Sunday, August 14, 2011


I got caught a little off guard the other day when a co-worker who was clearly trying to gather evidence for her case to be allowed to work from home asked me about my work situation during a meeting.  I caught what she was doing, and I learned that her supervisor had already told her she needed to be in the office, so how do I answer her honestly without placing myself in the middle of a situation I want no part in?  I understand her situation - she told me that when they move their offices soon she will have more than an hour commute each way.  But I get her boss's position too, and that likely would be the same stance I would take in his place.  So I rattled off the downsides of my situation, which I can do fairly easily, and downplayed the upsides.   Then I immediately told my bosses about the conversation in my post-meeting summary report and hope the matter will die there.  But, I've often thought the subject would make an interesting post, so it seemed timely, and here goes...

As I told my co-worker I am rather uniquely suited to a work situation like mine as an only child.  I was used to spending long hours playing by myself as a child, so I can work that way now as an adult.  However, it keeps me socially isolated to a large extent, which, new to the city and having my relatives at least an hour away, has not been ideal.  Think about it:  who are your friends and how did you meet them?  Not the people you keep in contact through Facebook who are scattered all over the country that you've known since high school or college.  I mean the people you meet for happy hour and go to movies with, and gossip about this or that with?  The people you have real face time with.  You met most of them at work, right?  I meant to combat that by doing volunteer work, but I work most weekends (more on that later) so that has not come to pass.  I'm friendly with some of my neighbors, but none of us are at the true friend stage yet.  If I hadn't had the unique upbringing I did, that would be far more oppressive than it is.  To most people, that lack of social connection would be completely stifling.

On the upside, on the couple of occasions I have had to drive into the downtown area during the work day, I thank everything holy that I don't have to do that on a daily basis.  The bizarre twisting roadways around here that I've often lamented are no better in the heart of the city and whoever timed the streetlights down there had a horrid, sick sense of humor and should probably be slapped.  There is mass transportation as an alternative.  Sort of.  Some of the people around the neighborhood use the bus.  I see them hurrying to make it at 6:30 in the morning when I'm walking Cheyenne.  For the females among us, think about getting dressed and ready to make that bus to be on it for an hour to travel the six miles downtown for a 8:00 work day.  Then remember everything is an hour later here (than what I'm used to anyway), so Monday Night Football isn't finishing until after midnight and those people are faced with getting up a scant five hours later.  There is a subway into downtown, but not that runs north of the city.  For those of living north, it's an hour long bus ride before the sun comes up or brave the traffic snarl.  Yeah, having my car sitting in the garage all week long is a big upside all right!

Of course a lot of supervisors are worried about the trust issue.  There is no Big Brother watching to make sure you do your work.  We have "dashboards" on our system that help track to a certain extent what someone is doing, and some of the individuals who work from home are paid based on their production.  But some positions, like mine, are too open ended to handle that way, so there has to be a leap of faith on someone's part that I will do what I am supposed to do.  For my part, I know myself pretty well.  My attention will wander if I let it, so I set my deliverables on a tight schedule.  I force myself to keep to a calendar that my boss's have access to.  It actually makes for some pretty long days that stretch into the weekends, but it keeps me focused on the task at hand.  I've already written about having to have background noise.  Now with football back on the horizon and hockey not far behind, I've rediscovered sports talk radio.  So, with the two morning DJ idiots droning on and on (I disagree with them about half the time and occasionally I know things about the team hours before they do, so I am NOT listening to it for the news value), I can have my talking buzz in the background.  Talk radio:  a helpful workplace tool.

I did some research on working from home successfully and talked to people who had done it.  The key is to tell yourself you are "at work".  One man told me he literally left the house every morning and drove around to simulate the commute experience to trick his head into getting geared up for work.  I had read about that; leaving the house to get coffee or driving around the block is an oft-suggested mind trick.  I get it, but at nearly $4.00 a gallon for the gas and the hole in the ozone layer getting bigger, not smaller, I prefer just to take my office assistant, Cheyenne, around the block on foot every morning, watching people make a run for the bus.  I had also read dressing like one normally would for an office setting was advisable.  I tried that.  For about a week.  The first time I had to walk Cheyenne in the snow in a dress was the last time.  I read recently that Pittsburgh was named the third worst dressed city by GQ Magazine, citing its population as consistently dressing "game day casual".  Guilty as charged.  I will give you 14 hours at the computer if you give me shorts and an oversized Troy Polamalu t-shirt as an acceptable attire to do so in.  And maybe that's the biggest advantage of all:  no make-up, no torturing of the hair with a flat iron, no pantyhose to rip at a horribly inopportune time.  I didn't even open the ironing board I bought for the first four months I was here.  And when I did it was to get ready for a social occasion.  We use a virtual meeting program to hold most of our meetings.  If they ever add a video component so we can see one another not just our computer screens, I'm screwed.  But, until that day comes, I am single-handedly keeping the city on that worst dressed list (actually, that's not true - as I was out this weekend, I paid attention:  the label is well deserved, I am sorry to say).

I do, however, maintain a formal office setting and, for the most part, I stay there during the day.  That segregated space helps keep your mind on the fact that you're at work, not "at home".  I come downstairs to grab lunch or a snack, but not much else.  On the flip side, when I'm not working, that room is generally vacant.  That is the one thing I would tell someone else about to start working from home that is critical:  keep a separate space.  There does have to be that sense that you are at the workplace to be able to get your head in the right place.

But, on the negative side once more, it makes your world shrink down to your own four walls and not much more.  Sometimes I will suddenly realize that the only time I've left the house for days on end is for Cheyenne's daily walk.  And when that happens, it's time to go somewhere.  Today we venture back out to Latrobe for my last chance to see training camp before the four walls close back in again.

Bottom line, for every upside, there is a countering downside.  Much like work itself.  My work situation is not for everyone.  More people would like to try it than would be good at it.  More people think they would like it than actually really would.  For my part, I do like it.  A lot.  Downsides and all. So, hopefully I work hard enough to continue to earn the right to keep doing it.  Otherwise, I guess I'll be jogging for that bus before the sun comes up...

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