Why Working From Home Is The Worst Of Both Worlds

Yahoo's now-infamous decision to tighten its work from home policy brought cubicle-haters out of the woodwork. A working mother weighs in on the realities and benefits of actually separating work from home life.

As a working mother, the edict from Marissa Mayer regarding employees no longer being allowed to work at home made perfect sense to me. And I admire that she had the chutzpah to do it just a few months into her tenure as a working mother.

For working parents, working from home is the worst of everything. It isn’t really working, and it isn’t really being at home. You can defend it or rail against it as much as you like, but here’s the unspoken truth: You are fostering disappointment and frustration from all parties while fooling yourself into believing you’ve arranged for the best of both worlds. You can’t be two places at once. That’s it; that was my epiphany—astoundingly simple, as they all are.

On the days or half days that you are working from home, you’ll get the sense that the office is questioning your commitment. You’ll probably even question your own commitment, so why shouldn’t they? Instead of focusing on your work, you put energy into proving your work ethic to people at the office. But even more importantly, when you don’t set up clear boundaries between work and home, you’ll end up with no clear boundaries between work and home. I’ve seen many employees write their emails at all hours of the early morning and late night revealing they are always catching up or playing offense to put the ball back in the office’s court while they're busy tending to kids. As an employer (and someone who has worked at home), I can honestly say that I feel a lot less hesitation to call someone at home at night if they’ve been working from home during the day.

Working at home is actually more confusing to children than seeing their parents leave for work every day. You are teasing the kids with your physical presence but your complete lack of mental presence. They can get used to your leaving home for the office, but they will have a hard time getting used to you ignoring them. The distinction is too subtle for them to understand.

Work, on the other hand, will likely perceive you to be slacking off no matter how diligent you are when you’re home. If you’re a mom, your office assumes that you’re hanging out with your children at least a chunk of the time. That’s the whole point, right—to be with them?

Frustration will abound. Think about it. In business, some things are very, very timely. I resent (we’re being honest here, right?) having to email or call for everything that I could have poked my head out of my office to convey. Even worse, I hate being put on hold while my at-home employee mutes the phone to either discipline the kids, or serve snacks. It’s not that I hate kids or want their needs ignored. (I have four that I adore.) It’s that a working mother can’t tend to those needs when she should be working.

If I can’t reach one of my staff while they are on a business trip, I immediately assume they must be busy doing business, yet I’ve been on enough business trips myself to know that the amount of time doing business is a much smaller percentage than the amount of time doing all kinds of other things (driving around lost, waiting in a security line at the airport, finding an Applebee’s, or being in the hotel business center trying to print something). I accept the inefficiencies because the work accomplished on a trip by its nature can’t be done in the office. But work done from home can certainly be done in the office. So honestly, if you're not on a business trip and I don’t see your face, or you, in your chair, it feels to me as if you’re not working. I realize this may be irrational, but it’s a common sentiment whether it’s acknowledged or not.

The reason someone works from home is because it’s better for them and they want to, not because they will be able to be that much more efficient or help the organization accomplish its goals, or some other business buzzword lip service like that.

Think about this: Have you ever been at the office and your boss is working from home? Can you honestly say that you work quite as hard, are just as diligent, and get just as much done as when your boss is there? Honestly, probably not. It’s that feeling we have from elementary school: "Hey, we have a substitute teacher so it’s going to be an easy day and we’re going to try not to get that much done." Remember that if you are the boss and decide to work from home some days.

And here is the silver lining to working in the office. Sometimes, it’s just the random, serendipitous interaction that can lead to something bigger: a connection with a boss, a lead that comes in, a call where you can help out. If you're a working-from-home mother who wonders why career advancement is elusive, that lost interaction may be why. Be where you are.

Karen Finerman is the author of the forthcoming book Finerman's Rules: Secrets I’d Only Tell My Daughters About Business and Life.

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[Image: Flickr user NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center]

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  • Brandon Matthews

    "I can honestly say that I feel a lot less hesitation to call someone at home at night if they’ve been working from home during the day."

    Then you're a horrible boss.

    "Can you honestly say that you work quite as hard, are just as diligent, and get just as much done as when your boss is there?"

    And, unsurprisingly, a horrible employee.

    As in so many other things, it's not the system; it's you.

  • Vibrant_lass

    I agree 100% The one thing that bothers me is how mothers can be expected to work? Alternately put, once you are a mom you don't stand a chance to work in professional environment if you are committed to family. American work culture is simply not suited or has not evolved to meet this need. Many stellar brains are siphoned off in house holds and few others who fight it end up with physical or emotional bruises. And then finally you have to do it for the money so you can live the American dream!!!

  • Chris Sloan

    Most of the comments are actually correct and while it would be challenging to raise an infant or toddler and accomplish real work, what about those who don't have kids at home? I work for an organization where we are allowed to work from home one day per week, but if we're not doing our job in the office then we lose our privileged the following week. I've learned that people can be on Facebook in their cubicle all day long not really productive, but they're in the office.

  • Theresa Brigandi

    I disagree with this on many levels, not the least of which is the assumption that the remote worker is a parent with children at home. Sometimes people work from home because they live far away from the office, or they get more done WITHOUT people sticking their heads in their office or getting pulled aside for conversations while walking to the copier. Not every job or task requires collaboration, some require concentration, which is best served in a secluded environment. In addition, some people work more efficiently at odd times of the day and if that is easiest to capture by working from home, why not? The only thing that should matter is if the work is getting done and done right.

  • Alexandre Sartini

    "I accept the inefficiencies because the work accomplished on a trip by its nature can’t be done in the office." 

    No, you accept the inefficiencies for the result you get from that business trip. 

    The thing is that you can't be sure that your employees are really working even if they are in the office. You won't believe how many employees are playing around on their computers or mobile phone, talking with other colleagues, having a coffee, smoking, web surfing. 

    I had to manage some team remotely and I can assure you they were providing me the expected result. Managing a team is all about setting objectives even if they are working remotely

  • Guest

    Some of us who work at home don't have kids at home. And we even work during snow days. Next article.

  • cyclemadness

    I think this says more about you than it does about the evils of working from home.

  • Erik R.

    Some interesting points, but as I telecommute across the Atlantic Ocean, I'm not convinced my physical commute would be worth these benefits.

  • Karen

    I fundamentally disagree with the author.  I have worked at thome many times and was very successful.  My boss and company trusted me to get my work done, and I did.  I worked harder for them because of the concession.
    Additionally, I have the same work ethic whether I'm at home, at work, or at work when my boss is not present. 

    However, I will say that working from home is not for everyone.  There are some that aren't able to stay focused and accomplish what they need to do.  Some require the structure of work because they aren't disciplined enough.

  • ThePlayer

    Yahoo is done this is just a distraction or ploy to layoff more peeps - history repeats as technology consolidates (google wins) with home office peeps receiving the 1st swing of the Yahoo axe again.

  • Melissa Boyce

    I worked in an office for 10 years and have worked at home for 4. I have a 5 year old daughter who goes to daycare so that I can work. Dad picks her up while I am finishing up. I work in an upstairs office that she completely understands she is not allowed to go to. And by the way, when I worked in a office and my boss was working from home, I didn't really notice because I was too busy getting my work done!

  • Gavin Hepp

    So many negative comments!  I think she says the things people are afraid to admit.  Of course the office assumes you're distracted for parts of your day, they assume you're watching TV or taking longer breaks than necessary- it builds resentment and frustration.  I'm not saying everyone needs to get back to the rat race of getting into the office by 7, clearly people that manage the situation well can make it work, but I think they are the exception not the rule.  For the average person, there's a lot of stressors out there that will keep you from performing your best work.  Going to a place of focused work eliminates those stressors.  

  • vivianfulk

    I have worked from home many years for various companies as a Clarity PPM technical analyst. The key to allowing people to do their work is to define their tasks via a project plan and allocate resources in a balanced approach. Evaluate your staff by completion dates and quality instead of warm seats. When it has to be done by Friday and it is Monday and the task will take 52 hours, it is not going to get done without overtime or more resources. And define your tasks and projects to meet your corporate goals and spend accordingly. Hire resources to complete the tasks with the correct skills or train them to do so. Working from home is a management issue. If you need onsite meetings to build teams, plan it and do it. Maybe monthly. Allow some casual and planned elbow rubbing and mind melding.

  • Will

    just because YOU didn't work out working from home.... doesn't mean it doesn't work well for others....  thanks for perpetuating the myth the folks who work from home are do nothings...


  • Vwsd77

    I have been working from home efficiently for 8 years now.  My children do not stay at home with me.  This is the main key to being productive for me.  They are off at school and a sitters home while I am staying in full focus on my work.  The person who wrote this article obviously did not realize that having four children running around while trying to manage others was the problem not working from home.  Everyone's situation at home is different so it's not the process that is the problem.  All the talk about taking work from home away makes me very angry.  Not everyone has the same situation at work or at home to call a BAD or GOOD thing for everyone.  When I work at my corporate office there is always gossip, and chit chat that I do not have interrupting my work when I'm at home.

  • Cmarcus21

    And yes, I know, it is "fastcompany" not "fastmoney".  Agree, it doesn't support my argument well if I mistype the name, my bad...

  • Cmarcus21

    While everyone is entitled to an opinion - typically authors have some supporting research or interviews to back up the piece they are writing about.  While not trying to "cherry-pick" but rather to provide an example... "Working at home is actually more confusing to children than seeing their parents leave for work every day."  - what is Ms. Finerman basing this on?  The same question can be raised for many other statements in this piece.  If the intent was to "stir the pot" and keep the conversation going - it worked.  In terms of professional journalism, in my opinion, it fails.  Disappointed with fastmoney, I'm a  big fan, but the quality of your pieces are typically better than this. 

  • Martin Lofgren

    Sure working from home could give you more time with your family, but then I agree on being mentally present is lacking. Working from home without your family present gives sometimes great ability to not being disturbed...in ANY way.

  • Carlos Melgar Maneuver

    You can't be old and work from home. Work from travel (or play) is the new work from home.