Why You Shouldn't Try an Out of Office Experience: Reasons Not to Telecommute or Work from Home
At the end of a short hallway, just past the guest bathroom, in our two-bedroom apartment is what the floor plan shows to be a second bedroom. It is a large-ish room that’s on the interior of the apartment so it has no external windows. It has a large closet in it and a connecting door to the guest bathroom.
It isn’t a bedroom, though; it is my office. The walls are decorated with a whiteboard, a corkboard (covered with things that remind me of places I’ve been), a hook with numerous speaker badges on lanyards hanging from it, and a framed article (the first magazine article I had published). Also, two firefighter helmets (from my time as a volunteer firefighter) hang above the closet door.
My desk, which formerly occupied the office of a lawyer, is large, with a leather top and numerous drawers. It dominates one wall. The other free space is taken up by a futon (the guest bed).
This is my space. Yes, it is a guest bedroom, and I am evicted when we have guests stay over—but for the most part, it is mine. I can shut the door when I am on a call or leave it open as I please.
I can play my music or watch YouTube videos as loud as I want. It is a fortress of solitude in many ways. It is also part of my home. A home I share with my partner and pets.
The dream of escaping the 8-to-6 grind, the cubicle, and the endless meetings can seem like a utopia. Working “Out of Office” isn’t for everyone, though. Some of those people who do perform the “escape” end up just as unhappy as they were before. Therefore, before you leap, let’s take a look at why you might not want the Out of Office experience.
I’ve been working Out of Office for more than six years. I have had many discussions about how easy (or not) it is with others who also use this work style as well as with those who are working from the more traditional in-office setting.
Some people are self-aware enough to know in advance that they just don’t have the right personality type to work from home or in nontraditional settings.
Others are unsure if they have what it takes; they are unsure what is involved in this type of work style as well as what the advantages and disadvantages are. My hope is that this chapter will help these people gain some insight into the drawbacks and challenges faced by those who have chosen or have been directed to work “Out of Office.”
Although many people dream of having a flexible work life, coming and going as they please, and not facing the gloomy vista of a cubicle wall day in and day out, for most the Out of Office experience is little more than that—a dream. Some roles just can’t be completed effectively away from the traditional in-office setting, and for some people the distractions, the lack of structure, and the lack of social context is just too overwhelming to allow them to be effective.
To assist you in deciding whether you might be suited to the Out of Office work style, I’ve worked with a professional therapist to create a self-assessment quiz. The quiz can be found at the end of this chapter, and is also available online at www.outofofficesuccess.com. Although created by a professional, the quiz is meant as a guide, not as a professional assessment of your abilities, personality, or personal traits. So please don’t base life-changing decisions solely on the quiz. It will, however, give you some ideas about whether the Out of Office work style is something you could explore, either as an individual or within the larger setting of your corporate employment.
But before we start looking at the self-assessment, let’s discuss a few of the reasons why, in general terms, you might want to think twice about making the leap from the In Office environment to the Out of Office environment.
You Are Too Social
Although your colleague in the next cubicle might annoy you on a daily basis, regaling you with stories of how their new baby is so cute or how their puppy did at obedience classes, or driving you crazy with the sound of fingernails being clipped, they are part of the social fabric that makes up your daily life.
Remove them, and part of your daily life is removed as well. Now on the face of it you might think it would be a relief to have this person gone, but as human beings we have evolved to be social—even if we have annoying work colleagues. Yes, they get on your nerves, and, sure, the first conversation you have when you get home and talk to your partner is about how annoying your work colleagues were that day, but (and it is a big but) they give you a frame of reference for your work. You know they will be there each day, you know they will annoy you, but you also know that those sounds that come from the next cubicle over are signs of life.
On the other hand, you may work in a place where you love your fellow co-workers, where work life and family life blend in a way others can only dream of. You and your colleagues work hard together, play hard together, have each other’s backs, and enjoy each other’s company. Maybe you play in a softball league together or enjoy Sunday football in each other’s homes. Perhaps your children are friends with each other.
Now imagine you are at that social gathering, watching football on a Sunday, but suddenly you have no point of reference for the conversations about office activity. You weren’t there when a certain joke was told, you weren’t in that amazing presentation, and you weren’t present when the new client signed the big deal.
No matter how close you were to those people, you are going to feel like an outsider, because if you are no longer part of the everyday life of the office, that is exactly what you are—an outsider. The support network that people establish through being in the same place and sharing experiences with the same group of people on a daily basis—sometimes for years on end—cannot be underestimated. It is a factor in the reason behind some people never changing jobs; they find a place where they are comfortable and they stay for as long as they can.
Here is a tale of one person who tried the Out of Office work style and found that they missed the interaction too much to continue:
- I find that my people interaction needs are too high and not satisfied with electronic interaction only. The irony, of course, is I spent countless hours on conference calls and in front of my PC at the office. But being with smart, diverse people every day is more stimulating than with them on the phone or PC. So I do a lot of nonprofit work to ensure I am getting that stimulation that only comes when you are seeing a smile or looking someone in the eye. Heck, I like dealing with conflict and anger better face-to-face.
I love the last line in this story (the emphasis is mine); it was something I hadn’t even considered, but it is very true. Conflict and anger are much better resolved when the people concerned can actually see each other, can see their opponent(s), and can use not only verbal but nonverbal communication as part of the resolution.
Although popular culture would have us believe that people are in fact changing careers all the time, this is really a myth—a myth often given credence by pundits vaguely citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). So bad has this myth become that the BLS issued a memo in March 2012 stating that “no consensus has emerged on what constitutes a career change.”
In fact, it seems that once employees find a place where they like the work and the people around them, they tend to stay. Although many people would like to say that they love the job they do, many simply do it to pay the bills. So if it isn’t the work, what keeps us in one place? The obvious answer has to be the people. Of course, income security, benefits, location, and lack of alternatives play a strong role in maintaining a position as well. However, given that work life is at least eight hours a day, five days a week, the people we share a work space with are the primary social group in most of our lives.
For those people who find themselves hanging out with their colleagues after work and on the weekends, and even taking vacations with them, a work life centered around just themselves rather than a team might not work out so well.
The concept of the eight-hour day is, in reality, less of a truism and more of a vague wish by senior managers. It would be a rare individual who arrives at the office, sits at their desk, and in a constant uninterrupted stream works for eight straight hours without a break. Leaving aside breaks for biological needs, if you factor in a 30-minute lunch break and twice-a-day refreshment (or smoke) breaks of ten minutes, you have already reduced the working day by nearly an hour.
That would be the most effective worker on their most effective day. Yes, I know people eat at their desks and continue to work, but I would argue that they are not working at 100-percent effectiveness, even if they are still operating a keyboard one handed while consuming a sandwich.
Now let’s take a more realistic look at a worker’s day: Few information workers work alone; they are reliant on others within the organization who are up and down stream of them in the flow of information. Their work is dependent on the constant flow of that information, in much the same way production line workers are dependent on the stations before them in the line, providing the parts needed for their role. When that flow is interrupted or the information needs clarification, then the bane of the organizations occurs—the dreaded meeting.
Sometimes a meeting is just a gathering at someone’s cube, and sometimes it’s something more formal. Although meetings might be painful to attend, according to popular culture, they in fact often provide a needed break from the routine and a chance to catch up with co-workers, whether about work-related matters or social ones (usually they provide an opportunity for both).
Here is a story from someone who tried the Out of Office work style but decided it just wasn’t for them:
- It is fully possible to perform my duties from home on my personal computer. When I was hired I thought I would give it a try, working from home. However, it only lasted about a month and I had to go into the office in Seattle.
- Living, sleeping, and working all within the same space was not a good idea for me. All throughout college I had tried my best to separate school and home life. I would stay up late on Monday through Thursday writing papers, doing research and homework so that I could go home on the weekends and not have to do anything for school. I would refuse to do homework at home.
- I wanted to have the separation between “work” and home life. I was able to manage that schedule for four years. I don’t know why I thought it would be different this time.
- Probably the most important reason I moved back to the office was to have face-to-face interaction and to get out of the house. I found that during the month I worked from home the only time I left the house was to visit my parents or to meet up with friends. I needed a change of scenery and a change of pace.
- I now work in the office in Seattle, which is much better. I have to look sharp for work, and I get to have my much-needed human interaction. Moving back to the office, easily one of the best decisions I ever made. Period.
That’s a pretty telling story. The emphasis is mine, but clearly for this individual working from home was not something they could adjust to.
The need for face-to-face interaction was just too great, and they recognized that about themselves and rejoined their colleagues in the more traditional in-office setting, which they felt was the best decision they could have made.
This face-to-face time is very necessary for the social-oriented worker. As we know, a significant percentage of human communication is conducted nonverbally (not the often misquoted 93 percent, but still a significant amount). Therefore, when we have physical meetings and are able to see the speakers’ faces, we are able to gather other cues to help us understand their message in its entirety.
This is also part of the social need for many people to work with others—the need to pick up on nonverbal cues as indicators of the true nature of an interaction. How many times have I wished for a “sarcasm” font when writing a document, email, or blog post? Some forms of communication benefit from the nonverbal cues that accompany them, and some fail completely without these cues.
For the social-focused worker, the companionship provided by being part of a traditional in-office environment gives them the “social fix” they don’t always receive outside of the office. Never is this more true than for those who live alone, for those who have recently migrated to a new part of the country, and for those who do not have a support circle developed outside of the workplace. For these people, spending their working days alone or having limited exposure to other people (and especially other colleagues) would be a draining experience and one that would ultimately impact their ability to be effective workers. Therefore, not only do they lose out, but so does their employer.
This is definitely something anyone considering the move to an Out of Office work style should consider: How do they handle long periods of time in their own company. Later in the book we’ll look at coping strategies, but if this fundamental requirement (being able to go for prolonged periods without social interaction) is not something that a person can adequately cope with, it is fairly certain that the nonconventional Out of Office work style will not be a good fit for them as a permanent move—although that isn’t to say it couldn’t be handled as an interim measure.
So if you are the life and soul of the office and the go-to person when anyone in the office needs something, working outside of the traditional office environment might not be the best move for you. If you look forward to Monday morning and getting back to the noise and hustle of the office environment, then the Out of Office life style is probably going to be a disappointment.
Of course, working Out of Office doesn’t mean working in isolation; it’s not solitary confinement. There are varying lengths of time, for different roles, that will mean working alone or working around strangers. Although working around strangers can actually be invigorating for some, it can be a major distraction for others. Especially if you are particularly social, the opportunity to meet new people can be a great attraction to working Out of Office, but it doesn’t necessarily aid productivity.
I’ve been working out of the traditional office environment for six years now, and there have been times while I have been writing that I will suddenly realize that, with the exception of my girlfriend, I have not seen another living soul for four or five days. Some people will say that isn’t healthy, and although I’d agree that prolonged isolation is not good for you, some people just have personalities that suit being away from the madding crowd better than others—and I happen to believe I’m one of them.