Do you ever feel that you don’t spend quite enough time in your pyjamas? For those of us who work from home, perhaps the opposite applies (I say this as someone who both works from home and should own shares in Peter Alexander).
I’m fairly certain that working from home has always been a dream of mine – a dream perhaps not on the scale of, say, being Nigella Lawson for a day or having Scott Schuman stop me in the street and take my photo for the Sartorialist blog, but a dream nonetheless. I’m not ashamed to say that this is because I am an inherently antisocial person who abhors the very concept of doing anything as part of a team (especially netball). I am extremely anally retentive, enjoy my own company and have an irrational hatred of bland office furniture. I am, essentially, not the sort of person you want in your office, and I’ve worked hard to cultivate that quality.
Despite the common presumption that working from home will inevitably lead to your becoming welded to the couch, biscuit crumbs littering your pyjama-clad front as you glassily rewatch Season 2 of Girls, many people still consider it an ideal employment arrangement. If you’re disciplined and enjoy what you do, surely being able to do it in your own time and space is ideal: you can set your own schedule, no one cares if you have bed hair, and if you finish early you can head straight for the couch, the biscuits and the DVD box set.
After a couple of brief and unpleasant office jobs in my early twenties, I sought refuge in the warm embrace of full-time postgraduate study, mostly because I realised that it would allow me to effectively postpone making any sort of decisions involving the words ‘future’ and ‘career’ for a comfortingly long time. I recently submitted my PhD, which saw me working from home most days – interspersed with a couple of bookshop shifts each week – for about four years. During that time, I also did occasional writing and editing jobs at my desk, which is located approximately three feet from my bed in my shoebox apartment. The term ‘home office’ is probably too generous.
Until the end of 2012, I liked working from home. I had a schedule, and it was flexible. I never had any kind of nine-to-five thing going on, but I worked for a few hours each day and sometimes in the evenings; I always gave myself a day off. I was comfortably busy, and disciplined enough to avoid being sidetracked by the temptations of the Twin Peaks boxed set on days when putting words on the page was like trying to grasp a cuddly toy with the useless metal pincers in a coin-operated prize machine.
Then, shortly before I was due to submit my PhD, I got a new job. An actual working-from-home job as a contractor. On paper, it looked perfect. It was editing work, and the kind of thing I’d been hoping to find once my thesis was finished and I had to face a future bereft of fortnightly scholarship payments; a future that wasn’t looking promising on two days a week selling books, even with extra letters after my name.
Galvanised by the prospect of having removed from my working future any trace of harsh office lighting and corporate attire in various mind-numbing shades of charcoal, taupe and mushroom, I threw myself into my new role with consummate dedication. All editing jobs from my new employer were sent out via email, and jobs were sporadic, often with very tight deadlines; they usually seemed to come all at once in a flurry of urgency, but occasionally there would be days of silence during which I would become progressively more panicked about whether I’d be able pay my rent that week.
After months of editing jobs that frequently stretched late into the night and a particularly traumatic incident that began with me trying to work out the different levels of Word’s automatic numbered heading styles and ended with a broken plate (thrown from my desk in a fit of frustration), I began to wonder whether I’d made the right decision. My stress levels were stratospheric, I monitored my emails with sociopathic dedication lest I miss a job email (and, subsequently, the pay that came with it) and I felt obliged to spend every waking moment at home parked at my desk: home was work and work was home, and if I was at home, I had to work. When I eventually realised how much I’d let work take over my life – when the thought of going home caused a dull drop in my stomach, because no matter how late it was or how tired I felt, I knew I’d feel compelled to get some editing done – I started contemplating the psychological implications of our increasing propensity to merge our personal and professional spaces.
Even if you don’t work from home, the marvels of modern technology still allow you to take a little part of the office with you when you leave it at the end of the day. Many of us have constant email access; even if you’re out to dinner on Saturday night, your beloved smartphone can tirelessly buzz with emails reminding you of deadlines, meetings and pending projects as you sip your third glass of wine and discuss the finer points of Ryan Gosling’s microexpressions.
This ‘on call, all the time’ expectation seems to have become a necessary step for twenty-somethings trying to claw their way up the career cliff face. Earlier this year, a New York Times article, ‘The No-Limits Job’ by Teddy Wayne, explored the current culture of long hours, low pay and unhealthy attachments to devices such as Blackberries that appears to have become the new standard for many young workers in creative professions. According to Wayne’s piece, one avant-garde publisher’s grounds for ‘immediate dismissal’ of (unpaid) interns included ‘being unavailable at night or on the weekends’. This is a far cry from my time as an intern at a London literary agent, where I spent blissful days making tea, patting the office dog and trying not to trip over the huge piles of Barbara Cartland novels lining the floors of each room (‘How many books did she actually write?’ I asked my boss one day. ‘We don’t know’, she replied).
Working from home – whether it’s your permanent office location or an extension of your job elsewhere – isn’t a bad thing by itself; but it can easily become one. Research conducted in the US and UK suggests that working from home can prompt feelings of isolation and loneliness, and that those who do so are more likely to feel stressed, overworked and guilty. According to social researcher Mark McCrindle, although the upsides of working from home are numerous – it affords you greater flexibility, you don’t have to suffer the agony of a daily commute and you can often be more productive when you’re not surrounded by the distractions of office life – there are probably just as many downsides.
By far the most significant of these, according to McCrindle (and to which my own experience attests) is the lack of social and professional interaction. While it might be frustrating when Cheryl from Accounts keeps interrupting you when you’re trying to get that report done, the glaring absence of Cheryl – or, indeed, any other human – in your home office space can soon become surprisingly unpleasant, no matter how much of a non-people person you profess to be. It’s not just the lack of someone to talk to when you’ve got a burning urge to share your thoughts about various important matters, from the Breaking Bad finale to the fact that your lunchtime sushi feels suspiciously lukewarm and you’re not sure if eating it will cause immediate death or perhaps just very brutal food poisoning, but the lack of professional dialogue. A tricky work problem can easily be put into perspective after a chat with a colleague. When your colleagues include your novelty post-it note collection and a broken desk lamp, this doesn’t work in quite the same way.
Then, of course, there’s the threat of your work slowly bleeding into the rest of your life due to the shifting routine that can easily develop when you’re home based. When your desk is just feet away from the areas where you spend your leisure time, it’s hard to forget about your in-tray. Then there’s the guilt about what you might be neglecting in the meantime: the housework, the dog, the long-suffering partner, the Twin Peaks boxed set.
The human connection that comes with being in an actual office with real people is also not to be underestimated. Much as I don’t mind solitude, particularly when I’m working, I’m not sure that the succession of houseplants with which I share my home workspace appreciate my fondness for talking back at the radio (perhaps this is why they persist in dying so quickly). There did also come a day in 2010 when I realised that I owned far too many pairs of sweatpants – let’s face it, the houseplants don’t give a shit how I dress for work.
How working from home affects you depends partly on the nature of that work, and partly on your own nature. Apparently, I was only good at working from home when it involved my own deadlines rather than someone else’s. But it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone; in the end, after many internal battles (it took me a long time to accept that what I’d believed was just the right job was, in fact, precisely the wrong one), I quit my role as a contractor and decided to focus on developing my freelance work. I also went back to bookselling a couple of days a week, which gets me out of the house and lets my houseplants have a well-deserved break from my sweatpants and one-sided radio commentary.
Of course, many of the same problems still apply now that I’m freelance – I’m compelled to work at all hours if I’m at home, I sometimes feel guilty and stressed and I’ve been known to neglect both housework and social interaction in favour of meeting a deadline. But the difference is that I enjoy what I do, have more control over the jobs I take and am no longer entirely reliant on a single, sporadic source of income. All of this makes finding a better balance between work and leisure – knowing when to finally switch off the computer, or just switch over to Facebook for some stalking – a little easier.
So perhaps working from home isn’t the problem, but how we go about it. We have such varied and efficient ways of taking our work with us nowadays that it’s becoming harder and harder to create boundaries between our professional commitments and our leisure time. Work isn’t everything; it shouldn’t define you. It’s great to be productive, and even better to love what you do, but there’s a lot to be said for the lost art of doing nothing: for closing the laptop, pushing back the desk chair and preparing to litter your pyjama front with biscuit crumbs.