course this can be harder than it sounds, so she also suggests starting by setting boundaries and make "a work schedule and commit to it.”

I know my weaknesses and working from home full-time made it impossible for me to keep up with the boundaries I set for very long.  Now that I'm back in the office, I shut down my laptop and try to leave it at the office as often as possible.  I still think about work when I'm at home, especially when my email is just a click away on my phone, but it's a lot harder to work on a project when I can’t!

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“Are you sure you couldn’t find the time to finish?”

Performance that can't easily be tracked by metrics might mean your boss thinks you aren’t working as hard as you actually are.  Today, so many positions are easily tracked by a performance metrics…hitting sales goals, paying all of the invoices, meeting publishing deadlines.  But what about positions that don’t have easy metrics? 

I was in a role that had a great diverse tasks across several business units; much of our time was spent putting out fires.  I suppose I could write down each random thing my team and I did that day, but that didn’t really measure how many I could do in a day and isn’t easy to do as you're jumping from one issue to the next. 

I found that as a remote employee and boss, the best measure of whether or not I was getting my job done was if my employees and supervisor were happy with my response time.  I knew that if I didn’t jump on a request from my boss, he might think I was taking a nap or getting my nails done when I was actually working on another pressing project. 

This may seem an irrational thought, but I still held myself to this standard.  I never wanted someone to think I was taking advantage of my remote status or not using my time wisely.  David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom say that “the best remote workers are those who manage themselves.” This is especially true for those working outside the office.

In the end, I realized there's something about someone actually seeing you in the office that reminds them that you're working hard and producing. More importantly, it also reminds me.

“Is it cold outside today?”

Another lesson I learned the hard way is that when you're working from home, you may go days without ever leaving your home.  I recall asking my husband what the weather was like one day and then slowly realizing that I had not left my apartment in four full days! 

Being stuck at home may be great when you have the flu, but it was not great for me physically or mentally. I found myself more depressed in the winter than I had ever been in previous winters because I had even less reason to leave the house. 

In a Harvard Business Review article, Tony Schwartz writes about the price we pay to live the life we think we want.  He gives tips on how to stay sharp  when you are faced with constant work and stress, noting that “it’s immensely valuable to get up and move at least several times during the day — and even better, to get outside.” 

Once I identified my glaringly pathetic attempt to balance work and life, I had to work hard to fill my calendar with social events and exercise. This is where human interaction is key.

Often we find ourselves working remotely to follow a spouse to another part of the country or world. It's not easy to leave your friends and life behind and it's even harder to make new friends once you arrive in your new neighborhood. This is one the of the areas Convers8 can help us; it connects people who never would have met each other before.  

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“Make up your mind already!”

So, what do you do if you're the boss or the Executive Team trying to make the best financial decision in terms of remote work opportunities? What if you're the employee trying to decide how to best approach your boss about your work/life balance? 

Now that I've lived both sides of the problem, I prefer to sit somewhere in the middle… depending on my current needs. 

Right now, I go into the office every day of the week, roughly 8 hours a day.  If I need to work more hours to finish a project, I work from home, especially if I'm wrapping up a project that requires quiet and focus.  If I'm a little sick, I work from home; no one else catches my germs and I get to stay in my pajamas all day.  If my dryer breaks, I work from home so I don’t have to take off an entire day to wait for the repair man. 

This balance works really well for me.  I have a standard routine, but can still work when that routine is interrupted by life like family, school, friends, etc. 

For some of my friends and colleagues, especially those who don’t have the same flexibility, they strike this work-life balance in a few ways:

  • Finding one day each week (always picking the same day) to work from home. 
  • Schedule major projects while at home, particularly those things that need uninterrupted focus. 
  • Make sure you don’t use your work-from-home day for big projects at the house (like finally clearing the garage or scheduling a reno in the kitchen). 

The real lesson here is that we're an evolving society that's finally noticing everyone has different needs.  Companies and employees can't always have a “one-size-fits-all” approach to where employees sit each day.  

Take it from me...I've seen both sides!