The Perils of Working From Home
Telecommuting offers great perks, but there are also some drawbacks to keep in mind — and swat away
Earlier in my career as a journalist, I worked in an office. For nearly two decades, I trudged in every day and never did my job from home unless I was sick.
Over the past 10 years, however, I’ve crafted my trade from my home office in Washington, D.C.; in reality, it’s more of a floating location.
So I’ve lived both sides of the “working from home” debate, now a hot topic due to Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to put the kibosh on telecommuting at her company.
And although I love working from home, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge there are perils that come with it. I’ll run down the four biggest ones in a minute, along with my advice on how to make the best of them.
Bad Memories of Working at the Office
Thinking back to my days “going” to work, I recall dreading the sensation of being trapped in an office, feeling as if I needed to ask permission (as I often did) to slip out for lunch beyond the “biosphere,” as I dubbed one former employer’s imposing news gathering facility.
For me and many of my friends and colleagues who also work at home, deciding when to get our jobs done — whether it’s 5 a.m. or 10 p.m. — makes us feel more in charge, more alive and more engaged.
Still, based on my experience and conversations I’ve had with friends who also work from home, I’m here to say that telecommuting can be hazardous to your wealth and to your career. Here’s why and how you can make working from home, well, work.
One caveat: The cohorts I canvassed are in their 50s and 60s, so they’re generally not dealing with the parenting issues that often get tangled up in the work-from-home debate.
The 4 Perils of Working From Home
1. You might lose track of time. Oh, if only my former bosses could see me now. I vividly remember how hard it was to get myself to the office in time for a 9 a.m. mandatory staff meeting every Thursday. These days, though, I work many more hours than when I toiled in-house — and that’s by choice.
I’m not always thrilled, however, about my work-at-home workday (and night). A recent New York Times op-ed article on the need to back away from the computer screen and smartphone really hit home. Sometimes I could use someone to pull me away from my desk. But I love what I do and it doesn’t always feel like work.
My advice: I agree with Matthew Solan, whose article about the good, the bad and the bottom line of a home office said: Create daily work hours, stick with them and at the end of the day, turn everything off, shut the door and close up shop.
If you work for an employer, try to set a clear schedule and let your boss and colleagues know what it is. Otherwise, you could be inviting phone calls and emails late at night and on weekends.
If you’re self-employed, set a limit on your daily hours — and try not to go over it.
2. Your career might plateau. I’ve turned down the chance to climb the editors’ ranks because I knew it would be hard to be a manager while working from home.
But I’m not upset about this. That’s because I’ve grown to realize that my definition of career success didn’t mean moving up the masthead, taking on more responsibility and being a boss. What’s more, a job like that wouldn’t suit my temperament.
I do, however, miss the bonding, friendships and opportunities to meet new people in an office — those things rarely happen when you work from home. “Even when you go in for meetings, you never quite get that,” one telecommuting friend told me, somewhat longingly.
My peers working from home full-time for one employer with one or more corporate offices conceded that the inability to climb the ladder has been an unspoken trade-off that came with telecommuting.
“You can’t expect to get promotions if you’re not there,” a 50-something female friend who has worked for a large insurer for 15 years told me. “I’m OK with that.”
By nature, bosses tend to fret about not being able to control what you do with your time and their powerlessness to keep tabs on your whereabouts. (Co-worker envy can be palpable, too, making you feel isolated and shut out.)
There are, of course, some companies where everyone works from home, offering up a greater possibility of moving up the corporate ladder. But those are still pretty rare.
If you work from home for a traditional employer, your salary can stagnate as a result of a plateauing career, which can have an unpleasant ripple effect on your retirement.
When your income doesn’t rise, it’s harder to increase the amount you put into your 401(k) or a similar employer-sponsored savings plan every year. Your employer’s match will be muted as a result, too.
My advice: Make sure you put in face time with your employer or employers. Attend on-site meetings and have lunch or coffee with virtual colleagues and bosses.
These in-person moments are the key to avoiding the out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome. They may not get you a promotion, but they could help you nail the raise you deserve. Your best argument for earning more pay, of course, is a great performance at work — wherever you do your job.
You’ll also want to continually push yourself to save as much for retirement as you can. Don’t forget: You have until April 15 to fund a 2012 Individual Retirement Account and put in up to $6,000 if you’re 50 or older; $5,000 if you’re younger.
3. You're all alone. When you work remotely, there’s no one to ask the follow-up question or to directly challenge your thinking. You may miss out on rich collaborations, brainstorming and the synergy you get from simply being “in the room.” This is Marissa Mayer’s chief argument against working from home.
More subtly, you can’t read body language during a speakerphone conference meeting. So not seeing your colleagues may prevent you from understanding what’s really going on.
My advice: Talk with your boss and workmates whenever you can. And I do mean talk — not sending an email or text, which are less personal.
“I often opt for a phone call rather than an email,” says a pal who’s a telecommuting IBM sales executive. “I know not everyone appreciates the time zap, but I preface it by saying: ‘It’s a quick question.’” She thinks phone calls result in more honest responses than she’d get with emails.
If possible, try establishing preset, scheduled phone calls that occur on a regular basis.
4. There's no tech desk on speed dial. The truth is, if you’re working at a place where most employees are in the office, those are the folks the IT team is likeliest to assist.
My advice: Try to get on good terms with at least one person in your employer’s IT department, someone who won’t mind if you call with niggling questions and will be willing to jump in when you have an emergency.
Make an extra effort to show your appreciation. Stop by the office and take the tech whiz to lunch from time to time. Or send a Starbuck’s gift card.
If you’re self-employed, you can probably find tech support at Apple’s in-store Genius Bar (if you own a Mac) or at Best Buy. But you may need to make an appointment, putting you out of commission until the staffer can see you.
You also might want to sign up for computer classes at a community college or, if you’re a Mac user, at a nearby Apple store. That way, you could become your own IT pro, in some circumstances.
Home, But Not Alone
One last thought about working from home: To paraphrase the poet John Donne, “No man (or woman) is an island.”
The best work is collaborative. As much as I love being independent, I’m well aware that my work shines brightest after it has been touched by the inspiration of another — wherever that person is, home or office.