Working From Home: The Good and The Bad

Freelance writer and telecommuter Randy Woods on the perils and pleasures of working off-site
working as a freelance writer in seattle
Seasoned freelancer Randy Woods, photographed at his makeshift office at Chocolati Café in Greenwood

It’s the ultimate dream of the working stiff: to skip the 9-to-5 grind and just work from home. It seems like a magical land somewhere over the rainbow. You choose your own hours. Eliminate office politics. Reduce your morning commute to 20 carpeted paces. Work in your jammies. Why, oh why, can’t I?...

Before you start trying on ruby slippers, remember that working from home is not for everybody. As someone who has worked on and off in a telecommuting environment for the last 15 years, the laptop lifestyle can be both liberating and suffocating at the same time. Those without the proper discipline and ability to compartmentalize their day may find themselves clicking their heels right back to Cubicleland.

Communication breakdown. Part of the fun of working from home is enjoying the freedom to work in a coffee shop once in a while. A 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report found that 5.5 percent of Seattleites “work from home,” but I think that’s a typo; it seems more like 55 percent of Seattle works on laptops at coffee shops. But have you ever tried to spend a whole working day there? There’s only so much smooth jazz a body can stand. By the third hour, the roar of the espresso machine is like a dentist’s drill. A Wi-Fi failure at my home on a deadline day once forced me to retreat to the nearest coffee shop, where I was serenaded by the collected works of Led Zeppelin. Not a whole lotta work got done.

Resistance is futile. Probably the most difficult problem to overcome while working from home is that you are working from home, not from a separate space. After a few months, it’s easy for the mind to mix up the two. It begins with a few late nights and early mornings that cause you to lose sleep. Then you start taking the laptop with you to meals or while trying to relax by the TV. Then you think, “Hey, isn’t The Price Is Right on now? Maybe I’ll just watch one episode.…” When you start watching The View and Ellen in your Snuggie in the daytime and then answer work e-mails and texts while out at parties at night, it’s time to realize you have a problem.

You can’t escape Dilbert. If you think you’ve left the absurd memos and Kafkaesque office politics behind you by telecommuting, just take a look at your in-box on the first day. I’ve telecommuted for companies that sent me memos for dress-code tips (which I read in my bathrobe), along with “self-assessment checklists” about my home office: Did I have proper “ingress and egress” access to my workstation? Was my chair at the doctor-prescribed height? Did I have enough room to open my file-cabinet drawers? Was there enough ventilation in my office? My question to them was: Do my couch, laptop and fuzzy blanket count as a workstation?

Home screech home. When you finally do manage to focus, you have to contend with other factors beyond your control—like your neighbors. More than once, I began an important phone interview in my home office at the same moment the guy behind my house started up the ol’ wood chipper. Or another guy, two doors down, decides to share his Grateful Dead bootlegs at full volume. Times like these, those quiet 9-to-5 bonds seem almost welcome.

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