When it comes to working from a home office, those who quote George Constanza and The Offspring have it all wrong. As usual, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards said it right. The key to satisfaction as a home-based worker is not to "keep 'em separated," but to "let it bleed."
Nine months ago, I made a big decision: After more than two decades of office life, I took a position that would require me to work remotely. My workplace would be my "soon"-to-be-finished basement. Excited to immerse myself in this oh-so-very-modern occupational situation, I consulted experts far and wide. Among all the people, the books, the sites, the articles, there was one near constant: Keep your work life and your home life divided, absolutely and clearly so. Establish an "office." Go there only to work and work only from there. Keep strict business hours. And during those hours, don’t allow yourself to be distracted by affairs of the home—be those cleaning, cooking, kids, or cable. Act as though you have "gone to work."
Just remember to answer the phone when your spouse calls.
My transition from office-office to home office was rich in challenges. Not only was I working remotely for the first time at the age of, ahem, late fortysomething, I was starting a new job with a new organization. I was reporting to a remote boss in one location and managing remote staff in two other locations. I would be attempting to collaborate with colleagues throughout a global organization that stretched pretty much every time zone on Earth. And did I mention that the new house my wife and I had just purchased was scheduled to be under construction for the first two to three months of my new gig?
It was a demanding way to start a new job, let alone a wholly new work life. In a home swarming with electricians, plumbers, Sheetrockers, and circuit-blowing power drillers, I was continually on the move, perpetually seeking silence, solace, and a functioning outlet. In the pre-finished, unheated basement (lovingly captured below). In the spare bedroom. In the den. Just as likely, at the local library, in the car and yes, God help me, at Starbucks. I even tried to rent a temporary office space, but no one would have me for just the two to three months I had been assured would be required to complete the renovations. (As it turned out, I would have needed the space for five months. Contractors. I know, right?)
Through the good graces of Wi-Fi, MiFi, Bluetooth, and Bose noise-canceling headphones, I soldiered through. And it was a joyous day indeed when my office was finally complete . . . just 10 weeks behind schedule.
Sanity was at hand. My own private workspace. Consider it Idaho, I announced to wife, daughter, and dog. When I descend these stairs, I am dead to you. I do not exist in this house. I am at work. Their heads nodded; their eyes rolled. My wife made it clear her calls were to be answered. "Just like at a real office."
You’d think I had finally made it to work-at-home nirvana. A well-outfitted, virtually soundproof, clearly demarcated space of business. I shall work there and only there. I shall enter at 8 and depart at 5:30. Peace of mind in our time.
And all went as planned. Until the flowers started blooming.
One Monday morning, as the weather transitioned to the lovely late spring of New England, I decided to take my coffee and my laptop out on the deck. I’d just catch up on my overnight email and then "head down to the office." I sat there for six pleasant—and quite productive—hours. In the gorgeous week that followed, I did the same most every day, only descending to my office to take conference calls. Then I added Skype to my repertoire and found myself taking those calls beneath the blue sky, rather than next to the rattling dehumidifier.
Mornings on the deck begat occasional lunches with my wife. I even allowed myself the indulgence of chatting with my teenage daughter when she returned from school—that is, to the extent she would tolerate it. Or me. Less than two months after I was finally granted my desperate wish for separation and privacy, I was happily desegregating.
The trickling flow between home and work eventually turned to flood. If I could trade basement privacy for the warmth of the sun, why not also exchange a couple hours of night work for a 4 p.m. tennis time, or an early start to the weekend at the in-laws? (Admittedly, I was ironing out a few kinks in the logic.) And speaking of weekends, why must they be off-limits? I found I’d happily give up 8-to-10 a.m. on Sunday for 3-to-5 p.m. Tuesday, if that meant I could make a getaway-day start time at Fenway.
Have I found the secret to success in home office life? Hardly. I continue to struggle to build and maintain relationships with people I rarely see (or have never seen) in person. I find conference calls often frustrating and unproductive when compared to traditional meetings. I work more hours than I ever have. But here’s the thing: I do so on my terms, more than someone else’s. I balance the tasks I must (and generally want to) accomplish with the life I seek to live. What is the benefit of working remotely if you are going to replicate everything that is wrong with working in an office? My advice to my homebound brothers and sisters: revel in the blurred lines, seize the ambiguity as your own. Live the work life you choose.
—Paul Michelman is executive editor of strategy+business, an award-winning management magazine for decision makers in businesses and organizations around the world. Follow him on Twitter at @pmichelman.
[Image: Flickr user Ryan Hyde]