Working From Home Is Awesome—If You Do It Right

Wanna wear pajamas and munch on cereal while you work? There are some pros and cons to consider first before you make that dream a reality.

The people want to work from home.

In fact, according to the last census data, the telecommuting workforce increased 80% from 2005 to 2012, even as the total workforce declined. And in the U.K., record numbers of employees work remotely.

Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University, studied the Chinese travel center Ctrip over nine months and found that employees who worked from home put their desk-bound counterparts' productivity to shame:

Ctrip was thinking that it could save money on space and furniture if people worked from home and that the savings would outweigh the productivity hit it would take when employees left the discipline of the office environment. Instead, we found that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than the staff in the office did—meaning that Ctrip got almost an extra workday a week out of them. They also quit at half the rate of people in the office—way beyond what we anticipated. And predictably, at-home workers reported much higher job satisfaction.

All totaled, the company saw one extra workday a week, no commute, less sick days, and no more running errands on long lunches. The company estimated that it saved $1,900 per employee on furniture and supplies over the nine months.

We’ve covered remote work extensively at Fast Company, from building and sustaining a remote workforce to bridging the gaps in a far-flung team. And four of our six best tools for creative work are about making a more home-like workspace—including naps, running breaks, messier desks, and ambient sound.

But sometimes the comforts of home can become too cozy. This is when you need to weigh the pros and cons of taking your work home with you and keeping it there:


PRO: We’re Mammals, Not Machines

Ever wonder why your best ideas come in the shower, on a hike, or just before falling asleep? "Our brain is wandering, forming connections, resolving incongruencies, testing out theories," writes executive coach Christine Comaford. "Working from home enables more vision time," she says.

Being untethered from the cubicle means you’re more likely to engage the sensory parts of your brain: walking the dog during breaks, getting sunshine instead of fluorescent light, taking time to wander a little—things you can’t do when you’re staring dead-eyed into space during the third meeting this week.

CON: We're Still Creatures Of Habit

Habit is a slippery thing. Without that dull routine of getting up to an alarm at 6 a.m. and carving the same path to the office, saying the same "good mornings" to the same people at the office coffee machine, dropping your bag at your desk and walking at exactly 8:55 to the morning meeting, the tiny "keystone habits" that used to set your day into motion are derailed. Most of us need a balance of steady, routine patterns—the physical getting to work is part of that—and freedom to break out of it. When you’re working from home, you’ll have to choose your own adventure.


PRO: The Open Office Debate Ends

When you’re working from home, you’re Switzerland to the war between introverted and extroverted space preferences. It’s all your domain, and you choose how big your bubble is and whether you want to work in distraction-free solitude or to the sound of the television, the phone, and your roommates running in and out. The reasons for working in a coffee shop instead of an office are tailored to your own needs at home. The world is your open office.

CON: It's Distracting

The perfect workspace doesn’t just materialize in your home (and no, your bed isn’t it by default). Even if you’ve arranged your home office into an oasis of creativity, you may still need to ward off spouses, roommates, pets, and phone calls. There’s more vision-time and positive stimuli at home, but there’s also more distraction when you’re not surrounded by three beige, felt walls.


All The Cool Companies Are Doing It

More and more companies are not only open to hiring remote workers, but they are doing so actively. The flexibility of relocation—and the benefits of having people on the ground in a variety of locations—looks good to the likes of Xerox, Dell, IBM, and Apple. They’re saving on kitchen snacks, bandwidth, the electric bill, and office supplies, after all.

CON: It's Lonely

As freelance writer Lisa Evans admits, the freedom that comes from working alone is a tradeoff for the social life that offices provide. But, you can create your own water coolers with groups of professionals that casually co-work in unexpected places.

If your company doesn’t already have Google Hangouts or Skype, take the initiative to set yourself up for joining meetings remotely so you’re not left out of the banter in between the meeting minutes.


PRO: It’s Family-Friendly

Many companies, finally realizing that life outside of work happens whether they like it or not, are adopting policies to include flexibility for parents—like Palo Alto Software, the tech firm that encourages flextime and whose CEO brought her own kids to work in baby slings. But for some parents, subjecting their offices to fussy children or schlepping the crew into the city five days a week isn’t an option. Working from home lets parents be there for their home life, without falling off the mommy-cliff.

CON: You'll Have To Set Boundaries

How fast can you fling yourself from the nursery, the moment baby's asleep, to your home office to whip off a dozen emails—without knocking over a coffee mug and losing the battle for your laptop with the cat?

When the stress of work and the stress of home come together in the same place, you'll need a plan for managing it all. After all, going to work is proven to be less stressful than dealing with conflict at home.

Working from home can give you precious time with your family back, but you may have to set boundaries for when work and home can't mix. That means putting tough ultimatums on playtime when it's time to get down to business—and putting the BlackBerry down when you're at the park.


PRO: Say Goodbye To Rush Hour

The average commute in the U.S. is nearly 25 minutes long, meaning most of us lose an hour of our lives just getting to and from work. In New York, it’s more like two hours.

Getting all that time back is the feel-good equivalent of a $40,000 raise, says National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner. You can only improve your commute so much; it’s still a life-sucking part of our daily routines.

This one for the "pro" column has no downside. If you enjoy your commute that much, you're either living on a tropical island or you're a monk and didn't need this list in the first place.

[Image: Flickr user julie]

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  • I think that is a fair and balanced look at the pros and cons of working from home. Personally I am guilty of not taking the breaks and finding myself in a hypnotic trance where I am following really interesting links and then finding 30 minutes was lost. Then again, with an office at home you are always online and the day in some way is longer as your day does not finish at 5pm.

    Balance is key. Depending on what you do, you may have to work later, or fit it in to your schedule, just make sure you take time out for you amongst all the craziness!

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  • danielleericaharris

    I work from home too..will be a year in August and it was a terrific decision. By the way, I had MUCH more distraction while I was working away from home in the office; I.e. Coworkers that gossip, coworkers that want to rant, whine, complain, or just go on and on about personal things, people bringing their kids to the office, office politics, asking for permission to go to Starbucks...lol. And to the person who said no happy hour...umm, you ARE allowed to meet people for drinks if you like, even when you work from home. You are allowed to go out to lunch. Anyway, from someone who is actually doing it....it feels great!

  • Trudy Phillips

    I've been pretty much working from home for over 15 years. I love it and get more done. During that time I have times when I had to work in an office environment and found it distracting. And the cat picture is perfect as right now my black cat is quietly sleeping on my desk after insisting on neck rubs and ear scratching.