When it comes to working remotely, it seems like people are divided into two ideological camps.
The first camp includes CEOs like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and HP’s Meg Whitman, who famously issued edicts last year that working from home is at the very least frowned upon. Collaboration, according to Mayer, comes from “working side by side.”
Then there’s the other camp that hail working from home as the best thing since the invention of instant messaging. Their idea of working from home involves staying connected to coworkers virtually and doing so from the leisure of their home office (or couch).
Last week we decided to put the issue to the test: Can you really be productive–or even more productive–when you work from home?
What we discovered may disappoint you.
Perhaps the most infuriating response you can hear from someone when you ask them to take sides is, “meh, it depends.” But while we hate to say it, the effectiveness of working from home really does depend on a number of circumstances.
For starters, one of the greatest perceived perks for working from home is eliminating your commute. National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner compared cutting out a two-hour commute to the “happiness” equivalent of getting a $40,000 raise, and for many of today’s workers who commute upwards of an hour each way, this makes sense. According to the Census Bureau, 8.1% of Americans spend 60 or more minutes commuting to work. Two hours a workday adds up to almost 22 days a year of commuting.
I will admit, though, that the joy of not commuting was wasted on me when I worked from home. My regular commute is a 10-minute stroll through downtown Jersey City and then another 10 minutes on the Path train, which two stops later brings me right to 7 World Trade Center’s doors. Those 20 extra minutes at home certainly didn’t make me $40,000 happier.
There’s at least one person, though, who appreciates no commute far more than I do. Leadership freelancer Samantha Cole suffered a tragic injury a few months ago when a pair of ill-chosen heels resulted in a large cast and crutches. Since then she’s been running Leadership’s social media and more from her apartment in Brooklyn.
“Not having a commute is amazing. That can’t be overstated,” Cole says.
The rub, she says, of not having a commute is that the distinction between work time and home time is blurry. “I catch myself waking up and rolling right into work tasks, then humming along on work way past when I should have quit, or returning to something late at night.”
This phenomenon is not exclusive to Cole. In one study of Dutch self-employed workers, people who couldn’t stop thinking about work or checking their email at the dinner table reported more aches and pains, more exhaustion, and felt that they were doing a worse job.
So when you work from home, how do you leave your work at work?
“I have to make a conscious effort to make a new morning routine and keep an eye on the clock,” Cole says. She also suggests keeping a separate, designated, organized workspace. “I can’t work from the couch or the bed. The temptation to stay there is too great,” she says.
Leadership Editor Kathleen Davis agrees. “And then your brain is like ‘well now I’m on the couch I can just turn the TV on.'”
I personally did not experience this. Since I live in a tiny apartment with no room for a desk, I worked from my living room couch, balancing my laptop on my lap. Not once did I feel the draw to turn on the TV instead of working. And as Staff Editor Maccabee Montandon points out, Edith Wharton wrote all her novels in bed, so working in comfort can’t be all that bad, right?
When you work from home, you’re supposedly free of distractions like chattering coworkers and people who demand your attention NOW. But as many remote workers have found, there are still plenty of distractions waiting for you at home.
Senior Editor Erin Schulte spent about a year working primarily from home when she started at Fast Company.
Schulte says she’d find herself making dinner at noon and working after her daughter went to bed until 11 p.m. to make up for it. “Every time I’d look around, I’d feel a pull to scrub some grubby thing or get in a quick run while the weather was nice, and then end up working crazy weird hours to make up for it,” she says. “I probably worked a lot more hours, all things considered.”
With two kids around at home these days, Schulte was only able to do the habit challenge one day last week. There were too many distractions lurking at home, she says, including her kids, who had a day off from school last Monday.
“I think the idea of working from home while your kids are there is not actually A Thing, unless you are a person without kids who imagines your future self doing this,” Schulte says. “If you do it, you must have someone there to care for your children. They are a full-time job.”
She cites as an example a post recently contributed to Fast Company by author of the Baby Sideburns blog Karen Alpert titled, Why Being A Work-From-Home Parent Is The Worst Of Both Worlds.
Being a stay-at-home mom is hard, and being a working mom is hard, but being a work-at-home mom is the suckiest choice of all.
According to Montandon and Schulte, this image says it all:
One advantage proponents for at-home work cite is how connected we are today. We’ve got Skype, Google Hangouts, and plenty of instant messaging programs to keep us talking to one another. But does this compensate for missing out on the face-to-face experience?
Montandon says, not exactly.
“I much prefer to be at the physical meetings–the tech involved with the digital version is quite glitchy, and I tend to feel more like a hologram than an actual person participating,” he says.
At Fast Company’s weekly digital meeting on Monday, for example, our executive editor mentioned Davis by name and asked if she was participating in the meeting. But by the time she realized she had to unmute her microphone, the moment for answering had passed.
Additionally, for most of the meeting every remote person complained how he or she couldn’t hear what people in the room were saying.
Montandon points out, though, that even when we’re in the office, we’re often not actually interacting face-to-face–we still don our headphones and message each other in Slack when we’re at work.
“Even if I don’t communicate face-to-face all the time with people when I’m in the office, I feel more a part of things when I’m where everyone else is working,” Davis argues.
Additionally, she laments that not seeing someone when you are trying to communicate with them has major limitations. “It can feel like talking to yourself. You type and type and they don’t respond: Are they not there? Are they confused by what you just said? Did they not see your chat?”
“Trying to explain something over chat can often led to paragraphs of back and forth in what would be less then five minutes of conversation in person,” she says.
As reader Justin Bowler points out, “You do need to have a certain level of self-control to work from home.”
Cole and I apparently have none, since we worked almost exclusively in sweatpants and PJs.
In just a week of not being among people and living what felt to me like a slobbish existence, I started to feel more and more like a recluse. What scared me more is that I liked it! I caught myself writing to Cole:
Society is the worst
People are the worst
I’m staying in my cave forever!
What was happening to me?
Cole explains it best:
It’s convenient that I’m an introverted homebody, and I don’t miss the social side of working in an office. But there is something about getting ready and out the door to interact with people face-to-face that’s energizing. It’s way too easy for me to stay in sweats all day.
So what can remote workers do to find the balance between living as hermits and successfully functioning in society?
According to Davis, it’s all about mixing things up.
“Just like being chained to your desk in the office can make you burn out, staying in your pajamas inside all day can drive you crazy,” she says. “Half a day at home, and the other half at a coffee shop or in the office can make you feel like a real person and maybe give you some boundaries.”
A lot of these issues seem to stem from our own levels of self-discipline. Clearly there are plenty of people who make this work for a living.
Since there are so many elements that come into play, who then should decide whether or not someone works from home?
In my opinion, no two people work remotely alike. I think it’s for us as workers to recognize if we can get the work done and communicate effectively with the rest of the team.
Schulte believes that the decision remains with the company, and it’s our jobs to decide if we want to work for that company.
“Obviously, there are some industries this works better in than others (it’s not like you can be a remote waitress or firefighter),” she says. “But it’s never 100% up to you unless you are your own boss.”
Davis suggests working out an arrangement with your manager on a trial basis, and Cole agrees: “That way, your boss doesn’t feel like she’s committing to a ‘see ya never’ kind of agreement, and you can figure out if you actually enjoy–and are honestly more productive–working from home.”
For more on this subject, check out the transcript from our live chat last Friday.
Don’t forget to check out this week’s habit challenge of practicing mindfulness exercises first thing in the morning and join in our live chat this Friday at 11 a.m. ET.