The Undiscovered Perils of Working from Home!
A History of Commuting
Having a tremendous desire to not be broke I have been steadily working since high school. As I grew up in an area that was nearly all farm country my scope of employment was limited to manual labor and heavy lifting including; mowing lawns, helping to install fences, roadwork and digging holes. Considering my natural aptitude for fine arts and air conditioning I decided that something a little more office based was more my speed.
Thus in college I took a low-minus paying job at the school newspaper as a cartoonist and editor and transitioned to a low-plus paying job at my local newspaper publisher as a third shift (early edition) graphic artist where I gained a lot of good experience with publishing software, learned about pre-press, dealt with vendors for the first time and did a brief stint as the company IT guy. I felt great; I had a job I enjoyed, a great working environment and a lot of good friends but I still had that low-plus pay and a 45 minute commute each way so I figured it was time to move on to bigger and better things.
I managed to get an interview for a large firm in Philadelphia as a graphic designer and BAM! Triple the low-plus pay, full benefits, an environment where I could be creative but still . . . an hour train ride to the office both ways. That's not to mention the wait at a less than cleanly, non-temperature controlled train station which rarely ran on-time. Still, overall, I had a great job I was learning new skills and I was no longer working third shift.
Cut to five years later. Still making good money, lots of friends (though many had drifted to new jobs) and ton of experience in everything from postcard design to trade show development. My skills as a designer were well known, I had random requests for artwork from many of my companies executives and I was in a great place! Then the company split and my branch ended up being sold to a faceless corporate giant. Somehow my role transformed from graphic designer to writer (I'm still not entirely sure how that happened) but the pay was good and I was fairly secure in a tough job market so I wasn't too keen to rock the boat. Then it happened. The holy grail of office workers the world over. Telecommuting! The company decreed that since we were so spread out we could work from home for three days a week! Six months later, I was working from home full-time! It was magnificent . . . for a while.
Years 1 and 2: The Golden Years
When I first started working from home it was just as glorious as you can imagine. I was committed to maintaining the best work life balance possible! My daily routine became:
- Wake up at 7am to keep myself on a consistent schedule.
- Get a nice hot shower without having to rush.
- Put on some casual clothes to stay comfortable while working
- Go downstairs for a nice breakfast. NO MORE FAST FOOD FOR ME!
- Watch the news (or more likely a cartoon) while drinking my coffee.
- Log into work at 8:15 to get a head start on the day.
- Work all day taking an hour lunch and maybe play a video game for a half hour.
- Log out around 5:30 get in a quick workout and go out to meet the guys for a beer and wings.
- Hop into bed around midnight.
Sounds great doesn't it? I found that perfect work-life balance. I was happy, totally carefree and that extra money that was reserved for the train each month was being put to quality use in my personal life. My work was consistent and I still had a ton of friends and connections.
Years 3 and 4: Getting Comfortable
Things began to change over the next couple of years. My responsibilities at work were . . . shifting. I was doing no design and a lot more writing than I signed up for, I had less leeway to make decisions as we had contracted vendors and all my work friends vanished behind instant messenger. That was alright by me though! We were a centralized unit with company standards and I was still getting those triple low-plus wages! It is only in hindsight that I realized that my daily routine was changing.
- Wake up between 7:15 - 7:45 depending how late I had been up the night before.
- Still got a nice hot shower but rushed it a little bit.
- I still got dressed, maybe in yesterdays clothes, but I got dressed.
- Run downstairs to grab a bowl of cereal.
- Grab my coffee so I could run back to upstairs to log on by 8:30.
- Work all day taking my lunch hour to play a video game while I noshed on day old (if I was lucky) pizza from the back of the fridge.
- Log out around 5:30 and go out to meet the guys for a beer and wings, working out could wait.
- Hop into bed between 1 and 2 depending on what was distracting me at the moment.
So my schedule was changing a little but I was still doing great. I had a steady girlfriend, lots of friends, still making triple low-plus money. However, there were the little things; my weight started creeping up on me, workouts were becoming fewer and farther between, and my old work clothes were getting a little tight and ragged. Well my girlfriend didn't mind those few extra pounds, missing workouts gave me a bit more 'me' time and I didn't need work clothes as much any more so I slimmed my wardrobe down. My role at work was changing as well but I figured, hey it's a crazy world and you have to be adaptable right? Right?
Years 5 and 6: These Times They Are A'Changin!
Years 5 and 6 were actually really great years. Year 5 saw me in the best relationship of my life happy, healthy and complacent. Then in year 6 we made it permanent and I got married. Great wedding, honeymooned in Jamaica (I can still hear the bartender yelling "PHILLY IN THE HOUSE!" every time we wrangled up to the bar) and I was in blissful happiness. My responsibilities at work were still shifting but I was too happy and distracted to notice that, once again, my routine was subtly changing.
- Wake up around 7:30 with my lovely wife.
- Got a morning shower a couple of days a week.
- Pajama pants and a t-shirt were the uniform for the day.
- Have a quick breakfast with my wife.
- Grab my coffee so I could run back to upstairs to log on by 8:30.
- Work all day taking a long lunch with my wife, though I didn't log out so it looked like I was still 'working').
- Log out around 5:30 and have dinner with the wife and maybe some friends.
- Hop into bed between 1 and 3 in the morning.
I'll be the first to admit that I was distracted and wasn't paying attention to events at work. I didn't notice that my groups roles were changing even more and we were getting more and more outsourced 'support'. Still I felt secure and although my budget was a little more stretched, triple low-plus wages seemed more like regular low-plus, I wasn't too concerned.
Years 7 and 8: Warning Signs
Things calmed down for me about this time. We settled into a routine we were having fun and maybe, just maybe, I started to feel a little uncomfortable in my job. I was so far away from graphic design at this point that I had somehow changed career paths without knowing it! Once more my routine was changing but I wasn't even paying attention a little bit at this point.
- Wake up between 8:15 and 8:45 with my lovely wife.
- Ehh I'll get a shower later.
- Pajama pants and a t-shirt were still my professional attire.
- Ask my wife to make me a quick bite or grab some toast.
- Casually wander upstairs with my coffee and since I didn't log off the night before I'm still technically working.
- Work for a little bit, then as soon as it looks like I can get away with it I sneak off to get a shower or maybe watch a half hour of TV.
- Why bother to log off, it saves time. Leave between 5:15 and 5:30 just to get away form the desk.
- Hop into bed when this next episode is over, or maybe the one after that.
This was about the time I started to realize that I was stagnating. Those low-plus wages weren't doing all they used to and my career wasn't moving, my ambition was out the window and motivation, what's motivation? I did manage to go back to school, thankfully on the company's dime, working for a degree in a profession that I really did not want. Meanwhile my company's outsourcing was steadily increasing and my work responsibility was steadily declining. Then my attention got drawn to something else entirely . . . my wife was pregnant!
Years 9 and 10: PANIC!!!!!
These last two years were marked with the craziest changes possible. I was finishing school, building a nursery, taking birthing classes with my wife and trying to make myself indispensable at work. I was ecstatic, manic and worst of all panicked! Suddenly my routine was more like the first two years and I couldn't seem to catch my breath!
- Wake up around 6:30, finish up that paper on globalization (oh the irony).
- I DON'T HAVE TIME FOR A SHOWER
- My filthy painters pants and t-shirt for the 5 minutes I can get to finish; wiring, drywall, trim, paint, etc. for the nursery.
- I think I have a granola bar I can wolf down.
- I'm already 3 cups of coffee in and did I even remember to log in?
- Bolt down a sandwich as I spend my lunch hour working on the; wiring, drywall, trim, paint, etc. for the nursery..
- Log off at 5 I have to finish reading those chapters for class and HOLY CRIPES WE HAVE BIRTHING CLASSES TONIGHT!
- Work on the nursery until my wife goes to bed then work on my homework until 3 or 4, collapse into bed for a couple hours sleep.
My work role had diminished to nearly nothing. Still I was working from home, I could help out my wife and I was making . . . well, not enough. Almost all of our work was outsourced and the company was asking us to find ways that our outsourced employees could 'help ease our burden' yeah, I think we can all read between the lines there. I finally finished school and a month later I welcomed my baby girl into the world. Happiness abounded and I thought I had made some headway into becoming indispensable at work. Then, one cold morning, I got the call. My whole department was downsized along with a sizable chunk of our larger group. To top things off, my wife was pregnant again.
Fallout and a New Start
I was at a true low point. As happy as I should have been that I was married with a beautiful baby girl and another on the way I was seriously depressed. It was the first time I had ever lost a job in my life and it was at the worst possible time. I had just finished my degree in office management but I didn't have any experience. I came to realize I barely even had a practical skill set anymore. I didn't know what to do and I was in a really bad place. I got a decent severance package but we still ended up moving in with my in-laws to save money, and let me tell you nothing makes you feel like more of a failure than having to sit across the dinner table from your father-in-law when you don't have a job. I was depressed, angry and blaming myself for everything.
Thankfully my wife, angel that she is, would not allow me to even start that pity party I was planning and the next thing I knew I was updating my resume and since it turned out that I actually did have a lot of overall experience I was employed again in under 3 months and earning double-plus pay! HUZZAH! Oh wait, no work from home policy? Well I have a family to support. So . . .
Back to the Office!
I had to adjust to a lot of new change in taking on this new job. Now that we had kids I had extra responsibilities as well. My routine took another drastic turn.
- Wake up around 5:30, or whenever the girls woke up.
- Make breakfast for everybody before jumping into the shower.
- Thank goodness we work business casual but having to wear dress shoes after a decade of slippers and bare feet was an unwelcome change!
- Back to the commute! A 45 minute commute and realizing that morning radio is horrible. Thank you MP3 player!
- A nice flavored coffee as I drive in turns the commute into zen hour.
- An hour lunch to chill out in between meetings and assignments.
- Leave at 5:30 and actually get to talk to people!
- Get home play with the kids until bedtime.
Sounds fantastic right? I can't deny that I was feeling good and that getting hired so quickly after being downsized was a major ego boost. I felt like I could do no wrong. That changed quick.
I was so engrossed with being awesome and getting hired so quickly after being downsized that I didn't realize how bad I was failing! I went from a monstrous faceless corporation that only wanted you to do X before handing it off to someone else to do Y and another person to do Z, to a smaller friendlier environment where I was expected to take responsibility for not only X,Y,Z but also A-W and AA-ZZ. Suddenly I was floundering. I never had to do a budget before, that was finances job right? Whoa! Not only am I allowed to but required to edit approved company material! I was at a loss. The products I worked on at my old company were so widespread that I wasn't expected to know about the products at all let alone have the intimate level of product information that I was now expected of me.
My expectations for what my new job would entail were WAY out of line. I expected a clearly defined structure where everyone had one or two jobs to fulfill. What I got was a whole new level of information and responsibility that nearly overwhelmed me. I am extremely grateful that I was now in a friendlier environment because I fell flat on my face so often it's lucky I still have a face.
I've been at my job for 2 years now. My kids have gotten older, my routine has stabilized and we even had enough to buy a nice house in the suburbs. In the short time that I have been at my new company I realized just how hard it was to adapt to an office environment where I am expected to look, act and be constantly professional from an environment where I only had a few things to do every day and I didn't even have to put on pants. I can't really say I regret working from home because I had a lot of fun being lazy. The problem, however, was my laziness and how it permeated every aspect of my life. Working from home and specifically in an environment which limits personal interaction and growth became, unrealized at the time, a serious detriment to my mental, social and even physical well being. I was such a mess I didn't even realize how much of a mess I had become until I was forced back into the real world.
Since I started my new job I have made new friends, revived my skills and started taking care of myself again. I am now actually more than just a tiny cog in a gigantic machine and I'm getting to actually do more of what I used to love! I'm not saying working from home is bad in and of itself, if I could I'd love to have a 4 day week. What I really want you to understand is how easy it can become to succumb to your environment, how quickly skills can erode and how catastrophic it can be if you don't end up in the right environment for you. So I say; work from home if you can - but set your alarm clock, get your breakfast at the same time each day, do something out of the ordinary just to get out of the house and go into the office every once in a while to knock the cobwebs off. It's too easy to heed the call of the couch and remote control and when they come calling, don't always answer.