A lot has been written about working from home recently, and there are a lot of myths circulating, so I thought I’d set out five popular ones that you need to get out of your head, if you and your team are going to start working from home for the first time.
A little background on me for credibility: like a lot of people nowadays, I’ve worked in a variety of very different environments, and at a variety of very different jobs, throughout my career.
In my undergrad days I worked outside for my summer jobs, camp counselling and treeplanting. Treeplanting involves what you might call a number of workplace challenges, like living in tent camps, digging latrines, getting up at 4:30 in the morning, working in the rain, taking helicopters to and from the workplace (i.e. clearcuts), contending with bears and mosquitoes and blackflies, and sometimes being out in the forest for extended periods of time (my longest stretch was 19 days straight, which is longer than you might think, to go without seeing a light switch, or a toilet).
After finishing an MA, I moved from a city called Saskatoon, to one called London, where I worked a nine-to-nine, six-days-a-week office job on the Aldwych, where I sat at computers and Bloomberg terminals doing research and writing reports on global mergers & acquisitions, commuting every day on the packed and untrustworthy Northern Line.
I then wrote a doctorate in English and co-founded a graduate student paper, before going into investment banking (in London again), doing mergers & acquisitions in the European utilities sector.
That office job involved its own challenges: a typical workday started at nine in the morning and went until about one in the morning, six and a half days a week. My longest workday in that job lasted 43 hours; my longest stretch of uninterrupted work, at an office in Paris, went on for three months or so, where I averaged three and a half hours of sleep per night (which is partly why I actually can’t remember just how long I was there).
Then, in mid-2008, I left the investment banking life, and began working on some independent projects - specifically, a novel no one ever read, and a unique hockey stats website nobody paid any attention to.
Naturally enough, I didn’t need an office for any of that, so of course I worked in my apartment. I honestly didn’t see that as anything special, and certainly didn’t go into it with a “working from home” consciousness. Working is just working, wherever you do it.
Later, I co-founded an artsy non-profit, and then joined a publishing industry tech startup. We had an office for a while, but we’ve been a remote team for years now, and we love it.
So, with all that boring work experience stuff said, on to those myths I mentioned.
Myth #1: Working From Home Means Being Lazy and Unprofessional
One form this myth takes is the nonsense stereotype that people who work from home sit around in their sweatpants doing nothing productive and eating snacks all day.
Here’s the thing: a lot of people are lazy and eat snacks all day even if they work in an office, and unless you’re meeting with people or you’re in front of a camera, what you’re wearing doesn’t make you any better at your office job.
In fact, people who think that working from home or in sweatpants means you’re lazy and unprofessional make me suspect that they’re not very good at their own jobs, because they obviously have the wrong priorities. Or I guess they might just be institutionalized, which could actually be a good thing in certain hierarchical enterprises or industries. But if your boss wants people who are institutionalized and know how to show it, you might want to think about getting a different job, if you can, unless that’s your bag, in which case, have fun with that.
(And no, I don’t even own any sweatpants.)
Myth #2: If You Work From Home You Need to Recreate the Artificial Conventions of the Office
A lot of people think that things that have nothing to do with working hard and doing it well, are in fact necessary conditions for working hard and doing it well.
Some examples of these things are: getting up in the morning; commuting to an office; wearing office clothes; being at your desk; not surfing the web; and not socializing at work.
People who labor under these mistakes, and who then write articles about working from home, typically think that one thing you need to do to work from home productively, is reproduce all this nonsense with a bunch of ersatz self-imposed encumbrances.
It’s all very well-meaning of course, but it’s wrong.
One example of this is the suggestion that you should put on special clothes when you get down to work, if you’re at home. Another is that you should strictly regiment your working hours, and have a kind of “signing off” ritual, which is the equivalent of leaving the office at the end of the day, or Fred Flintstone sliding down the back of that poor dinosaur, when Mister Slate pulls the whistle.
None of this is true. Here’s what you need to do: make sure you’ve calendared all your online meetings properly, and be prepared for them in advance. Keep a list of all the things you need to do, and make sure they get done well, in a timely fashion.
Just like you would do if you were working in an office, or on the moon.
Everyone’s lifestyle and personality and range of obligations and preferences are unique. Once you’re free of the cookie-cutter artificiality of office life, please understand that you don’t necessarily need any of it. Be self-aware and look for the pattern - or lack thereof - that you will naturally find yourself falling into, after a few weeks of working from home.
Myth #3: Eating Lunch at Home Sucks and is Boring
I confess that of all the nonsense I’ve read about working from home recently, people complaining about having to eat homemade meals at home, makes me want to finally acknowledge the fact that in some fundamental sense I don’t belong here, and just walk into the sea.
Preparing and eating homemade meals is the absolute best. It’s cheaper and you have total control over what you put in your mouth. Cooking is fun and interesting, and you can listen to work-related podcasts and lectures and audiobooks and videos while you’re doing it.
Over time you’ll learn to iterate on the meals you prepare, and introduce variety into what you eat for your midday meal. And you won’t have to waste any time going out and standing in line, and what have you.
Yes, going out to eat is fun. And I imagine it’s awesome to work in a place where the food is free and plentiful and prepared by chefs (my food was “free” and prepared by really nice people when I lived in those treeplanting tent camps, but, yeah, they were not chefs, and let’s just say, there was no sriracha sauce around). At least for me, that’s the kind of fun that should be part of your non-work life.
Here’s a handy poem I just wrote about lunch and work, which I hope you enjoy:
Work is for work, and not for fun.
Eat lunch at your desk, and you’ll get it all done.
Myth #4: Working From Home Leads to Increased Isolation
Like I said earlier, I used to commute every day on the Tube, on the Northern Line.
I got a lot of contact with other people while commuting. Literally. Every day I’d miss a train or two because every single car was full of people pressed so tightly up against each other, no one else could fit on the whole train. When I finally got on, there was no way to even read, because you couldn’t raise your hands, because that would have meant groping someone, and anyway you would have had to hold your book or whatever two inches from your face.
Of the many thousands of people I experienced the opposite of isolation with over the years while commuting to the office, I never spoke to a single one of them, because I didn’t want to, and if I had, that would have been super weird.
I’ve also worked with some fine people over the years. Some of my work colleagues became my friends. Very few, though, which I think is a pretty common experience.
And when I did make friends with a colleague, the friend stuff happened outside of work, because it would have been unprofessional to be too chummy, or show any kind of favouritism, while we were doing our work.
I guess here’s what I’m trying to say: if a lack of contact with the work colleagues in your life means you’re going to become isolated in some problematic way, you’re already isolated in a problematic way.
Plus, online interaction is not virtual. It’s real. It’s one of the reasons people have grown to love things like podcasts so much, and by that I mean both listening to, and appearing on them: there’s nothing virtual about getting to hear two interesting people have a great conversation, and there’s nothing fake about the great conversations you can have in online meetings.
Working on a remote team, you’ll get used to figurative taps on the shoulder, when someone pings you and asks if you have a moment for a call. All of sudden you’ll be talking to a person - really talking, with a real person, whose face you can see - including colleagues who might be in a totally different country, whom you might never meet in person at all. And with both of you in front of your own computers, you can still help them solve their problems or find the information they need, and have a great, productive, professional interaction.
When you’re talking to someone about work on a video call when they’re at home, all kinds of things happen that would never happen at work. First off, no one can overhear what you’re saying, which opens up a ton of avenues for conversation. You’ll also learn more about them, from talking to them about their home work setup, to seeing what they have on the walls and stuff, and even learning nice things about the nature of their day-to-day lives.
Also, working from home saves you a ton of time that you can then devote to the non-work people in your life.
You want to know what’s isolating? Leaving your community to go to some dumb office building with mostly a bunch of strangers, and spending 10% of your life in transit, entirely with a bunch of strangers.
Myth #5: Working From Home Leads to Decreased Productivity
I said the lunch thing bugged me the most, but now that I’ve gotten this far, actually it’s this myth that is the absolute worst.
Commuting is a waste of time. Riding the elevator is a waste of time. Going to the break room and having to wait for other people to be done with the microwave is a waste of time. Fire drills are a waste of time. Hunting for your lunch in the work fridge is a waste of time. And unnecessary meetings and worrying about your appearance and hewing to all the myriad conventions and bureaucracy that are inherent to working in an office are a waste of time.
When you work from home, you can wake up, wash your face, grab a cup of coffee, and calmly walk over to your computer, and get more done in the time it would have taken you just to complete your crazy stressful commute, then you might have gotten done in an entire typical day of commuting and office-ing.
In fact, one of the consequences of working from home can be a kind of despair, when someone realizes how little there really is for them to do, once the trappings of the office are removed - and if they’re not in a position where they have the power to just decide what to do next.
Legions of people transitioning to working from home, all at the same time, represents an opportunity to improve all of our lives, and the work we do, in very profound ways. Don’t get caught up in lazy stereotypes: take a deep breath, and a moment to think about how really weird the whole office thing almost always is.