Virtual employees? They're part of the mainstream now. But working from home hasn't been the panacea for work-life balance that many of us thought it was going to be. In fact, says Christena Nippert-Eng, an associate professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago, telecommuting has introduced some new dilemmas. "The anxiety level has increased," she says. "We feel less able than ever to place appropriate boundaries around the workday, while at the same time, we realize the need for those boundaries more than ever before."
Fascinated by the rituals of today's overwired and under-rested workers, Nippert-Eng, 40, has been exploring the boundaries — or the lack thereof — of the American workplace. In her first book, Home and Work (University of Chicago Press, 1996), she trained her sociological magnifying glass on the artifacts of peoples' lives and came up with a couple of new species. Are you an integrator? They're the ones who have a single date book for their business and personal appointments and have desks littered with family snapshots. A segmenter? They'd rather be tortured than disclose the name of their cat to an office worker or have their work keys on the same ring as their home keys.
Overall, though, the new world of work is becoming more integrationist, and that will have implications for people and companies. In an interview with Fast Company, Nippert-Eng, who is finishing up her second book, Transition to Telecommuting, talked about the future of the virtual workplace.
Why don't more people feel better about working at home?
Telecommuting is a move toward integration: the home broadband hookup to the office network, the wireless remote access to the email server. But we are still a heavily segmenting culture. People are glad they are home when the kids get home, but few say that they are more comfortable with the work-life balance today than they were five or six years ago. The only people I've talked to who don't have these "boundary" issues are the ones who don't own a home or who aren't married, or whose spouse works in the same kind of environment that they do.
What are some of the specific sources of anxiety?
When you're in the office, no one ever doubts whether you're working or not. You could be balancing your checkbook, but the fact that you're there is a reassurance. When you work at home, people don't really believe that you're working. So a common reaction is to say, "I will respond to every email within 30 seconds. I will be on my computer again at the end of the evening, so that when people come in they will see stuff waiting for them." It becomes another source of stress.
Another source of anxiety is that there's no independent way for a manager to assess whether or not you're doing a good job. "Being there when I need you" is pretty much still the standard. I know managers who actually up the productivity ante for people who work from home.
At the same time, how do you establish an appropriate boundary between home and work? Most people have no idea when they should start and end the workday. Their day turns into this incredibly frantic, highly insecure, fast-paced mode where all time is work time and every day is a workday. There's no such thing as vacation anymore.
What will it take for these arrangements to work better?
From the point of view of the person working at home, do not ask your colleagues to do anything for you that they wouldn't normally do if you were there at the office. I'm hearing about colleagues who actually sabotage the work of telecommuters. These are people who choose not to do this boundary-blurring stuff, and who resent office mates who do. Interview colleagues once a week early on, and keep asking them how it is working out for them.
For an organization to be effective with people who work from home, supervisors must create arrangements that are as flexible as possible — but they must also make sure that the workday ends. Companies also need to look closely at the norms and at the expectations they have for their workers. Some supervisors are uncomfortable managing home-work integrators. Plenty of managers still want instantaneous hand-holding from their subordinates. They need to understand their own home-work boundaries, and how they assess who's worthy of promotion.
There's one last thing that both sides need to understand: Yes, you are going to lose time that could be spent working on other matters while you are duking out these issues. But if you don't, you'll run into bigger problems down the road.
Contact Christena Nippert-Eng by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Abandoning the office isn't for everyone, says home-work expert Christena Nippert-Eng. Before you decide to trade that sterile cubicle for your living room, make sure that you have the support you need.
Interview your boss.
You may be an integrator, able to seamlessly weave a tapestry of home and work threads. But will your company support you? Four starting questions for your supervisor: Have you ever worked from home? How did it work out? When was the last time someone who pursued this was promoted? Is there an independent metric that can confirm that I am as productive as everybody else?
Improve your email skills.
Remote communication can lead to many misunderstandings, so write emails with care. There's a big difference between "I just got this email and I'm so excited! Can you have this done tomorrow?" and "Can I have this tomorrow?"
Don't forget about privacy.
You may be working from a PC in your bedroom, but that doesn't mean that your company gives up the right to snoop on your email or check out your favorite Web sites. "There are whole new playgrounds that define the border between private and public," says Nippert-Eng. That means that you should be just as aware of email and telephone policies as an in-house worker — and equally careful of where your interactive journeys take you, no matter where you are physically.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.